Until a year ago, I barely took note when news of another contaminated food outbreak scrawled across my television screen. But everything changed almost exactly a year ago, when our then three-year-old son, Jacob, was poisoned with Salmonella.
Jake came down with flu-like symptoms in January 2009. We cared for him as such until we noticed blood in his diarrhea. We took him to the pediatrician who dutifully ran tests of his stool sample. As we waited for the lab results we were encouraged by the pediatrician’s office to give him food if he would eat it and keep it down. We were given the green light by our doctor for him to eat his favorite comfort snack food: Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter, manufactured by Kellogg.
Jake was sick for 11 days and eventually got better; but we were devastated to find out thereafter that while he was sick, we had unknowingly been continuing to feed him the very food that had poisoned him. It was not until 15 days after he became ill that we found out that he had become one of the more than 700 Americans from 46 states to be sickened by a major outbreak of Salmonella-contaminated peanut products from the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA)-which ultimately killed at least nine people.
Over time, we came to find out the outbreak was not just a random occurrence, but a part of a pattern of outbreaks impacting tens of millions of Americans every year. Like many Americans who are impacted by foodborne illness, I was shocked to find out that the nation’s food-safety system is based, in large part, on century-old laws. Furthermore, the agency charged with overseeing about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply–the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–inspects domestic food-processing facilities on average only once every 10 years. In the area of inspections, as well as other components of our food-safety system, the laws and regulations are severely lacking and simply unsatisfactory in successfully managing what has evolved into a complex global food supply.
Americans were alarmed by the peanut product outbreak. Over 3,000 products were recalled–one of the largest single food recalls in U.S. history. Outraged lawmakers convened hearings and promised to implement meaningful food-safety reforms. President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders from both parties have called for action. According to a bipartisan poll commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts, nine out of 10 Americans favor legislation to strengthen our food-safety laws. Yet, here we are, one year after the outbreak was identified, and Americans are still waiting for Congress to enact comprehensive FDA food-safety legislation.
Since Jake’s illness, we have become food-safety advocates. Last year, Jake and I testified at the PCA Congressional hearing. We later returned to D.C. to meet with Congressmen Walden and Schrader to discuss and lobby for the House of Representatives’ Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 2749). The House has since passed this bill. Jake and I then returned to D.C. for a third time to meet with Oregon’s Senators Merkley and Wyden’s staff to push for the passage of the Senate’s version of the bill, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). We’re headed to D.C. next week to lobby for food-safety reform–again.
Recently, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions unanimously approved S. 510. This bill is strongly supported by Senators on both sides of the aisle–something that is not often seen in Washington these days. This says to me that the time has come to make food safety a priority and enact sweeping changes to the nation’s food oversight system.
Last month–on the anniversary of the peanut butter outbreak–many of the victims of food borne illness, including myself, wrote a letter to lawmakers, asking them to keep their promise of reform. My son’s firsthand account is a painful reminder that despite continued outbreaks–from peanut butter, hazelnuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, to cookie dough, and many other foods–Congress has yet to pass food-safety legislation.
Had legislation been in place a year ago, things could have been different for Jake and for tens of thousands of other Americans. The legislation under consideration shifts the FDA’s regulatory approach from reaction to prevention, establishes minimum inspection frequencies for processing plants and requires processors to establish food-safety plans. If these measures had been in effect, PCA would have been required to develop a food-safety plan and FDA would have been inspecting its plants more frequently. Instead, hundreds were sickened, dozens will have life long health issues, and nine families have lost a loved one.
It is outrageous that a company and its employees could knowingly allow tainted product to go out the door and into the nation’s food supply, as it appears PCA did. We need to strengthen the FDA and its ability to oversee our food supply. Without doing so, the outbreaks of contaminated food are sure to continue, causing millions more Americans to suffer the devastating and sometimes fatal consequences. We were lucky–it could have been very different for us. On behalf of all Americans, our whole family, Jake and I ask that our government be given the power to put our public health and food-safety first. The American people deserve better; as a nation, we cannot continue to let this happen.
Historic reform to protect Americans is in sight. I am asking my Senators Merkley and Wyden to urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring S. 510 to the floor for a vote as soon possible. I’m asking you do the same with your senators. The longer it takes Congress to pass this comprehensive legislation, the more consumer confidence in our food supply will erode, and the more people will get sick.
Originally published on Huffington Post