April 27, 2009
More than 20 people from Oregon and other states who have been hit by recent food poisonings are converging in Washington, D.C., this week to press Congress to overhaul the country's food safety system.
The system, which dates to 1906, has proved to be ill-equipped to prevent successive salmonella and other outbreaks.
The individuals, who include a Wilsonville boy sickened from eating peanut butter crackers, will tell their stories and meet with Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and other members of Congress who are considering bills to beef up food safety, especially the Food and Drug Administration.
None of the bills has moved out of committee, but the groups sponsoring the action on Wednesday say the moment appears ripe for reform.
"The landscape has changed," said Erik Olson, director of the food and consumer programs at Pew Charitable Trusts. "We have an administration now that's talking about the need for change and House representatives talking about food safety. The government should at least be able to ensure that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are safe for our kids."
One of those kids is Jacob Hurley, a 3-year-old from Wilsonville, who was sick for 11 days in January from eating a favorite snack: Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter.
His illness, and the fear that he would contaminate his infant sister, anguished his parents and turned his dad, Peter Hurley, into a sudden advocate for a safer food system.
In February, Hurley testified before Congress to press for reform, and on Wednesday, he will be at the Capitol again with Jacob, who has recovered.
"Everybody has to eat safe food and drink clean water to survive," said Hurley, 40, a Portland police officer. "It crosses all socioeconomic boundaries from the richest person to the poorest of the poor."
A Bend mother, Chrissy Christoferson, will join the Hurleys to talk about her son, Beck, who became sick in 2007 when he was 10 months old after eating Veggie Booty, a puffed corn-and-rice snack that was contaminated with salmonella.
Christoferson said her son has recovered but she worries he will have lingering long-term digestive problems.
"The average parent that goes grocery shopping wants to know that the food they're buying for their kids will make them healthier, not send them to the hospital," she said. "We rely on the government agencies ... to make sure that the foods we're giving our children are safe."
She said she was stunned to learn that the FDA cannot order a recall -- it can only ask companies to do so.
"That tips the scale for me," she said. "I can't believe that a company that's putting something bad out can't be forced to recall its products."
Though most companies do recall their products, sometimes they drag their feet or simply ignore the FDA request.
Proposed legislation would change that. The groups gathering in Washington, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, Consumer's Union, Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, support House Resolution 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The bill would effectively split the FDA, creating one agency to handle drugs and another that would be solely focused on food. That agency would have stepped-up enforcement powers, including the authority to order recalls, and it would emphasize sanitation to prevent food-borne illnesses.
The food safety system in the U.S. is based on legislation approved in 1906 after Upton Sinclair's novel, "The Jungle," which depicted unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry.
Today, more than 100 years later, food poisoning strikes one in four Americans a year, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It's inexcusable that these outbreaks have been occurring again and again for decades and we still have not taken care of the problem," Olson said.