Samantha Bernstein is a Seattle resident whose younger sisters were sickened in 1996 by E. coli in triple-washed mesclun lettuce.
While 7-year-old Chelsea Bernstein was hospitalized for four days, 3-year-old Haylee Bernstein's illness was so severe that she stayed in the hospital for 14 weeks. Haylee was in critical condition, suffering injury to her pancreas and nearly losing her eyesight. She continues to experience the long-term effects of her illness, including diabetes, visual deficit, reduced kidney function, and learning disabilities.
Inspired by her sisters' plight, Samantha now works as a legal assistant at a law firm dedicated to giving a voice to victims of foodborne illness. She hopes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act will be fully and quickly implemented to lessen the risk of lifelong illness from food.
Related video: Haylee Bernstein's story
In June of 1996, my mother prepared a salad for my two little sisters featuring “triple-washed, ready-to-eat” mesclun lettuce. After eating it, both were stricken by severe cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, caused by E. coli O157:H7 infections.
Chelsea soon recovered, but Haylee, who was just 3 years old at the time, fell critically ill with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious disorder resulting from the infection, and spent 15 weeks fighting for her life. She suffered retinal hemorrhages, pneumonia, and rectal prolapse. A tennis-ball-sized brain hemorrhage necessitated emergency surgery, which caused blindness for weeks and left her with a life-long visual deficiency. She left the hospital insulin-dependent, and on seven medications taken twice a day. Reporters flocked to our home. Nationwide, people were touched–and alarmed–by her ordeal.
I'll never forget seeing Haylee comatose and connected to machines. We all asked ourselves, How could this happen? Our parents knew the hazards of tainted/undercooked meat—but lettuce marked as triple-washed? We were shocked to learn that the greens implicated in my sisters' illnesses had been grown at a farm not registered with the state as a processor and processed with unchlorinated water in an exposed stainless steel tub located less than 100 feet away from cattle. The Food and Drug Administration found that the well that supplied the wash-water was 20 feet from a cattle pen, the filter had been disconnected, and no bacterial testing was done. Strong safety standards for agricultural water, if followed and enforced, could have prevented my sisters' illnesses. I urge you to put them in place quickly and enforce them vigilantly.
Activism and educating others about foodborne illnesses became the key to my recovery from this trauma. Like most Americans, I considered our food supply the world's safest, but now I know there is much room for improvement. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act provides us with some of the tools needed to make produce safer.
I currently work at a law firm dedicated to giving victims of foodborne illness a strong voice. I know firsthand that the days, weeks, months, and years following a foodborne infection offer an entirely new set of challenges for an estimated 48 million people a year. While I hope the time spent in the office makes life just a little better for another family like mine, I know there is so much that needs to be done.
I am working to broaden my perspective, and am focused on becoming a trusted voice in the consumer protection community. I count myself as one of many food safety advocates who not only want justice for those sickened but who want to see the number of victims drastically reduced. I believe that a fully implemented Food Safety Modernization Act makes this lofty goal achievable. The needless risk for consumers of “ready to eat” products must be eliminated. I applaud the FDA for the release of the preventive controls rule, which will apply to fresh-cut produce, but urge the agency to require environmental and product testing of processed foods where appropriate. Without full implementation of the law and compliance by food manufacturers, I know that someone else's sister or brother is still at risk.