Food Safety Victim Testimony: Merrill Behnke

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, one person – Merrill Behnke – was sickened by Listeria monocytogenes traced back to imported ricotta salata cheese from Italy. The 2012 outbreak affected 22 people in 13 states and the District of Columbia, and four related deaths were reported. 

My name is Merrill Behnke, and I'm from Seattle. It has been just over a year since my life was changed forever. In August 2012, I fell severely ill all because I ate imported ricotta salata cheese. I feel extremely lucky that, despite the Listeria infection, I am standing here today telling my story. Not a day goes by that I do not think about my time in the hospital or the illness that almost took my life. My doctors referred to me frequently as an anomaly. I should have never gotten sick. And I should not be as healthy as I am today considering how sick I became.

What began as severe back and neck pain and a 102-degree fever quickly turned into a trip to the emergency room. The doctors at Overlake Hospital immediately suspected I had meningitis. They performed a CAT scan and spinal tap but could not confirm for several days that the meningitis was caused by Listeria bacteria. During this time of uncertainty I spent four days in isolation due to the risks of possible transmission. My mind became overrun with fear because I was afraid that I could have somehow passed the meningitis on to my nine-month-old daughter, Channing. That morning before my trip to the emergency room I had breastfed Channing and was scared that the disease might have passed to her through my milk. Even though I was in the hospital fighting for my life, my main concern was still for my daughter.

After four days, the doctors lifted the isolation protocol. During this time, however, my symptoms worsened dramatically. I can't remember much from this period of time in the hospital, but a few terrifying moments have stayed with me. I remember one of the doctors cradling me and asking if I had a living will. Another memory I have is waking up to one of the nurses crying in a chair next to me. I remember my thoughts racing. Would I die there in the hospital without seeing my daughter ever again?

No matter my condition, the hardest part about my time in the hospital was being away from Channing and subsequently losing the ability to breastfeed. I wasn't able to see her for the first ten days and that is the longest I have ever been away from her. When my husband was finally able to bring her to the hospital, she cried when she was in my arms and pushed away from me. She acted as if she didn't know who I was. It took four more visits to the hospital before she finally allowed me to hold and play with her. This was the most heart-wrenching thing I have ever gone through. The visits were always short, and I would cry when they had to leave. I spent 16 days in the hospital.

When I was able to go home, the physical toll of my bout with Listeria Meningitis was obvious, and my emotional scars were just beginning to manifest. My daily life changed radically. I was unable to play with Channing the way I once did, and my energy level was limited for several months after leaving the hospital. Today, I still have not regained the weight I lost during my illness. I experience memory problems and have difficulty concentrating. Worst of all, I am having fertility issues due to the trauma inflicted on my body by this illness.

While FSMA represents the great potential of a safer food supply, we will not see its extraordinary promise realized until it is fully implemented. I am, thankfully, living proof of the importance of the proposed draft rule on the Foreign Supplier Verification Program and the vitally important need for foreign facilities to meet the same safety standards as their domestic counterparts.

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