The Georgia State Center for Law, Health & Society hosted a lecture with professor Timothy D. Lytton about his book “Outbreak: Foodborne Illness and the Struggle for Food Safety” on Oct. 30.
In the book, Lytton delves into the U.S. food safety system, covering everything from the history of the Food & Drug Administration to technological advances in food safety. He demonstrates that regulation of the food industry has been a collaboration between government officials and industry experts.
“My aim is to impress upon people the seriousness of foodborne illness as a significant public health problem and to introduce them to the basic features of food safety regulation,” Lytton said. “A deep dive into food safety regulation will reveal a number of key features of how regulation in the U.S. works more generally. These lessons are relevant to regulation far beyond food—for example in environmental, financial, healthcare and labor regulation.”
Sporting a tie featuring the six pathogens responsible for foodborne illness, he started the lecture by debunking the stomach flu myth— it’s acute gastroenteritis– and showing that foodborne illness is a significant public health problem. Contaminated food causes 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States.
He discussed the barriers to implementing food safety regulations by dissecting agricultural water standards for growing leafy greens. The 2006 Dole E. coli outbreak nearly tanked the industry and led to the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). However, most of the guidelines outlined in FSMA have not been executed due to opposing governmental and corporate interests.
Lytton advocates more investment in the government infrastructure responsible for identifying foodborne illness outbreaks and tracing them back to the root causes of contamination. He also recommends reforming the system of private auditing that is responsible for most of the food safety inspection in the U.S. Lytton favors a more experimental approach to regulating food safety that would bridge communications obstacles between agency regulators and industry experts working to reduce foodborne illness.
When it comes to advice for consumers, Lytton says that awareness of risk is essential for smart decision making.
“Each time you eat romaine lettuce in a salad or cook eggs with a runny yolk, you run the risk of getting sick from pathogens that sometimes occur in these foods,” Lytton said. “While people have a varying tolerances for risk—you might eat raw oysters, but I would not—everyone benefits from a clearer sense of the risks they face and what industry and government are doing to reduce those risks.”
Lytton is a distinguished university professor and professor of law, and he currently serves as the associate dean for research and faculty development at the College of Law. His previous books grapple with the issues of gun violence and clergy sexual abuse. His latest book, “Outbreak” is available for purchase through the University of Chicago Press and from Amazon.