Friday, October 30, 2009

Produce Safety Project and S.T.O.P. Release Report on State Surveillance of Foodborne Illnesses

There is a large burden of foodborne illness in the United States with approximately 76 million people falling ill every year (that’s 1in 4 Americans) from largely preventable food contamination.  Fixing the problem is dependent on knowing where the problem starts and which foods from what producers are making us sick.  Ultimately, then, the ability to control food poisoning starts with the public health department and their ability to find out what a person ate when they have a diagnosed case of foodborne disease. 

Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.) has been supporting victims of foodborne illness for the last 16 years and has heard firsthand how terribly inconsistent we are at interviewing and collecting this vital information when people get sick from food.  The public health system can not find what it isn’t looking for or asking about.  Today, a survey is being released that will shed some light on this important topic. 

The survey was commissioned by the Produce Safety Project (PSP), an initiative of the The Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University, and conducted by S.T.O.P.  39 of the 51 state and DC health departments responded to our survey which asked about the types of questions asked of foodborne illness victims, the time frame in which they were completed, and how states collected, stored, and shared the resulting 2007 data. 

We learned some interesting things.  Despite the increase in large national outbreaks linked to fresh produce recently, our data show that only 25 of 39 states asked victims about specific produce items, even if that produce was associated with a large recent outbreak.  Only 23 of 39 states are able to electronically link their foodborne illness intake data for analysis.  The lessons learned from this survey data will hopefully encourage states to develop best practices, leading to better identification of outbreaks and fewer illnesses and deaths. 

To read the executive summary and full report, visit
To sign up for S.T.O.P. E-alerts and get food recall and outbreak information delivered to your email inbox, visit

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Progress Towards FDA Food Safety Reform—Not A Moment Too Soon

Progress Towards FDA Food Safety Reform—Not A Moment Too Soon

For the first time since my daughter's best friend died from  E.coli O157:H7, I am finally starting to feel that we are making progress towards comprehensive FDA food safety reform.  Last week the U.S. Senate held its first hearing on S.510, Senator Durbin’s bipartisan bill that updates our ancient food safety system. At Safe Tables Our Priority (, we work closely with many wonderful families that have suffered needlessly from contaminated food.  Senators have finally acknowledged those families' pain and anguish, in many cases noting that these tragic stories were the impetus for their commitment to better protecting American families. The following is a roll call of sorts from the hearing:
  • Senator Brown (D-OH) discussed Nellie Napier, who had a large extended family in Ohio and was the last person to die from tainted peanut butter during the PCA outbreak.
  • Senator Franken (D-MN) shared Shirley Almer’s story, a 72-year-old woman who survived cancer twice -- only to be killed from Salmonella in peanut butter. Her son, Jeff, has been become a vocal advocate for change in his mother's name. Shirley's case helped the Minnesota health department figure out the outbreak.. If the appropriate mechanisms had been in place, others would be alive today.
  • Senator Dodd (D-CT) acknowledged Haylee Bernstein, who at age 3 was nearly killed by E.coli in lettuce. More than ten years later, Haylee still suffers from health problems related to her near-fatal incident with food contamination.
  • Senator Durbin (D-IL) has always credited S.T.O.P. President Nancy Donley with teaching him about the severe shortcomings of our food safety system after her own son Alex died in 1993 from eating tainted hamburger meat. Durbin also spoke of Marian Westover, an 80-year-old S.T.O.P. member who nearly died from E.coli in spinach more recently.
Please help stop future suffering and urge your Senator to vote on this bill before the end of the year by clicking here. And help protect yourself and your family by signing up for e-alerts that keep you informed about current food recalls and outbreaks:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Food Poisoning Is Serious Business – People Become Disabled and Even Die

My life changed overnight in 1992 when my then-6-year-old daughter’s best friend Lauren was the first child to die from eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 in the Jack in the Box outbreak. You probably don’t know what it’s like to watch someone die from the E. coli pathogen, but it is excruciatingly horrible. Lauren’s mom confided in me how it was a blessing when she slipped into a coma because at least then she wasn’t screaming in pain.

Not only did my young daughter lose her best friend, we all lost our innocence. Until that moment, I had no idea that we are all playing a game of Russian Roulette with our food. Any one of us at any time could be feeding our families contaminated meats or vegetables or fruit. While paying attention to safe preparation and handling can help, we cannot totally scrub, disinfect or cook our way to safety – these pathogens are in the food, end of story. Our kitchens should not be biohazard zones.

How can it be that in the 21st century, living in the most scientifically advanced nation on earth, one in four people fall ill from foodborne illness every year? Quite simply, our regulatory system is not up to the job. Right now the FDA inspects domestic food facilities on average of once every 10 years. Imported products are only inspected at the rate of one percent a year.

To honor Lauren’s memory and the close to 5,000 Americans who die every year from largely preventable foodborne disease, I have become the executive director of S.T.O.P.- Safe Tables Our Priority,
a foodborne illness prevention and advocacy organization that works with hundreds of families every year who have lost loved ones due to tainted foods. We also support hundreds more who survived their initial illness, but are facing difficult long-term consequences.

You’ve seen the headlinesSalmonella-contaminated peanut butter, imported spices, sprouts, E.coli-laden meat, spinach, lettuce and cookie dough, Listeria-tainted deli meats, smoked fish and cheeses. And we’re not talking about a few days of problems – there can be serious long-term health effects, and people die.

That why it’s important to speak up, to share information and help the public understand that foodborne illness is serious. If you have a personal story, please share it with us at

In the meantime, you can keep up and best protect your family by signing up for S.T.O.P. E-alerts, which provides timely information delivered right to your email about current food recalls and outbreaks. Sign up here.