WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sixteen Americans who have been directly affected by foodborne illness gathered at the White House recently to share their personal stories and meet Sam Kass, assistant White House chef, who cooks for the Obama family and is an advisor on food policy; Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, who is the lead staffer for the White House Food Safety Working Group; and David Lazarus, senior advisor to the Secretary of Agriculture, who coordinates with the White House on food safety issues.
Representing the millions of Americans who fall ill each year from contaminated food, the victims and relatives of victims appealed to the Obama administration to urge congressional lawmakers to pass food safety legislation this year.
"Too many Americans are needlessly getting sick and many are dying from eating food that should be safe," said Peter Hurley, who traveled from Oregon to D.C. with his 5-year-old son, Jake. Jake became ill earlier this year after eating peanut butter crackers contaminated with Salmonella.
"Congress needs to pass this legislation," continued Hurley. "It makes the common sense changes our food safety system needs. We know the system can and must be improved and the time for action is now."
In March of this year President Obama created the White House Food Safety Working Group, which is charged with coordinating federal food safety efforts. At the meeting on Oct. 9 administration officials reaffirmed their commitment to modernizing our food safety system and ensuring that America's food supply is both safe and healthy.
Advocates from the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.), the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, and Food & Water Watch joined the 16 Americans who have personal stories about the impact of foodborne illnesses.
While in Washington the victims and relatives of victims also met with U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, along with senators and Senate staff from their home states. Senators were urged to follow the example set by their colleagues in the House – who passed a bipartisan food safety bill in July – and approve companion legislation by Thanksgiving.
"We cannot afford to wait for another outbreak. Congress must act now and pass food safety legislation that protects families from facing the same hardships we have," said Maine resident Carol Kintner Gates, who lost a family member to a foodborne illness. "Nobody in America should have to worry about whether the food they eat and feed their family will cause severe illness or death."
Thousands of Americans die annually from foodborne illness, and about half of all reported cases of foodborne illness occur in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Megan Kowalcyk, a 13-year-old from Ohio, lost her brother to foodborne illness and talked with Obama administration officials at the meeting about her efforts to improve food safety.
"I was 5 years old when my brother died," Kowalcyk said. "He was my best friend and I still miss him. It really bothers me that so many kids have been hurt or died because of foodborne illness."
Without immediate reform, the preventable outbreaks from contaminated food – like those that occurred earlier this year – are likely to continue.
The following victims and family members were present at the White House meeting, as well as representatives from the Make Our Food Safe campaign (www.makeourfoodsafe.org):
Barbara Kowalcyk, Ohio
Lara Kowalcyk, Ohio
Megan Kowalcyk, Ohio
Patricia Buck, Pennsylvania
Aidan Buck, Pennsylvania
Carol Kintner Gates, Maine/New Hampshire
Jake Hurley, Oregon
Peter Hurley, Oregon
Trissi Fair Bennett, Virginia
Paul Bennett, Virginia
Chloe Bennett, Virginia
Luke Bennett, Virginia
John Christoferson, Oregon
Thomas Christoferson, Oregon
Chrissy Christoferson, Oregon
Karl Christoferson, Oregon