A Critical Appraisal of the Impact of Legal Action on the Creation of Incentives for Improvements in Food Safety in the United States

  • Denis Stearns
Part of the Food Microbiology and Food Safety book series (FMFS)


Litigation serves as an incentive to increase food safety through a variety of mechanisms. The impact of litigation is an amplifying one. It drives media attention, resulting in increased pressure on both producers and enforcement. Legal incentives only work in outbreak situations because it is nearly impossible to prove the source of contamination in sporadic cases. The vast majority of food defects will never be discovered; thus, the economic incentives from litigation are relatively weak. Restaurants and branded producers are more highly influenced by litigation, and reputational economic damages drive investment into food safety. However, because most claims settle and suppression of information accompanies this outcome, the incentives of litigation are undermined. This chapter will first discuss how liability can be imposed on producers and retailers of unsafe food and second how the evolution of the law has both bettered and hampered litigation as an incentive and lastly raise the question of whether increased litigation increases food safety.


Legal incentives for food safety Negligence Strict liability Confidentiality agreements Indemnity agreements 



American Broadcasting Company


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

E. coli

Escherichia coli


Food and Drug Administration/US


Freedom of Information Act


Lean, finely textured beef


Public Broadcasting System


Pulsed-field electrophoresis


United States


United States Department of Agriculture



My sincere thanks to Robert Scharff and Abigail Kolenbrander, each of whom reviewed a draft of this chapter and provided many helpful suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Denis Stearns
    • 1
  1. 1.Stearns Law, PLLCPort TownsendUSA

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