Foodborne illness victims lobby Washington for passage of food safety reform legislation – National Consumers League

By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Today, as part of the Make Our Food Safe coalition’s coordinated events this week, 45 foodborne illness victims and their family members are meeting with senators from their 23 home states to advocate for the passage of FDA food safety reform legislation,  S. 510.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions unanimously passed this bipartisan piece of legislation in November 2009. Now, in order to make food safety reform a reality, the Senate must bring the bill to the floor for a vote as soon as possible. In July, the House overwhelmingly passed H.R. 2749, its version of the FDA food safety reform, which does even more to strengthen the food safety system than does the Senate bill.

For the individuals who traveled from across the country to urge their senators to act, the pending legislation is highly personal. At a dinner following the advocates’ training session yesterday afternoon – an event that both first-time and seasoned advocates attended, to prepare for their legislative visits and share their stories – I had the opportunity to speak at length with a number of the incredible people with whom senators are currently meeting. Their stories are heartbreaking.

The woman to my right, a vivacious stay-at-home mom from Virginia, told me all about the various athletic pursuits of her ten-year-old twins, children she felt particularly lucky to have in her life. In her fifth or sixth month of pregnancy, she contracted listeriosis from a contaminated food product, an infection that spread to her unborn babies and sent her into early labor. The twins faced severe medical complications and an extensive hospitalization. Thankfully, both mother and children recovered. Across the table sat two girls, chatting with each other and the group alternately: a 12-year-old who contracted E. coli O157:H7 during the 2006 spinach outbreak, fell deathly ill, and recovered to become a seasoned advocate; and a college senior visiting Washington, DC to lobby for the first time after spending a week in the hospital last year fighting illness caused by contaminated Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookie dough.

What none of these incredible individuals mentioned over our pasta or bread pudding were the medical consequences that remain for many who suffer from foodborne illness: life-changing conditions such as paralysis, kidney failure, seizures, and hearing impairments. Furthermore, these survivors are the “lucky” ones. Another advocate, a soft-spoken dad from Tennessee, came to DC. on behalf of his six-year-old son who passed away from foodborne illness in 2004. With the pain that comes from the loss of a child clearly written on his face, he said to me, “He got sick, and two weeks later he was gone.”

As the brave advocates will underscore to their senators today, no one should have to suffer, or watch a loved one suffer, as a result of something as necessary and basic as eating. Many of the individuals in the room came to DC this week – and return again and again – to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves: parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, whose lives were cut short by eating contaminated commonplace foods such as peanut butter or spinach.

In addition to the human face of foodborne illness, this week the Make Our Food Safe Coalition has drawn attention to the economic consequences of foodborne illness outbreaks. Utilizing data from a new report that places the cost of foodborne illness in the United States at 152 billion dollars annually, Make Our Food Safe has created an interactive, online map that enables users to explore the costs of foodborne illness state by state. Both the report and the map underscore the financial consequences of a food safety system that does not adequately protect the public from contaminated products.

On Tuesday, HELP Committee Chair Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) stated that, if all goes according to plan, food safety legislation is likely to reach the President’s desk by May. It is the hope of the National Consumers League, the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, and the victim advocates on the Hill today that our efforts this week will rededicate the Senate to vote on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S. 510, and move food safety reform one step further towards becoming a reality.