By Johnson, Teddi Dineley
The Nation's Health , Vol. 39, No. 5
TO ROBYN ALLGOOD, blending fresh spinach into fruit smoothies seemed the perfect way to meet her kids' nutritional needs.
But on Sept. 15, 2006, a Food and Drug Administration warning about contaminated spinach sent the Idaho mother of three running to the refrigerator to throw away an open bag. The warning came too late, however.
Two-year-old Kyle Allgood fell ill the next day. Crying out in pain, the inconsolable toddler was admitted to a local hospital. A few days later, on Sept. 20, 2006, within hours of being transferred by plane to a hospital in Salt Lake City, Kyle developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure caused by Escherichia coli bacteria, and suffered a fatal heart attack.
The Allgoods later learned that Kyle had eaten spinach tainted with a leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States, E. coli 0157:H7. If the FDA warning had come just two days earlier, Kyle would never have eaten the spinach, Allgood said at an April news conference in Washington, D.C., where dozens of victims of food-borne illness, including people who had lost loved ones due to contaminated food, gathered in the U.S. Capitol to tell their stories and urge legislators to reform the nation's food safety system.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 76 million cases of food-borne disease occur each year in the United States, causing about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. The most severe cases tend to occur in the very old, the very young, those with compromised immune systems, and in healthy people exposed to a very high dose of a pathogen.
"What's scary is that a food-borne pathogen can't be seen, and once someone is sick there is no way to reverse it," said Allgood, fighting back tears. "It was terrible to watch our son suffer and not be able to take away his pain, but now we just want to lend our voice to encouraging food safety."
Allgood's voice has not gone unnoticed. Around the nation, outraged victims of tragedies tied to tainted foods are stepping forward to join their voices with those of food safety advocates, industry groups, consumer groups, policymakers, public health professionals and others looking to the current Congress for a long-overdue overhaul of the nation's food safety system.
"Reaction, not prevention, has too long formed the basis of our nation's food safety system," said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD, FACP, FACEP (E). "Americans cannot afford to lose faith in their food."
FDA is an overwhelmed agency with an ever-growing mandate, food safety advocates say. The agency has been chronically underfunded for years, they say, and its focus has long been on the drug and medical device side rather than on food safety.
"Reforming the food safety functions at FDA will take more than a few quick fixes," Richard Hamburg, MPA, director of government relations at Trust for America's Health, told The Nation's Health. "Instead, we need an overhaul from top to bottom on how we prevent, detect and respond to food-borne illnesses."
To be sure, legislators' plates are already piled high with issues related to energy reform, the economy and health reform, but there is still room for food safety, said David W. Plunkett, JD, JM, food safety program attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"There are a lot of things for Congress to deal with, but the stars are aligned for food safety reform," Plunkett said. "We have a collision of a lot of different interests coming together to urge action on reforming FDA. Industry is pushing for it. We have had outbreaks, so consumers are concerned about it. And we have consumer advocacy organizations that have for years been working on reform, and a Congress that is receptive to their messages. I am hopeful we will see the House and Senate work on bills this year and complete them before the current session of Congress ends. …