Testimony

Food Safety Victim Testimony: Polly Sirles

On Sept. 19 and 20, a public hearing took place in Washington on draft rules concerning food shipped to the United States. Once finalized, the rules will hold foreign and domestic suppliers to the same safety standards. At the Sept. 19 hearing on Capitol Hill, six Americans who have been sickened by contaminated food delivered testimony about their experiences.

Among those who testified, five people had fallen ill as a result of hepatitis A contamination in pomegranate seeds shipped from Turkey. The outbreak sickened 161 Americans in 10 states.


sirles-100 My name is Polly Sirles, from Corralitos, California. My husband, Aaron, father of our five sons, is one of more than 150 victims of the recent hepatitis A outbreak linked to imported pomegranate seeds. My testimony is not just Aaron's story, but a brief insight into how needless risk impacts an entire family.

Despite initially testing negative for hepatitis A, eight days after drinking a contaminated smoothie Aaron began to feel sick. Soon he found himself unable to go to work. He could barely function—he had a fever, nausea, vomiting, and perfuse sweating. He was miserable. 

At this point, however, the doctor thought he was having an adverse reaction to the hepatitis A vaccine we had received after learning of our potential exposure. Aaron continued to be very sick for the next four days. He was unable to sleep. Even with the anti-nausea medication, his poor condition persisted. Knowing he couldn't continue to live this way, we headed to the emergency room. While Aaron was receiving IV fluids, and following a series of tests, the doctor informed us that he had hepatitis A. My mind was flooded with questions and concerns.

Not only was I worried about my husband's health but also I was racked with guilt as to whether we served contaminated food to anyone else. My thoughts were racing. Aaron had already missed a week of work, and there was no clear indication as to when he would be able to return. What about our sons? What if one of them was infected but not yet showing symptoms?

Father's Day was completely ruined for Aaron. He couldn't read the cards or open the gifts our kids had prepared for him. They were scared.  And although I was, too, and had barely slept for over a week, I knew I needed to put on a strong face for their benefit. I didn't know how long I could keep it up. 

When the doctor called the next day for a regular check-in, Aaron could barely stand. He would spend the next 10 days in the hospital as his liver was battling the virus. I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of working part time, being there for Aaron in the hospital, and reassuring our boys, despite little available information, that everything would be okay.

Aaron is still sick and has been able only recently to return to work. He is often fatigued and still suffers from bouts of nausea. On top of all this, he is regularly overcome with worry about the well-being of our family. And I feel absolutely helpless. I can't help him. We get through each day, knowing and hoping that he will get better. Until then, our household cannot function normally. I run through money figures daily to see where we can cut back.

No more families should have their lives turned upside down because of foodborne illness. I know that the key provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act, including the import rule, are designed to prevent outbreaks like the one that continues to impact my family and me. I have come to Washington today because farmers, producers, and importers alike have a responsibility to produce and sell safe food that must be strongly enforced under this landmark law.