Protect consumers from foodborne illness

Protect consumers from foodborne illness
The Bakersfield Californian | Wednesday, Aug 05 2009 07:23 PM

Last Updated Wednesday, Aug 05 2009 07:25 PM

For the estimated 12.2 million Californians falling ill yearly from foodborne pathogens, passage of the Food Safety Enhancement Act by the U.S. House of Representatives last week was a long-awaited victory, and a step in the right direction.

The food safety advocacy organization STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority) has been advocating for U.S. Food and Drug Administration reform for more than 15 years. We were joined by thousands of foodborne illness victims and other advocacy groups concerned about the safety of our nation's food supply.

I knew of the dangers of foodborne illness while in Bakersfield during the 1980s when my husband was stationed at a U.S. Public Health clinic. However, it wasn't until 1993 when my first-grade daughter's best friend died in the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that I learned how lax safeguards were to protect the public health.

We had just buried Lauren, but still didn't have her cause of death. Then, a few weeks later, the national news reported similar illnesses and deaths in Washington state, but because California didn't have laws requiring reporting of E. coli cases to public health authorities that tainted meat sickened over 500 others and killed three more children.

Since then, STOP victims have been educating policymakers and advocating for stronger food safety measures. Yet, last month, California Congressman Jim Costa at a House Agriculture Committee public hearing said that food safety is "like driving a car" -- just as a person who drives assumes safety risks and consequences, a person preparing food should be responsible for its safety. He said consumers have to cook their food better. Is he really saying that raw California produce and leafy greens are only safe when cooked?

At that hearing was STOP mom Robyn Allgood, who lost her 2 year-old son, Kyle, in 2006 after feeding him E.coli O157:H7-contaminated fresh spinach. Also at the hearing was STOP member Jeff Almer, whose 72-year-old mother, Shirley, survived two bouts of cancer only to succumb to contaminated peanut butter.

At least Rep. Costa, D-Fresno, eventually voted for the Act, unlike Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, the chief deputy whip. But even Costa's vote came only after concessions were made to his House Agriculture Committee. It's a shame when food safety becomes a turf war in Congress. We thank Rep. Costa for his vote, but urge him and Rep. McCarthy to become better informed about the need for FDA reform, not only for consumers but for their agricultural constituents. No industry wants or can afford to be implicated in the death or disability of its customers, and that's just what happens during large national outbreaks.

We encourage U.S Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein to take the Food Safety Enhancement Act and make it even stronger in the Senate this fall. The Act must ensure frequent inspections based on risk, reporting of positive pathogen tests to the FDA, giving FDA food recall authority, protecting civil penalties for violators, and securing adequate funding to make the reform meaningful. No parents should ever have to watch their child die from tainted hamburger or spinach. No child should ever have to bury a parent prematurely because of contaminated peanut butter.

Donna Rosenbaum is executive director of STOP. A former Bakersfield resident, she has a degree in neurobiology from Northwestern University.


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