A Cold Spring woman recovering from severe food-borne illness is back in the national media spotlight.
Stephanie Smith was featured in a front-page article and photo in Sunday’s New York Times. The story traced the origins of the contaminated ground beef that sickened her in 2007.
The story, headlined “The Burger That Shattered Her Life: Trail of E. coli Shows Flaws in Ground Beef Inspection System,” detailed how Smith, a children’s dance instructor, fell ill after eating a hamburger made by the Minnesota-based food giant Cargill.
Reporter Michael Moss obtained records showing the beef patties were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and scraps ground together at a Wisconsin plant. Such cuts of meat, the article alleges, are especially vulnerable to E. coli contamination, but there is no federal requirement for grinders to test ingredients for the pathogen.
The article told how Smith, now 22, developed severe cramping and diarrhea, then kidney failure and seizures. She was in a medically induced coma for nine weeks and since waking up, has not been able to walk.
The article was carried or mentioned by media outlets across the nation including The Washington Post and ABC News, as well as blogs such as the Huffington Post and foreign news outlets in Korea, Israel and Thailand.
Smith’s attorney, Bill Marler, known nationally for his fights against corporations accused of making products that sicken consumers, said he’s not surprised by the strong reaction to her story.
Marler has been representing victims of E. coli poisoning since 1993, and says Smith is by far the most significantly injured survivor he’s represented. People who read about her were shocked by what E. coli can do to a human body, he said.
“Stephanie is such a great gal, and what has happened to her is just terrible,” he said. “And everybody who eats hamburger — if they’ve ever had one — can absolutely relate to her question, ‘Why me, and why a hamburger?’”
Vilsack: Tragic story
The article also tapped into the public’s growing concern about the number of recent outbreaks of contaminated food such as lettuce, peanut butter and cookie dough.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack responded to the article Monday with a written statement calling Smith’s story “unacceptable and tragic.”
“We all know we can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend’s paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli,” the statement read.
Vilsack listed several steps the Obama Administration has taken to prevent E. coli contamination, including establishing a Food Safety Working Group and issuing draft guidelines for the meat industry.
Vilsack said the USDA plans to propose federal rules requiring all meat grinders to keep accurate records of the sources of their ground beef.
Several food poisoning victims visited Washington earlier this week to encourage Congress to pass stricter laws to prevent food poisoning. The House passed a bill in July that greatly expands the power of the Food and Drug Administration.
Although senators are busy debating health care reform, Marler is optimistic the Senate will pass a food safety bill by the end of the year.
“We need to get more inspectors in the plants. We need to do more aggressive inspections, more aggressive regulations,” he said. “Because these bugs are just nasty, and they cause untold tragedy. And Stephanie is example No. 1.”