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Legal: Is Your Food Safe?

Legal: Is Your Food Safe?

This article is written for informational purposes only and is not legal advice; any legal questions should be addressed to a qualified attorney of your choosing.

Legal: Is Your Food Safe?

One goal of our legal system, as set forth in the Texas and United States Constitutions and the myriads of laws written in their tradition, is to reimburse those injured by the fault of another.   This is what drives our civil legal system, the filing of lawsuits for the recovery of money due to damages. Having practiced law for nearly twenty-five years, I have come to learn that there is an amazing assortment of ways that people can be injured. When most people think about personal injury lawsuits, they likely think about car accidents, slip and fall accidents and other similar scenarios. There are, however, numerous other areas where people often do not realize they may have recourse if they are injured.

As we enter the summer months and in recognition of numerous June food holidays, I am going to discuss various ways you may be able to seek recovery for individual damages due to food consumption.   

Foreign Objects

Imagine that you and your spouse go to your favorite Italian restaurant for date night on June 11th for National Pizza Margherita Day, but when you get home you feel a lot of discomfort in your abdomen. By three in the morning, the pain is so intense that you are rushed to the hospital. After a CT scan or similar imaging, the doctor informs you that some type of foreign object has lodged in your liver. You are rushed into surgery, and when you wake up, a doctor advises you that they located an inch long slice of sharp metal that pierced your stomach and ultimately lodged in the liver. The surgery was a success but entailed a gaping wound in your abdomen that developed an infection, and then weeks of follow up treatment for the infection.

The doctor advised that the sharp nature of the object (razor like) meant it had been ingested very recently, which left only the restaurant as the probable culprit. Through a detailed investigation and the legal process, it was determined that the metal shard was an exact match for cans of pizza sauce and that slivers sometimes come off when the cans are being opened.

This example happens to be an actual case, and the client almost chose to do nothing thinking there was no way to prove what had happened. The client’s medical bills topped $300,000.00 before it was over, and  this was all because an employee of a restaurant was not paying attention when opening a can of pizza sauce.

Foreign objects in food are common, from both restaurants and grocers alike.  For example, a client had a tooth break and a tongue laceration from a piece of glass in a jar of peanut butter, so be cautious as you celebrate National Peanut Butter Cookie Day on June 12th. There have been numerous recalls for glass or other contaminants in baby foods and other jarred products. You should check consumer reports frequently for recalled items and/or use other methods such as registering your phone number at your favorite grocery store in order to obtain important recalls.

If you become injured because of something that was in your food that should not have been there, then you may well have a claim to pursue.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are somewhat controversial, from people believing they do not exist to others believing that the individual person should be solely responsible for what they eat. The law, however, requires that restaurants warn customers of potential allergens in their food. If you serve a food item to a person without advising them of what was in the food, then there may be a liability issue.

For example, an elderly man is celebrating his birthday at a restaurant that he frequents, so much so that they all know him by name and also are familiar with his serious nut allergy. He eats his meal with his family and at the end, the waitress brings out a surprise birthday cake with candles and all. He blows out his candles and eats a few bites of the cake, and immediately begins to suffer an allergic reaction. He is rushed by ambulance to the hospital where his life is saved. The culprit – that surprise cake had peanut butter as one of its main ingredients. No one meant to hurt him, of course, but the damage was done, and he pursued a claim (and was successful). If you are baking cupcakes this June 13th for National Cupcake Lovers Day, be sure you are aware of all of the allergies of anybody that you may be serving a cupcake to.

Uncooked/Undercooked/Contaminated Food

It goes without saying that most meat and seafood needs to be cooked to an appropriate temperature to ensure that natural bacteria are killed.  While this is common knowledge, it is still amazing that so many people suffer different levels of food poisoning because food is either cooked improperly (or not at all) or is contaminated because of a poor process of ensuring safety.

As we celebrate National Steakhouse Month, I recommend that you safeguard yourself by eating at places with good safety records and ensure that your steak, chicken or other protein is cooked thoroughly before consuming it. When a restaurant serves you a steak or chicken dish that is undercooked, and you become ill, the restaurant is likely liable. These cases however are very difficult to prove because you may have eaten several items that day that could have been contaminated, and proving it was one item at a specific restaurant may be nearly impossible. If there is a breakout of illness at one restaurant or from one grocery item, this assists in showing liability.

  A great source of information is Google reviews and Facebook postings that will inform you about any illnesses that one may have endured. Not only do you need to be careful with the temperatures of your protein, another source of illness at steakhouses and other restaurants is cross-contamination. If you question the safety of a restaurant, I strongly encourage you to do an open records request to Texas Health and Human Services. Unfortunately, Texas is not yet in line with other states that require grade card postings.

Conclusion

Just as in any situation where you are injured by the actions of someone else, it is always good to consult with an attorney to determine your rights and options. In Texas, you have 2 years from the date of the negligent act to bring a lawsuit or you lose that right forever (called the statute of limitations). Therefore, it is best not to wait too long to contact a legal professional once you realize you were injured – these cases can be complicated and take time to develop, so waiting right up until the deadline is not recommended.   

I hope all of my readers enjoy all of the upcoming June food holidays including National Ice Cream Day on June 7th, National/International Sushi Day on June 18th, and my personal favorite, National Vanilla Milkshake Day on June 20th.

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