Foodborne Illness Law: E. coli, Salmonella, and More

Katherine Nixon, MJLST Staffer

Sometime in the fall of 2018, I walked into Chipotle hoping for a nice savory burrito bowl. The best burrito bowl—at least in my opinion—is made up of the following: brown rice, chicken, cheese, lettuce, hot salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. One ingredient missing can throw off the whole experience. Well, I walked into Chipotle only to find a printed sign on the glass in front of the various ingredients. Let’s be honest, that never means anything good. The sign notified customers that Chipotle would not currently be offering romaine lettuce due to an E. coli outbreak. At first, all I could think was “Noooo, not my beloved burrito bowl. What will it be like without the crunchy lettuce?”

In looking past my immediate concern over the negative effect that a lettuceless burrito bowl would have on my taste buds, I was ultimately thankful I had not eaten the romaine lettuce. Big picture things. It was discovered that the romaine lettuce came from a farm in Santa Barbara County, California. It was distributed through many avenues and not just to food establishments like Chipotle. Unfortunately, people became very sick. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 62 people were infected from 16 states and the District of Columbia. Further, 25 people were hospitalized and 2 people developed a form of kidney failure. This ended up being a big deal. That particular outbreak began in October 2018 and wasn’t declared over until January 9, 2019.

Believe it or not, E. coli outbreaks occur with some frequency. A massive outbreak that began in September 2019 was just declared over by the CDC on January 15, 2020. Again, the source of that outbreak was romaine lettuce. Other outbreaks in 2019 came from ground bison, flour, and ground beef. Aside from E. coli, there are other types of outbreaks as well. For instance, in 2019, there were several Salmonella outbreaks related to food items such as papayas and frozen raw tuna. Many people fell sick.

At this point, you might be wondering—what does this all have to do with law? It turns out there is a whole body of law generally referred to as “foodborne illness law.” I know—you definitely don’t learn about that in your normal law school curriculum. Yet, the name is somewhat self-explanatory. As succinctly put by the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, “[A] person who is injured as a result of a foodborne illness may bring a civil cause of action against another by claiming that the other individual is legally liable for the harm caused by the foodborne illness.” Sometimes, there is even strict liability.

Overall, this type of law can be highly technical and usually involves the help of experts. It also can be quite difficult. Including the difficulty that often comes in discovering the source of a certain outbreak as well as the manufacturer of that source. It can be like piecing a giant puzzle together. However, once the pieces start to fit together, it all begins to make sense. If you have a science background, especially biology, this may be an area of law for you to consider. Next time you are at a family gathering and Uncle Eddy asks what you want to do, tell him you want to specialize in foodborne illness law. That will surely grab his attention.