April 28, 2009 3:02 PM CDT
Waterloo woman lobbies for safer
By JENS MANUEL KROGSTAD, Courier Staff Writer
WATERLOO --- To this day, Karen
Hibben-Levi still washes her lettuce, even if the label promises it is
After narrowly surviving an E. coli outbreak more than two years ago, she
does not trust the safety of the food she buys in a grocery store. So she
traveled to Washington this week to lobby for food-safety reform.
Hibben-Levi was hospitalized for days after eating tainted lettuce at a Taco
John's in Waterloo in November 2006. She was one of 33 people in Black Hawk
County who became ill. The FDA reported 81 people in three states were
sickened in the outbreak.
She is one of 25 food poisoning victims from around the country who will
speak to members of Congress about their experiences. They also will meet
with various consumer advocacy organizations lobbying for reform.
Those organizations are pushing for legislation to increase the frequency of
inspections, and require facilities to have food safety plans that include
testing programs companies must report to the FDA.
In recent months, deadly food poisoning outbreaks involving spinach,
pistachios and two incidents with peanuts emphasized the need for systemic
reform, said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers
Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.
Over the last two decades, she said, the FDA has lost 90 percent of its
inspection force. The consequence: Inspections at facilities have fallen to
an average of once every 10 years.
The lack of government oversight has resulted in some retailers demanding
food facilities do their own testing.
But Halloran said voluntary efforts proved ineffective after a company tested
its food positive for salmonella, failed to report it, then conducted
additional tests until it found a negative.
"Food is completely fundamental. Everybody has to eat; we have no choice
about it," Halloran said. "Experiences like Karen's should not
happen. We should not have a food supply that kills people."
Hibben-Levi said she nearly died from her illness, so the decision to make
the trip was an easy one. The only reason she survived, she said, was because
a friend who heard about an outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses urged her
to go to the hospital. When she arrived, doctors told her waiting much longer
would have likely resulted in her death.
Her daughter-in-law, Kim Hibben, said her entire family was left shaken by
"The doctors didn't know if she was going to be OK. They said she could
possibly have internal organ failure. When they mentioned that, that was a
shock," she said.
Hibben-Levi said it took her six months to fully regain her strength.
Initially, the experience left her angry. While those feelings subsided, her
outrage over the lack of food safety has not.
"I'm not kidding you, I am so disgusted that there isn't more scrutiny
over food processing," she said.