Guest Blog: In Defense of Food Safety Leadership

The following Guest Blog first appeared on Food Safety News, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Nancy Donley.

In Defense of Food Safety Leadership

by Nancy Donley

My only child, Alex, died from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) caused by eating E. coli O157:H7-contaminated ground beef back in 1993 when he was only 6 years old. It was the most horrendous experience possible.

His first symptoms were severe abdominal cramping and bowel movements that consisted strictly of blood and mucus. Alex suffered terribly as his organs shut down one by one. At one point one of his lungs collapsed, requiring bedside surgery. His brain swelled so horribly that shunts were drilled into his head in an effort to relieve the pressure, but to no avail.

My brave little boy’s last words to me before slipping into a coma were, “Don’t cry, Mommy” as I couldn’t stop the tears from silently flowing. His last gesture to his dad was to blow him a kiss. I was with him when he suffered a grand mal seizure and was put on a ventilator. My little boy, my only child, was dead.

Alex had wanted to be a paramedic when he grew up so that he “could help others” — his words. So when he died we hoped to be able to donate his organs so that he could fulfill that wish of helping others, but his organs were unsalvageable because of the damage caused by the E. coli toxins.

There was no cure for this awful disease then and there still isn’t today. Doctors can only hope to support bodily systems until the toxins pass through. It is for this reason that it is critically important for meat and poultry companies to put into place prevention strategies and technologies to ensure that contaminated meat doesn’t make its way into the marketplace.  That’s why we need to support innovations and advances that enhance food safety.

After Alex’s death, I felt compelled — really more like obligated — to fulfill his wish of helping and protecting other consumers by being his voice and working with federal regulating agencies and with companies to see to it that we did a better job as a country in generating a safer food supply. In the process, I have visited numerous meat and poultry plants, have provided input on public policies and food safety laws, and have served on the National Advisory Board for Meat and Poultry Inspection.

One of the many plants I visited was Beef Products, Inc. I got to know the owners, Eldon and Regina Roth, and was impressed by their complete commitment to the safety and wholesomeness of the meat products they produced. I was also impressed by the food safety culture they instilled throughout their company. We shed tears together over what happened to Alex and realized how we share the common goal of preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens. Ever since that moment, BPI has generously supported STOP and has never asked for anything in return.

That said, one point that needs to be perfectly clear is this:  After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies “walk their talk.” BPI does.

There has been a lot of misinformation swirling around the Internet and on TV about lean beef trim produced by Beef Products, Inc.  As I stated earlier, I have personally visited their plant and the categorization of calling their product “pink slime” is completely false and incendiary.  Consumers need to understand that this product is meat, period, and that the use of ammonia hydroxide in minute amounts during processing improves the safety of the product and is routinely used throughout the food industry. There are many types of interventions including food-grade antimicrobial sprays which are used on all manner of foods.  Some of these things may sound icky and gross, especially when inaccurately portrayed.  These interventions are necessary in ridding meat of deadly pathogens and are required to prove they pose no threats to consumers. Companies would be prohibited by the USDA and FDA to use substances that could be harmful in human consumption.

I am very concerned that mis-categorization campaigns such as this “pink slime” campaign will cause well-intentioned companies such as BPI to cease innovations for developing better food safety technologies and strategies. Why try to do something better only to get set up as a target?  If this does in fact happen, and promising technologies get thwarted, we, the American public, will be the losers.  And tragedies like Alex will continue to go on and on and on.

About the author: Nancy Donley is recognized as a leading proponent of improvement in both government and private food safety efforts since the death of her six-year old son Alex in 1993 from consumption of E. coli O157:H7-contaminated ground beef. Alex was her and her husband Tom’s only child. Nancy works in a volunteer capacity for STOP Foodborne Illness and has served as its president for over 10 years. She has done extensive advocacy work on behalf of the organization and has been featured in numerous magazine articles, newspaper articles and television interviews in efforts to increase awareness about the risks of foodborne illness. Nancy serves on the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection. She has received numerous awards for her advocacy efforts.

12 thoughts on “Guest Blog: In Defense of Food Safety Leadership

  1. I follow a high meat, low-carb diet. I eat plenty of meat. I try to keep it organic, but when I can’t I don’t eat ground beef that uses pink slime. I will either go to a place that states they don’t use it, or have the butcher grind my steaks.

    There has been too many time in the past when the FDA said something wasn’t harmful and it turned out later it was. Why should I take the risk of eating something that could be harmful when it is just as easy to buy something that isn’t?

    As far is price goes, I don’t eat ‘junk food’ anymore, so I have more money to spend on good food than I did before. I think a lot of people would be surprised the amount of money saved if they stopped buying junk.


  2. Wow, it really boggles the mind to see how much “stuff” goes into our food, from day 1, whether it’s animal or vegetable. My thinking leans to either organic, or get your food from a farmer you know & trust. And/or don’t eat meat altogether, if not due to the additives/antiobiotices, etc., then due to the inhumane treatment of the animals to and during slaughter.


  3. dear nancy i write to you from algeria, i had in 1986, year of baccalaureat a sever food intoxication , now i work in authrity food control as inspector i very happy for what you do


  4. With all due respect to Mrs. DoneIy’s most horrific experience, I strongly disagree with her statement that the USDA and FDA would prohibit the use of substances harmful for human consumption. FDA, absolutely, allows harmful substances to be used in the production of our foods whether it be meat or any type of food that humans consume. The use of antibiotics used on livestock have been proven time and time and again to be harmful as well as the mass amounts of insecticides and herbicides used on crops for genetically engineered foods, which have also been linked to the increase in asthma, Autism, allergies and cancer but FDA does not require labeling of GMO’s.


    1. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Add the garbage they put into cured meats and you’ve made the case for why FTB is pretty darn far down the list of culprits when it comes to meat. Frankly, it shouldn’t even be on the list because there is nothing wrong with the meat and ammonia occurs naturally in your body anyway.

      Of course, it appears that you were trying to suggest the opposite. You might want to rethink that.


  5. Haven’t we see the greed of corporations put their customers in place after profits? Animal meat is very expensive to produce – you are dealing with live beings not a plant. Cost cutting inevitably means the animal suffer more then they already do. How about not eating meat as a safety precaution? Boycott the entire meat industry?


  6. Ok. So eating arsenic in small amounts is not going to kill you either, but what does an accumulation of this garbage over time do??? Where is the scientific, long term studies of its safety? Studies done by an independent source — NOT affiliated with the company, USDA, or FDA. In my opinion the safest thing is not to eat it in the first place, and big business agricultural practices have concern for nothing but the bottom line. If it is so good for you and not harmful, than just label it — since there is nothing to hide. It sounds like this is just the same-old bull hiding under a different skin…


    1. Actually, we all get small amounts of arsenic and other trace elements from natural sources on a constant basis.

      Regardless, the primary issue here is this nonsense about “byproducts” and so forth. The choice of antimicrobial is secondary and it has already been stated that Cargill uses citric acid which is not objectionable.


  7. Thank you for exposing us to a different side of the “pink slime” story. I understand that creative methods for better food safety are necessary to insure we are not poisoned by the meat we buy, but wouldn’t it be better to stop trying to squeeze every last ounce of “product” out of our food source? I don’t feed “meat byproducts” to my animals and I certainly don’t want it fed to our nation’s school children, no matter how innovative the sanitation process becomes.


    1. For those who didn’t read my previous comment on FTB, I have been in a plant that produces FTB and I have seen the “trim” used to produce it.

      Imagine buying a steak with a strip of fat on the edge. Cut all of the fat strip off. You can’t do it without cutting a little bit of meat off with the fat. That’s precisely what is used to make FTB. The “connective tissue” is already there in the meat. Throw a steak in a blender and you have FTB.

      There absolutely positively are no “byproducts” in FTB. The small amount of ammonia used to control the bacteria isn’t going to harm you any more than the ammonia already in your body.

      Now that my prior statement has been corroborated by a very credible person, I now tell you that those two “scientists” who coined the misleading term “pink slime” are liars. I don’t understand their motivation and I don’t care.

      Phyllis obviously had Nancy Donley tell her tragic story to impress all of this upon those who are not well informed on this subject.

      As I said before, cynicism is no substitute for reason. The only reason everybody is backing away from BPI is that all too many people are willing to believe those two liars and the media is too lazy to do its homework.

      Now we will probably end up with more hormone-mimicking soy or some other garbage in our ground beef. This is a step backward for food quality and food safety.


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