Portland officer advocates food safety on son's behalf
Peter Hurley has always been a private man. Sure, he's patrolled the streets as a Portland policeman, arresting his share of suspects, but speak out publicly on a high-profile issue?
Then last January his 3-year-old son fell severely ill for 11 days after eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter crackers.
Almost overnight, Hurley turned from Portland cop to food cop, gobbling up three weeks of vacation to lobby Congress on food safety.
It took notice.
In February, he was one of three citizens to testify before a congressional hearing that investigated Peanut Corp. of America, the company at the heart of the peanut-related salmonella outbreak.
With his red-headed, wide-eyed son Jacob in the audience, recovered and smiling mischievously, Hurley recounted the tale of watching his son suffer 11 days of bloody diarrhea from eating his favorite snack.
"He had such a powerful story to tell," said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the ranking Republican on the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that looked into Peanut Corp. "His family represented any family. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anybody."
More than 700 people were poisoned by food made with Peanut Corp. products, and nine people died, including one in Idaho.
The hearings revealed a food safety network in tatters. Peanut Corp.'s filthy plants were not adequately inspected, and the company's owner, who complained in e-mails that positive salmonella tests were costing him money, ordered contaminated food shipped to customers.
"What he did was criminally negligent behavior," Hurley said. "It was willful neglect, and it just horrified me."
Hurley, 41, grew up in Memphis, Tenn., the youngest in a family of five with two older sisters. His mother earned a master's degree and became a counselor, and his father, who earned a doctorate in biochemistry, helped develop Contac cold medicine in the mid-1960s. Although the family was not politically active, Hurley developed a civic consciousness as a child by listening to broadcasts of City Council meetings as his mother cooked.
He went to a small high school, Lausanne Collegiate School, and graduated with a class of 28 in 1986. That same year he enrolled at Lewis & Clark, partly to be close to his sister.
He graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology, landed an internship with the Portland Planning Bureau and held several jobs in city government before starting a master's in public administration at Portland State University.
He wanted to climb into middle management but he was in his 20s, with little professional experience.
"I realized that it was not possible in the short term," he said, "and the Police Bureau was hiring. So, I'd thought I'd see how that panned out."
In 1994, he was hired. He spent six years as a patrol officer, mainly combing the streets of Old Town arresting street-level drug dealers. He also worked as a defensive tactics and mountain bike instructor and served on the mayor's security detail when Vera Katz was in office.
Eventually, he moved to a desk job. He said a car wreck early in his career and subsequent back problems, forced him off the streets.
"I was T-boned at 50 mph," he said.
He worked with volunteer police officers, went on disability for 10 months, then started in the bureau's white collar crime detail in 2007. Last year he moved to operations support, helping the district attorney's office gather records for prosecution.
"We all eat food"
It's a predictable job, with early hours that enable him to care for Jacob and his two young daughters in the afternoons while his wife is still at work.
And it's a safe job, involving no armed criminals or citizens at risk.
But since Jacob got sick, he's taken on the fight for safety in the food supply.
"These people have to be held accountable for their actions," he said about executives at Peanut Corp.
In recent years, Americans have been sickened in successive food poisoning outbreaks linked to everything from ground beef to leafy greens to cookie dough.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 76 million people get food poisoning every year in the U.S. and 5,000 die.
After Jacob got sick, Hurley filed a lawsuit against Kellogg Co., which made the tainted peanut butter crackers from Peanut Corp. ingredients.
"We're not going to walk away from this rich," he said, "but in the system we have, the only way to get them penalized is through civil lawsuits."
His lawyer suggested he take it a step further and testify before Congress.
Food safety experts were impressed.
"He speaks with a special degree of credibility," said Erik Olson, director of food safety at Pew Charitable Trusts, "because he knows what he's talking about when it comes to law enforcement."
Pew and another nonprofit, Consumers Union, paid for Hurley and Jacob to travel to Washington, D.C., in April to lobby for food safety legislation.
They talked to Walden and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and then returned in October, meeting with Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley's and Ron Wyden's staff. They were even invited with a small group of victims to visit the White House, where they met with one of President Barack Obama's policy advisers.
Hurley said the trips were a worthwhile use of his vacation.
"I can affect more people than I ever could in my police work," he said. "We all eat food. It crosses all socioeconomic boundaries and all political and religious boundaries. Even prisoners eat."
The House food safety bill passed, and the Senate bill is awaiting a final vote, which could come this month.
The legislation would overhaul a food safety system that dates to 1906 by requiring rules based on prevention rather than reaction. Food processors would have to enact safety plans, and plants producing high-risk foods would be inspected every 12 months instead of every 10 years. Imports would be more closely monitored, and food would be more easily traced.
"I don't really like heavy government regulations," Hurley said, "but here there's a need."
He is not waiting for Congress to protect his family, however.
He now follows food recalls closely, washes leafy greens with a bleach solution and invested $100 in an instant-read thermometer to ensure that meat is fully cooked.
"We're not waiting to be the victim of the next food outbreak," he said.