Congressman John Dingell, D-Mich., held a telephone briefing with reporters last Wednesday to discuss the recent E. coli outbreak involving romaine lettuce.
Dingell said the outbreak underscores the critical need for food safety reform. He believes it is imperative for Congress to pass the U.S. Senate bill S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. If passed, the bill would give resources to the FDA allowing them to transform the food and safety system from one that reacts to outbreaks to one that maintains proper checks to prevent illness and death before they occur. Sandra Eskin, a representative of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, said her organization has been working closely with allies in Congress to get the legislation enacted.
Eskin said last Wednesday marked six months since the Senate Health Committee unanimously approved the S.510 bill.
“We’re waiting and waiting for the Senate,” she said. “However, as recent events have made clear, the pathogens in our food supply are not waiting.”
Warm weather usually brings about a spike in food-borne illnesses in summer months, but Eskin believes it has happened earlier than usual this year.
“It looks like this year we won’t have to wait until June 21 or for that matter, even Memorial Day weekend for outbreak season to begin,” she said.
Outbreaks are a cause for concern, according to Dingell.
“It seems though not a month goes by without all of us receiving a warning of illness and death befalling our people because of unsafe food,” he said.
Dingell said many illnesses related to food can be attributed to Mexican peppers, peanuts, spinach, mushrooms, seafood and shellfish from China, and a large percentage of imported food.
Since March 1, there have been 23 confirmed cases in four states Dingell said.
“Ten cases were in my home state of Michigan,” he said. “This is a serious matter.”
The congressman believes the longer it takes for the Senate to vote on the bill, the general public, companies, and businesses relying on the food industry may be affected.
“The longer we delay, more and more Americans will be exposed to unsafe foods,” he said. “More will be sickened and unfortunately—more will die. More food companies will be hit financially due to recalls and alerts.”
Many may be surprised to find out the food and safety reform has transcended political lines according to Dingell.
“It has proven to be bipartisan in both the House and Senate,” he said. “It enjoys the strong support of the Obama administration. It’s been endorsed by all of the consumer groups and by the regulated industry.”
Andrew Lekas, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, was affected by the recent E. coli outbreak linked to bagged lettuce.
He became sick after consuming a burrito containing lettuce at a restaurant in Ann Arbor. He refused to name the restaurant and said the Washtenaw County Health Department is conducting an investigation into the situation.
Lekas said he wasn’t aware of how serious and necessary food reform is.
“It was only a few weeks ago that I became aware of how outdated our food safety system is,” he said.
The restaurant he ate at was a regular place him and his friends attended.
“The week I got sick, I had eaten twice at that same restaurant,” Lekas said.
When he was sick, he missed classes and was unable to leave his dorm room.
“If it weren’t for taking extra credits in previous semesters, the illness could have jeopardized my academic career,” Lekas said.
He believes food borne illnesses should be preventable and not tolerated.
“I kept asking myself how could a healthy, active 22-year old guy get wiped out for a whole week over some lettuce,” Lekas said. “If it could happen to me, it can truly happen to anyone.”
Indiana resident Elizabeth Armstrong’s family was affected when her daughter, Ashley, became sick after eating contaminated spinach when she was a toddler.
“It was the end of August in 2006 and our family had a raw spinach dinner,” Armstrong said. ‘As parents, we had always worked very hard to make sure our girls made healthy choices and we never thought a simple salad would change our lives forever.”
Armstrong said her family felt helpless to what was happening to their daughter.
“She was inconsolable and it just broke our hearts,” she said. “As a parent, you always want to comfort and take away the pain of your baby…to see her screaming and banging around in her crib like a caged animal was more than we could stand.”
Their daughter endured 24-hour kidney dialysis and brain swelling. Currently, her kidneys are functioning at less than 25 percent and she takes five pills a day.
“We don’t know how much longer Ashley has before a kidney transplant is required,” Armstrong said. “It is a question of when, not if. No child, no family, should have to suffer the way we have— all from a bowl of spinach.”
Dingell acknowledged the Senate has a busy calendar full of other bills to look at, but health reform cannot be overlooked he said.
“I have been begging my colleagues in the Senate to move the food and safety legislation for ten months or more,” he said. “I understand the Senate has its’ hands full with a number of important priorities, however there are not many more priorities that are important as a fundamentally safe, healthy food supply that people can trust and know is not going to sicken them or kill their loved ones.”