Food Supply Safety Scrutinized Following Recalls, Contamination

Article excerpt

Patricia Buck knows first-hand how tragedy can turn an unassuming schoolteacher into an outspoken activist with her sights set on the billion-dollar, worldwide food industry.

In 2006, alongside her biostatistician daughter, Barbara Kowalcyk, Buck co-founded the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention in Grove City, Pa., with the not-so-small mission of finding creative ways to confront the massive food safety challenges of the current century. Their dedication--like many activists--was born from heartbreak: the 2001 death of Kowalcyk's 2-year-old son Kevin due to complications from a leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States, Escherichia coli 0157:H7. In a matter of days, Buck watched her grandson go from being a healthy child to one dying from what doctors later found was gangrene of the intestines.

"That little boy suffered so much," Buck said. "Everyone's going to die, but it's the way you die, and Kevin died a horrible, horrible death."

As if Kevin's death wasn't enough to catapult Buck and her daughter to act, the barriers they encountered trying to discover where Kevin acquired E. coli serves as a microcosm of wider food safety frustrations. After doctors in Wisconsin diagnosed Kevin with an E. coli infection, they reported the illness to local officials, Buck said. Kevin's father and sister were also infected with the same E. coli strain, however, they showed only minimal symptoms. After Kevin's death, his mother contacted local health officials to inquire on Kevin's case. Unfortunately, no follow-up investigation could be conducted, Buck said.

Next, Kowalcyk hired a lawyer and sued under Freedom of Information Act laws for information that could determine whether her son's infection was connected to any recent food recalls. That also failed. The manufacturer in question refused to cooperate or share its food distribution lists. Nor did it have to: food distribution lists within the meat and poultry industry are considered proprietary information. In the end, Buck and her family never found the source of the food that killed her grandson. Though they believe they know where the food came from that killed Kevin, Buck and her daughter will never be able to prove it because there was no official recall in Wisconsin at the time of Kevin's death.

"It certainly was an eye-opening experience," Buck told The Nation's Health. "We truly believe that the government on the issue of food--a necessity of life--should have much stronger accountability standards than what they have now."

Most Americans will probably never experience such a violent reaction from a food-borne illness, though many have probably taken a day or two off work to care for a sick stomach that soon heals itself, and along with it, any questions as to which food was the culprit. Still, food-borne illness in the United States is a costly and deadly occurrence, and with a number of recent and highly publicized food recalls--from E. coli-contaminated spinach to salmonella-tainted peanut butter to the massive pet food recall--many Americans are beginning to ask: What happens to my food before it lands on my plate and how can I protect myself?

Food safety programs remain underfunded

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million people contract a food-borne illness every year, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die, with a price tag of billions in health care costs and lost productivity. The most common types of food-borne illnesses are the bacterias E. coli, Campylobacter and salmonella and a group of viruses known as Norwalk-like viruses, which are rarely diagnosed and usually resolve themselves within a few days. Ensuring food safety has been a longtime duty of public health workers and departments, but state and local public health professionals only have so much authority and thinly stretched resources. A bigger problem, many advocates contend, is the woeful lack of authority and funding at federal food safety agencies, which oversee the manufacturing of food before it arrives at the local grocery store or cafe. …