Staphylococcus is Murder: Is Food Poisoning a Criminal Offense?

Similar to the way one remembers their first kiss or, more aptly, their first automobile accident, one distinctly remembers their first case of food poisoning as if it were imprinted on their gut (and it kind of is).

For me, it was The Red Onion in Beverly Hills (a long defunct restaurant) where my entire family (myself included) was laid out for days because of some bad beans, bad tacos, or bad salsa (we never did pinpoint the culprit). I was probably ten years old and had never had the sort of experience that would make you think twice about food. Food was nourishing, appetizing, pleasing, and decidedly my friend, not something that moves me to throw up the contents of my stomach time and time again.

As unlucky as I felt at the time, I was considerably luckier than many people who fall victim to food poisoning. According to the Center For Disease Control (CDC) an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths occur in the United States each year related to food-borne diseases and pathogens. All in all, far more people suffer from food poisoning than actually die from it. However, as the stats above reveal, people do die from food poisoning and, other than a few class action lawsuits and a few recalls instituted, there is really little that is done to seek justice.

Most recently, a French teenager, Benjamin Orset, died after eating two hamburgers from a Quick restaurant (a European burger chain) in Avignon, France. Staphylococcus bacteria was found in the teenager’s gastric juices and on five of the eight employees present on the day the unfortunate Orset decided to eat at the Quick chain (I will not comment on the sad irony that French people have fallen victim to the perils of tainted burgers it just would be in bad taste). As we know from the prevalence of food poisoning that this instance, while shocking and unfortunate, is not all that uncommon. If the United States has over 5,000 deaths a year from food poisoning, take a guess how much the rest of the world has (sorry, I don’t have a reliable number for this stat). The exceptional thing about this case is that the manager of the Quick chain, besides being fired, is now being charged with involuntary homicide in his connection to the food poisoning death of 14-year-old Orset.

We all know that food poisoning is fairly common, but is it a crime? There have been several attempts to criminally prosecute individuals with negligence in relation to food poisoning outbreaks (some with more success than others), but these were all stemming from multiple outbreaks. By allowing individuals to press criminal charges against others for their involvement, or negligence, in instances of food poisoning, are we inviting a whole new realm of litigation into our world, or are we exacting justice? With the multitude of food poisoning cases reported worldwide, can we afford to freely, or even selectively, prosecute various instances of food poisoning, or is this something we just cannot afford to ignore? Will criminal prosecution lead to reform, or just more litigation headaches?

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