Each year, an estimated one in six Americans—48 million people—suffer from a foodborne illness, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
On January 28-30, 2014, foodborne illness victims from 11 states visited Capitol Hill, asking their members of Congress to support the full funding and implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Signed by President Obama in 2011, the law shifts the focus of food safety oversight from responding to problems to preventing them. But Congress and the Obama administration still have important work to do before these stronger food safety measures can take effect.
"These tragic and costly foodborne illnesses are preventable, but to do so Congress and the FDA must follow through with the rules and resources they've promised to strengthen our nation's food safety program," said Sandra Eskin, director for food safety at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Since President Obama signed FSMA into law three years ago this month, there have been 23 reported multistate foodborne illness outbreaks linked to products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration—a stark reminder of the need for new prevention-focused food safety measures authorized under FSMA. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 2,500 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 42 deaths have been reported as part of these outbreaks.
Victims and Families Share Their Stories
Foodborne bacteria such as listeria, salmonella, and E. coli can cause severe illnesses in people of all ages, a fact the victims and families below know all too well. They traveled to the nation's capital to ensure that members of Congress support the food safety rules and funding necessary to protect other Americans from the suffering they experienced.
Merrill Behnke was a healthy and proud new mom when a listeria infection caused by imported ricotta salata cheese put her in the hospital for 16 days. She describes the physical and emotional toll of her illness in this video.
The Bernsteins nearly lost their daughter, Haylee, to an E. coli infection that she acquired from tainted pre-packaged lettuce. Haylee spent three and a half months in the hospital, unable to breathe on her own for much of that time.
In 2008, while her husband and father were stationed in Iraq, Kelly Cobb contracted an infection from E. coli O157:H7 after eating contaminated lettuce. She remembers that during her two-week hospital stay for treatment, "There were times when I didn't know if I would get to see my kids again."
Angela Compton's daughters, Celia and Mariah, spent weeks in pain and several days in the hospital after eating cantaloupe tainted with salmonella in 2012. They remain fearful of foodborne illness and anxious about visits to the doctor
Polly Costello's mother, Ruby, and husband, Ken, contracted E. Coli infections after eating contaminated spinach in 2006. While Ken recovered following a week of excruciating pain, Ruby died from her illness four days after being hospitalized.
Colette Dziadul's daughter, Dana, was hospitalized after she ate an imported cantaloupe carrying salmonella at an Easter Sunday brunch. Dana's illness left her with horrifying memories and an arthritic condition that limits her activities.
Peter Hurley's son, Jacob, was an energetic 3-year-old when he contracted a foodborne salmonella infection that lasted 11 days. The source of Jacob's illness—contaminated peanut butter—was not identified for days. The Hurleys were devastated to find out later that they had unknowingly continued to feed their son the very food that had sickened him.
Gabrielle Meunier's son, Christopher, was among the hundreds of people sickened in 2008 by peanut products contaminated with salmonella. “It hurts so bad I want to die,” she recalls her then 7-year-old screaming. After treatment that included six days in the hospital, Christopher thankfully recovered.
Paul Schwarz's father, a World War II veteran and recipient of two Purple Hearts, died in 2011 from a listeria infection linked to contaminated cantaloupe. In this video, Paul talks about his dad and the foodborne illness that took his life.
Leigh Ann Winnard's son, Matthew Larimer, needed weeks in the hospital and a blood transfusion to survive an E. Coli infection caused by tainted beef he ate at a Fourth of July cookout. Leigh Ann says, "He got to the point where he couldn't walk by himself, then he couldn't sit up in bed."