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.

Hamburgers Confirmed Source of French E. coli Outbreak

It’s official.

The outbreak strain of E. coli O157 that sent eight children to hospital suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) earlier this month has been found in a sample of “Steak Country chez Lidl” frozen hamburger patties. The contaminated hamburger carried a Best If Used By date of 11 mai 2012 (May 11, 2012) – one of the three production dates recalled by La société SEB, the manufacturer.

The contaminated sample was retrieved from a patient’s house during the course of the epidemiological investigation into the outbreak, according to information released by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nutrition and Fisheries.

Investigators are working to determine the origin of the contamination, to trace the distribution of the recalled meat, and to monitor the effectiveness of the recall. Italy’s Ministry of Health reported this morning that no E. coli was found in eight samples of Steak Country products seized from a Lidl distribution center in Arcole (Verona Province).

Of the eight children who were hospitalized at the CHU de Lille due to HUS, six are still in hospital – one in a coma. All are expected to survive.

E. coli O157 Outbreak In France Appears Contained

E. coli O157:H7 reclaimed the spotlight from E. coli O104:H4 in France last week when eight children were hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in Lille after consuming contaminated hamburgers.

The children are between 18 months and 8 years old. One child has been released from hospital; the others are described as being in stable condition and expected to improve, according to a report in this morning’s Nord éclair.

One of the eight children – a two-year old boy from l’Oise – is in a coma as a result of renal complications from his infection. He is reported to be improving slightly and, though remaining unconscious, is slightly more reactive than before. Three of the children are still undergoing kidney dialysis; one of them has begun to recover some kidney function – an encouraging sign, according to Dr. Michel Foulard of CHU de Lille. The other three children are recovering, and should be released from hospital at the beginning of next week.

A ninth child – a 7-year-old girl – was admitted to hospital in Jeanne de Flandre on Friday. She is described as suffering from moderate kidney insufficiency, but has not needed dialysis. According to the child’s mother, the girl did not eat any of the implicated hamburger. Lab tests are in progress to determine whether she is infected with the outbreak strain or with a different pathogen.

Epidemiological evidence, based on interviews of the children’s parents, implicated a specific brand of hamburger patties as the source of the infections. The frozen Steak Country chez Lidl hamburger patties were purchased from stores of the Lidl supermarket chain in the north of France. On June 15th, SEB – the manufacturer of the implicated product – recalled three date codes (Lot #10/05/11, 11/05/11, and 12/05/11)  – more than 14.7 tonnes of frozen meats. The recalled meat was shipped to centers in Steenvoord (11.6 tonnes), Rungis (1.7 tonnes) Ludres (576 kg) and Yffiniac (240 kg) for distribution to Lidl stores in the following départements of France: 22, 25, 29, 35, 45, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 62, 70, 72, 75, 76, 77 and 78.

According to SEB, the beef for the burgers originated in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Belgian authorities have confirmed that none of the beef came from Belgium, and none of the frozen hamburger patties were distributed to Belgium. Some of the implicated hamburgers may have been shipped to Italy. The Italian Ministry of Health ordered the seizure of five tons of Steak Country frozen hamburger patties and meatballs from the Lidl distribution center in Verona province last week.

This outbreak is small, when compared to the German E. coli O104:H4 outbreak, and of relatively short duration. The prompt initial reporting by local health authorities of a cluster of children suffering from HUS – compared to the slow reporting that apparently took place in Germany – and the swift recall announced by SEB and Lidl France, were instrumental in forestalling a larger outbreak.

With all of the attention that has been focussed on contaminated fresh produce in recent months, it’s easy to forget the ongoing risk represented by eating undercooked meat and poultry – and of cross-contamination in the kitchen or at the outdoor barbecue.

When eating out, order your hamburgers “well-done”. When cooking in or on the grill, don’t rely on subjective tests such as the color of the meat. Use a meat thermometer to verify that your beef, pork, fish, lamb or poultry has reached an internal temperature of 160ºF for ground meats or 145ºF for intact cuts.