Alexander Thomas Donley was 6 years old when he ate a hamburger made from ground meat contaminated with E.coli from cattle. He died after a four-day agony that doctors were helpless to stop.
“Alex's last words to me were, ‘Don't worry Mommy,’” Nancy Donley wrote in a tribute to her only child. “His last act before slipping into a coma was to mouth a kiss to his father.”
Alexander's shattered parents, recalling their son's concern for others, asked that his organs be donated, only to learn that the bacteria had essentially destroyed his body's internal systems. “They had liquefied entire portions of his brain,” Donley wrote.
A real estate agent by profession, Donley became a food-safety activist, co-founding Safe Tables Our Priority, which played a key role in the establishment of stricter meat-inspection regulations in 1996. The rules, adopted by the Clinton administration, require a Hazard Analysis and Critical Point (HACCP) system at all meat-processing sites.
But the regulations don't confer recall authority for meat. And E.coli contamination of ground beef continues to loom as a major problem. Proposed legislation now before Congress would grant recall authority to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for non-meat foods. The legislation would also require HACCP monitoring at all non-meat farms and food-processing facilities — in effect, imposing by law a system that was established by regulation for meat.
“It just makes sense for regulatory agencies to have recall authority,” Donley says in an interview. “The public is absolutely stunned any time that they learn the agencies don't have it.”
The consequences of food-borne illness remain largely unknown, Donley says. The public record bears out her observation, even when victims don't suffer Alexander's fate.
Stephanie Smith, a young dance instructor from Minnesota, was partially paralyzed after eating a contaminated hamburger produced by Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. (The New York Times/Ben Garvin)
Stephanie Smith, a young dance instructor in Cold Spring, Minn., ate a contaminated hamburger at a family meal in 2007. She is now partially paralyzed from the waist down and suffering cognitive impairment. Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., which produced the burger, settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount that will, her lawyer and the company said in a joint statement, “provide for Ms. Smith's care throughout her life.” The meat company is a unit of Cargill Inc., a Minnesota-based agribusiness and food multinational that is the largest privately owned American corporation.
Her future in dance is, of course, at best a work in progress. “She's still wheelchair-bound,” attorney William Marler told The Associated Press in May. “She's making progress. She has been able to walk with braces and a walker. She's continuing to work very, very hard at her rehabilitation for both her cognitive issues and her physical issues.”
Carol Lobato, a 77-year-old grandmother from Littleton, Colo., told a congressional hearing in September about her experiences last July after she tasted a rattlesnake-cake appetizer made with insufficiently cooked egg at a Morrison, Colo., restaurant that specializes in wild game. The egg was later traced to two Iowa farming operations — Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms — later found to have been highly contaminated by salmonella. By the next day, she had been rushed to the emergency room with chills, vomiting and diarrhea. Her symptoms worsened upon release, and she was hospitalized for another five days.
Lobato's husband and grandson had also tasted the dish but suffered only mild illness. Unlike them, she takes medication for rheumatoid arthritis, which weakened her immune system's defenses against bacterial infection.
“I have lost my stamina,” Lobato told the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee in September. “I often experience indigestion, and it is difficult for me to enjoy certain foods. I feel very tired and require rest during the day…. My doctors told me that I almost certainly would have died without aggressive intervention.”
Overall, Lobato testified, “the salmonella infection is not over for me.”
That uncertain outcome would surprise many members of the public, Donley says. “A lot of survivors are faced with lifelong illness and other consequences — arthritis, high blood pressure, bad eyesight, reproductive problems,” she says. And many of them have become uninsurable — which could change if the new national health care law's prohibition against denying insurance coverage for preexisting conditions is upheld.
“I don't think we'll ever get to perfection — a totally risk-free food supply,” Donley says. Given that reality, she says, consumers should support rigorous regulation and take their own food-handling precautions seriously. “Most people think it's just that someone has diarrhea and then it's done. But when things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong.”
— Peter Katel
Miller, Henry I., and Gregory Conko, The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution, Praeger, 2004. A scientist and a conservative policy advocate argue that objections to genetically modified foods reflect fear and ignorance of science.
Nestle, Marion, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, University of California Press, 2010 edition. A microbiologist with a long career in academia and nutrition policy analyzes the major issues affecting food safety.
Wallace, Robert B., and Maria Oria, eds., Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration, National Academies Press, 2010. The non-governmental Institute of Medicine examines the workings of the FDA and proposes improvements.
Harris, Gardiner, and William Neuman, “Salmonella Found in '08 At Egg Farm,” The New York Times, Sept. 15, 2010, p. B1. Signs of health hazards that led to this year's egg recall were evident two years ago, an account by two specialist reporters makes clear.
Hughlett, Mike, “The Fight To Keep Your Burger Safe From E. Coli,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sept. 12, 2010, p. A1. In a long and detailed account from the floor of a Colorado slaughterhouse, a correspondent reports on efforts to keep pathogens out of ground beef.
Neuman, William, “After Delays, Vaccine to Counter Bad Beef Is Being Tested,” The New York Times, Dec. 3, 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/business/04vaccine.html. A science correspondent reports on the technical and regulatory complications in the search for a cattle vaccine against E.coli.
Huffstutter, P. J., “Raw-food raid highlights a hunger,” Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/jul/25/business/la-fi-raw-food-raid-20100725. Believers in the benefits of raw milk and other unprocessed foods are among opponents of increased FDA regulation.
Judd, Alan, “States to grade their own inspectors,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 19, 2009, p. A1. Georgia state inspectors didn't report violations that led to a peanut-borne salmonella outbreak last year, but the financially strapped FDA wants state inspectors to evaluate their own work.
Konrad, Walecia, “In the Age of Recalls, Tips for a Pathogen-Free Kitchen,” The New York Times, Sept. 4, 2010, p. B5. The Times reports on measures that the seriously safety-conscious take — including washing possibly contaminated kitchen surfaces with hydrogen peroxide.
Layton, Lyndsey, “Salmonella-tainted eggs linked to U.S. government's failure to act,” The Washington Post, Dec. 11, 2010, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/10/AR2010121007485_pf.html. A food-policy specialist investigates a contaminated-egg episode.
Moss, Michael, “The Burger That Shattered Her Life,” The New York Times, Oct. 3, 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/health/04meat.html. In one of the most hard-hitting and influential food-contamination stories of recent years, a Times correspondent traces failures in ground-meat processing to the outbreak that left a young dance instructor unable to walk.
Reports and Studies
“Agencies Need to Address Gaps in Enforcement and Collaboration to Enhance Safety of Imported Food,” Government Accountability Office, September 2009, www.gao.gov/new.items/d09873.pdf. Major deficiencies exist in the government program to inspect imports for contaminants and other dangers, Congress' nonpartisan investigative arm reports.
Becker, Geoffrey S., “The Federal Food-Safety System: A Primer,” Congressional Research Service, April 20, 2010, www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RS22600.pdf. A food-policy specialist for Congress' nonpartisan research arm provides an overview of a system that is far more intricate than the public may realize.
Gurian-Sherman, Doug, “Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops,” Union of Concerned Scientists, April 2009, www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/failure-to-yield.pdf. A staff scientist for a longstanding advocacy organization concludes that genetically modified crops fail to live up to their billing as solutions to food scarcity, especially in developing countries.
Johnson, Renée, “Food Safety in the 111th Congress: H.R. 2749 and S. 510,” Congressional Research Service, Oct. 7, 2010, www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40443.pdf. Similarities and differences in House and Senate food-safety bills are analyzed in depth by a specialist for Congress' nonpartisan research office.