Food Safety Victim Testimony: Ken and Polly Costello

Ken and Polly Costello are a couple from Centennial, Wyoming whose lives were affected by an outbreak of E. coli in 2006.

Polly's mother, Ruby Trautz, became ill that August with flu-like symptoms. Five days later, the 81-year-old retired nurse passed away, and Ken began to experience stomach problems. Shortly thereafter, Ruby's death was acknowledged as the first in an E. coli outbreak traced to contaminated spinach, the same leafy green that sickened Ken.

The couple now actively supports the funding and full implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

Transcripts of their testimony in Chicago follow.

Testimony by Ken Costello

FSP_ken_costello_100On Aug. 31, 2006, as my wife and I made funeral plans for my mother-in-law, I began to feel an excruciating pain in my abdomen. This agony continued for a full week. At first it was diagnosed as diverticulitis — an inflammation of the inner lining of the intestine. It wasn't until three weeks later that it was determined to have been caused by an E. coli O157:H7 infection. I had been sickened by the same contaminated Dole baby spinach that killed my mother-in-law.

Although my family represents two instances of foodborne illness linked to spinach, as a member of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention board of directors, I have come to know the all-too-broad reach of foodborne disease. The produce sources have varied widely as of late: from imported papayas and mangoes to cantaloupe and sprouts grown here in the U.S. And unfortunately, my mother-in-law and I are two examples of an ever-growing victim population. It is estimated that 3,000 people like her die annually from foodborne illness, and 128,000 people are hospitalized, and 48 million are sickened just like I was. And the source of the contamination can enter anywhere along the supply chain from field to packing plant.

After the spinach-borne E. coli outbreak of 2006, we were thrilled to see the processor of Dole baby spinach follow the lead of the ground beef industry and institute a model bacteriologic-testing program. We believe all consumers deserve similar safeguards and are hopeful the final rules will reflect a similar requirement from the FDA.

On behalf of my family and the entire food safety community, we are here to thank the FDA. I can see the hard work of all advocates I have met in these proposed rules. Our jobs, however, will not be complete until the Food Safety Modernization Act is fully implemented and our food supply is as safe as we deserve. 

Testimony by Polly Costello

FSP_polly_costello_100 Six years ago, our family life was forever changed. In August, I brought home a bag of Dole baby spinach for our salads. On Aug. 27, 2006, my mother Ruby was hospitalized. Four days later after an excruciating illness, she died a painful, premature death. Later that same day, my husband Ken began experiencing similar symptoms.

Two weeks later, our family began to painfully put informational puzzle pieces together due to the increasing concern about the spinach-borne E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Testing of our bag of contaminated Dole baby spinach that our family ate matched the outbreak serotype and lot production code number. Multiple tests were conducted by the public health department on Ken confirming his recent E. coli infection.

The CDC estimates as many as 4,000 people may have been affected by this outbreak. Both Ruby and Ken were identified as victims of the outbreak in which 200 people were sickened, more than 100 people were hospitalized, and three died. Sadly, my beautiful mother was the first to die.

In honor of my mother's life and my husband's continued existence, we have worked tirelessly to promote a strong American food safety system. Those efforts began with a series of trips to Capitol Hill to lobby on what would become the Food Safety Modernization Act. Knowing that any good legislation needs funding, we went back to Washington to fight for appropriations for the Food and Drug Administration. Now we are ready for the great promise of the Food Safety Modernization Act to be realized. This historic piece of legislation must be fully implemented as soon as possible — not just for my mother, but for the estimated 48 million people who contract foodborne illness every year. This law gives regulators the opportunity to end illnesses like the one that killed my mother and sickened my husband.

Victims and their families have suffered long enough with reactive laws. It is time for prevention. We can do better in this United States of America.

I miss my mom and am thankful to have my husband. My heart hurts for her and others who have been affected by a preventable foodborne illness. On behalf of my entire family, I commend the Food and Drug Administration for the release of the produce-safety- and preventive-controls-proposed rules and am eager for their finalization.

The contamination that killed my mother is unfortunately not unique. Foodborne bacteria show no bias based on product or farm size.  As I believe they are outlined in the proposal, exemptions in the final produce rule should be as narrowly defined as possible. In doing so, fewer daughters will be forced to say goodbye to their mothers because of a foodborne illness. My fervent wish is that we all experience safe food.

Thank you.

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