Food Safety Victim Testimony: Mary Beth Laychak

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.


laychak-100My name is Mary Beth Laychak, and I am from Honolulu, Hawaii. In June, when I found out about the recall of the berry mix I had purchased, I was worried, but I had always trusted that the food I purchased was safe. My husband and I are focused on making healthy choices now that we're trying to start a family. So, to be on the safe side, I checked the CDC website. Their recommendation to anyone who was exposed to the product was to get a hepatitis A vaccine. This seemingly routine procedure was complicated by my potential pregnancy. I was told that I couldn't get the vaccine until I was positive that I was not pregnant. My worries about hepatitis A skyrocketed. Eventually, I received the vaccine and felt a great deal of relief.

As the month went along, I began to feel run down. I had diarrhea and stomach aches. I have suffered from migraines since I was a teenager, but they started to occur more frequently. I went from one headache a week to two or three a week. I assumed, at this point, that all of my symptoms were stress related but decided to see my doctor. Knowing already that I was exposed to hepatitis A, he immediately ordered a blood test.

While I was on vacation, my doctor called to tell me that I tested positive for an active hepatitis A infection. I was horrified and scared. I spent the afternoon on the phone with my doctor, the Hawaii Public Health Department, and my parents. Instead of enjoying my vacation, I had to recount the past few weeks for the public health department. What did I eat? Where did I go? Who had I had contact with, and what were my bowel movements like? It alternated between embarrassing and scary.

Later that week, my step-grandfather passed away. I flew to Pittsburgh for the funeral. The day I left, my husband and I learned that he also tested positive for hepatitis A. His liver enzymes were high, and we now had an explanation for his crippling back aches. It was just one more thing to worry about while I flew home.

My hepatitis A infection was a constant topic at the funeral. I had to explain over and over again that I was not contagious and that there was nothing to do but let the virus run its course. It is hard enough to be at a funeral, but to spend that time looking at worried loved ones and assuring them that you will be fine in time is heartbreaking.

No individuals, let alone their loved ones, should have to worry about whether the food they eat—whether it is imported or domestically produced—will make them sick. Illnesses like mine, my husband's, and those of the other victims of hepatitis A will hopefully be prevented once the draft food import regulations are finalized. I urge you to do so as soon as possible and ensure that they are strictly enforced. 

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