Let me take a heavy and ragged, but deep, breath here. This is not an easy subject to write about. Talking about it is even harder. This interview is about the needless death of children, and I can think of nothing in life that’s worse than watching your baby die.
From those supremely tragic events came an organization known as STOP. The letters stand for Safe Tables Our Priority. Numbered too heavily among its founders are people who have lost children to food borne illnesses.
Nancy Donley is one of them. She was a protective mother of young Alex, her only child. Some might have even called her ‘over-protective.’ But it didn’t matter. In the end, she lost her six-year old son to Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (H.U.S.) caused by eating an undercooked hamburger during a family picnic.
H.U.S. is a disease associated with Escherichia coli 0157:H7, a bacterium found in cattle feces. Estimates place E. coli infections at more than 70,000 people every year, mostly from eating tainted food such as raw field greens and undercooked ground beef. Healthy people usually survive after a bout of diarrhea, but up to 500 people don’t. They die a painful death and it is children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the chronically ill who are the most vulnerable because of their weaker immune systems.
STOP has been among the most vocal and influential groups demanding a stronger food safety system. Too often, though, they found their arguments thwarted by other groups whose special interests run counter to theirs. Recently, a confluence of food safety-related news stories made this interview an absolute necessity.
Here’s the list: A rash of food recalls leading into the always more dangerous summer months; the USDA’s announcement that ‘Test and Hold,’ an overdue industry-backed initiative, might finally attain regulatory status; the new food safety bill and the debate over its funding, the Tester amendment that frees small businesses from oversight – catch my drift?
Here is an interview that you should skip only if you don’t eat food.
Q. Let’s start by talking about STOP and its reason for being. Why was it founded and what is its goal?
A. STOP was founded in the aftermath of the 1992-93 West coast foodborne illness outbreak from E. coli O157:H7-contaminated hamburgers from a fast food restaurant chain. Over 700 people were sickened and a known four children died in this outbreak. This was the watershed event that catapulted the issue of food safety to national attention.
STOP’s founders included family members of those stricken, including the mother of the first child to die in the outbreak. STOP was founded in large part to find answers to fundamental questions such as how can such a catastrophe occur; what food safety gaps and/or loopholes exist that need to be filled; and what measures, if any, are in place to prevent this from occurring again?
We were then, and still are now, committed to the enactment and enforcement of public health-based food safety policies that will prevent contaminated food from entering the marketplace. STOP’s mission is straightforward: to prevent illness and death from foodborne pathogens.
Q. You first talked about STEC’s 3 ½ years ago in a speech commending the “FSIS, FDA and the CDC for working together on the need to address non-O157 STEC in our food supply.” Your comment was “It would be unusual—to the point of delusional—to think that disease-causing non-O157 STEC would veer from the same paths of contamination that occurred with O157.”
Yet several years would pass and Bill Marler would have to spend half a million dollars of his own to test meat samples before the government and the public would really focus on the problem. How did the ball get dropped?
A. I don’t really know if the ball was actually ever really dropped; certainly the CDC never backed down from its position of concern regarding the public health risks associated with non-O157 STEC’s, and Marler and STOP never backed down on advocating the need for them to be declared adulterants.
I do think that there have been attempts to shelve the issue due to resistance of some in the beef industry. The American Meat Institute’s August 18, 2010 letter to Secretary Vilsack strikes me as a thinly-disguised attempt to stall the momentum of getting regulatory programs enacted to prevent meat products contaminated with these other pathogenic strains of E. coli from entering commerce.
I am heartened by Undersecretary Hagen’s recognition of the public health risks these strains present in meat products that are her responsibility to regulate. STOP continues to press for the need for these strains to be declared adulterants so that, as with O157, companies will have to account for it in their HACCP plans, routine microbial testing will be conducted and positive findings result will result in product diversion to cooking or in a recall as the situation merits.
Q. The Obama administration seems to have a stronger focus on food safety than the previous administration. With the creation of the Food Safety Working Group and the appointments of people like Dr. Margaret Hamburg and Dr. Elisabeth Hagen to key offices, are you encouraged by this new activity?
A. We applaud the appointment of individuals with a public health background to leadership positions within public health agencies. We are relying on their commitment to public health to promote policies that will better protect consumers.
That being said, these agencies need appropriate funding to be able to adequately implement and enforce robust food safety programs. It remains to be seen if they will get the resources they need to perform to a level that will enable them to maximize public health benefits.
Q. Let’s talk about two closely related events: the new food safety bill which has been called the most sweeping change since 1938, and the threatened tax cuts that could derail it. First, did the new bill go far enough?
A. STOP appreciates the preventive approach of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act which, by design, requires FDA to take a proactive approach to food safety for the foods that it regulates rather than the reactive mode that it has operated from in the past.
That said, as an organization that represents those personally impacted by unsafe food, it was really difficult to stomach the legislative process and how elements within the bill meant to protect public health got watered down by special interest groups. The Tester language exempting certain entities from the law is an example. We maintain that all entities, regardless of size, must be subject to the same food safety laws and regulations. Contamination can occur at any size facility and none should be exempt from having to have measures in place to better protect public health.
Q. And second, the economic downturn of the past two years put extreme pressure on the federal budget and there is a strong drive to cut spending, including the funding needed to fully enact the law. Acknowledging that an overall reduction in spending is probably necessary, should food safety be part of that cutback?
A. Protecting public safety should have the highest priority in how our tax dollars are spent and food safety should be at the very top; every single person must eat. Unfortunately, that’s not how decisions are necessarily made in Washington.
The new FDA bill started out with budgetary constraints to begin with and will be the victim of a double whammy if the Congress doesn’t fund it. The initial bill had a more robust inspection frequency which got curtailed because of budgetary concerns. So now we have a watered-down inspection frequency that stands to take a second hit if funding isn’t made available for FDA to perform even to the level that finally made it into the final bill.
Q. Let’s compare and contrast the state of our food supply today vs. where it was when STOP was founded. Where has the industry succeeded and where has it failed?
A. I think that many in both industry and government have come a long way in recognizing the need to be proactive in food safety. I remember vividly sitting in the back of USDA’s cafeteria during the public meetings on the proposed PR/HACCP rule with members of the meat industry and government and how the dynamics were so different then than they are today.
Back then, everyone was pointing fingers at everyone else as to who was responsible for the safety of food. I honestly think that those days are over for the majority of the parties; that most recognize that it’s the pathogens and not each other that is the “enemy” and that we all have a role to play in not letting the “enemy” be the victor.
Industry leaders that have been innovative in fostering continuous food safety practices and technologies deserve applause and recognition. Industry laggards and those in denial of their responsibilities should get out of the business and do something else.
My personal “wish” as STOP’s president is to render our reason for existence obsolete; that contaminated food will be a thing of the past and innocent people will no longer have to suffer and die from unsafe food.
I said that this was my “wish” and not my “goal” because I do understand all too well that there is no such thing as a guarantee and that food will never be completely safe. However, we must continue to strive for ever-safer product. On behalf of STOP, I want to thank all of you who embrace the goal of a safer food supply and who just don’t talk about it…but work at it.
Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Cattlenetwork.com and Agnetwork.com.