The Bernstein family of
Wilton has been fighting for food safety reform after Haylee Bernstein
nearly died from food contamination. Pictured are, from left, Samantha
Bernstein, 22, Chelsea Bernstein, 20, and Haylee Bernstein, 16.
Haylee Bernstein, then three years old, suffered a near fatal brush with
food contamination after eating what her parents thought was a healthy
salad containing prewashed lettuce. The lettuce was contaminated with E.
coli, which made Haylee so severely ill she fought for her life in a
hospital bed for 14 weeks and nearly lost her eyesight. Haylee, a Wilton
resident, survived, but still faces long-term health problems, including
After Haylee’s illness,
her family began a campaign to prevent food-borne illnesses through food
safety reform. Thirteen years later, “the problem with the food safety
system is even worse,” according to Rita Bernstein, Haylee’s mother. The
Bernstein family recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., to
lobby for the passage of a new bill that would provide tougher food safety
regulations and greater oversight by the Food and Drug Administration
“Haylee’s illness could
have been prevented by better regulation,” Ms. Bernstein said. “In 13
years, nothing has been done to reform the food safety system.”
One of the biggest
issues, according to Ms. Bernstein, is that the FDA does not have the
authority to pull tainted products off store shelves. “They don’t have the
authority to do mandatory recalls,” she said. “The FDA needs more authority
to protect consumers.”
Voluntary recalls by the
food companies themselves are not effective enough, Ms. Bernstein said.
“The company who is making money from the product should not be the one to
make a decision about a recall.”
Ms. Bernstein said she is
using Haylee’s story to “make a difference. I could not, in good conscience,
not tell her story. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
The simple salad that
Haylee ate 13 years ago caused repercussions that were like “a bomb being
dropped on our family,” Ms. Bernstein said. The package said the
California-grown lettuce, which the Bernsteins purchased at a Norwalk
store, had been “triple washed.”
Instead, it was
contaminated with a virulent bacteria strain that “wreaked havoc with
Haylee’s body,” Ms. Bernstein said.
Sixty other people in
Connecticut, New York and Illinois were sickened by the lettuce, including
Haylee’s sister, Chelsea, then 7. Chelsea and the others recovered quickly,
while Haylee suffered near-fatal effects.
During her 14 weeks in
intensive care unit at Yale New Haven’s Children Hospital, she experienced
severe bleeding on her brain that required brain surgery. The food
contamination also damaged her pancreas and kidneys, causing her diabetes.
But Ms. Bernstein said
Haylee has learned to manage her conditions, and now attends a private
school in Norwalk, where she is “doing well. Haylee is someone who loves
life and lives life to the fullest, after being at death’s door. She is our
According to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million Americans get sick from
eating contaminated food every year, and approximately 5,000 die from
“Continued outbreaks of
foodborne illness over the last several years, including tainted spinach,
peppers, peanuts, ground beef and pistachio nuts, have demonstrated that
these outbreaks are not random, unpreventable occurrences, but are due to
widespread problems with our food safety system,” Ms. Bernstein said.
After Haylee became sick,
in 1996, the Bernstein family tried to shine a spotlight on the issue of
food safety. Along with Ms. Bernstein and Chelsea, the family includes
Larry, a financial planner, and Samantha, 22. They made appearances on “48
Hours” and told their story in the national media, including the New York
Times and Reader’s Digest magazine.
In late April of this
year, they went to Washington, D.C., and met with the staffs of Senators
Christopher Dodd and Joe Lieberman, and with U.S. Reps. Christopher Murphy
(D-5th) and Rosa DeLauro, (D-3rd).
Ms. DeLauro is sponsoring
H.R. 875, a bill that would give the FDA broader powers to institute
mandatory recalls, civil penalties, and stronger “risk-based inspection
regimes for food companies,” among other points.
Ms. DeLauro told The
Bulletin that the Bernstein family and others like them are the motivation
for her legislation. “It is the courage of families like the Bernsteins
that inspire me to continue to fight for food safety reform,” she said.
“Parents should feel assured that the food they provide to their children
is safe and healthy. We have recently seen numerous food-borne illness
outbreaks that make it painfully clear that our current food safety system
is ill-equipped to prevent these outbreaks.”
She expressed optimism
about the bill’s chances of passing this year. “This Congress, as well as President
Obama, take seriously the need to reform our food safety system and it is
my expectation that we will pass legislation to overhaul food safety,” Ms.
If the bill passes, Ms.
Bernstein said her family will return to Washington for the signing.