Spotlight shined on food safety

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Written by Joan Lownds   

Thursday, June 04, 2009


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.

In 1996, 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 diabetes.

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 (FDA).

“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 miracle.”

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 foodborne sickness.

“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. DeLauro said.

If the bill passes, Ms. Bernstein said her family will return to Washington for the signing.



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