I’m fairly recent to the food safety debate, relatively speaking. I think I really began looking at it seriously when six children in California became ill during September 2006, and raw milk produced by Organic Pastures Dairy Co. was blamed as the culprit. I have Mary McGonigle-Martin, the mother of one of those children, especially, to thank for persistently (some might say obsessively) bringing the food safety issue to the fore on this blog.

One doesn’t have to be all that well versed in food safety to appreciate a few things: that there is a lot that we don’t know about food safety (like why some people get sick and others don’t, or why the pathogen culprits are so rarely found); that food safety is a complex issue (as I said in the previous post) and that the food safety zealots tend to over simplify the problem). Lykke in a comment on my previous post suggests additional issues, like insufficient consumer education, slow government responses, and a screwed up legal system.

It’s the problem of over-simplification that I find most bothersome. So I guess it is only fitting that we find a great case of over-simplification on stark display via a recent posting by food-poisoning lawyer Bill Marler that, ironically, relates directly to the cases of the six California children I alluded to at the start of this post.

The day after my previous posting about food-borne illness becoming a more prominent issue, President Obama addressed it. (No doubt, he was moved to speak out after reading this blog.)

So how did Marler report it? The way he generally reports such developments: “Mr. President, the reason food safety is so important can best be explained by clicking on the below pictures and reading these children’s stories.” The “below pictures” are the two California children who became most seriously ill in September 2006—Chris Martin and Lauren Herzog—and eventually sued Organic Pastures Dairy Co. for allegedly causing their illnesses.

I’ll assume these two case studies just came up by chance, likely because the deposition-gathering process has just ended in the children’s cases against Organic Pastures Dairy Co. It’s worth noting that the descriptions of the cases are very complete, and well written (though you’ll note that only one of the children had proven E.coli 0157:H7). They are worth reading for what they tell us about both the heartache and the long-term risks to health of serious food-borne illness.

Unfortunately, this ongoing approach to the subject—“You want to know about how serious a problem food-borne illness is, well, take a look at this tragic case, and that tragic case…and if you don’t like those, I have more where they came from”—really does the victims an injustice. I understand that approach works in the courtroom, when you’re trying to convince a jury about the tragedy and injustice of the case at hand, and win big bucks in damages, or convince an insurance company to come up with a juicy settlement.

But in the courtroom of policy debate, the Marlers of the world need to move beyond this simplistic approach. Consider approaches like that outlined by Steve Bemis in a comment on my previous posting, about how to provide information about the risks, while not killing off smaller sustainable farms in the process. Or maybe think about saying something to this effect: “Let’s try to use these cases to fill in our gaps in knowledge about food-borne illness.” The danger in that approach, of course, is that the fear mongers may discover some lessons that don’t fit their preconceived notions. More profitable to just go on feeding people’s fears.