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Waterloo woman lobbies for safer food

Jens Manuel Krogstad

WCF Courier

To this day, Karen Hibben-Levi still washes her lettuce, even if the label promises it is prewashed.

After narrowly surviving an E. coli outbreak more than two years ago, she does not trust the safety of the food she buys in a grocery store. So she traveled to Washington this week to lobby for food-safety reform.

Hibben-Levi was hospitalized for days after eating tainted lettuce at a Taco John's in Waterloo in November 2006. She was one of 33 people in Black Hawk County who became ill. The FDA reported 81 people in three states were sickened in the outbreak.

She is one of 25 food poisoning victims from around the country who will speak to members of Congress about their experiences. They also will meet with various consumer advocacy organizations lobbying for reform.

Those organizations are pushing for legislation to increase the frequency of inspections, and require facilities to have food safety plans that include testing programs companies must report to the FDA.

In recent months, deadly food poisoning outbreaks involving spinach, pistachios and two incidents with peanuts emphasized the need for systemic reform, said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.

Over the last two decades, she said, the FDA has lost 90 percent of its inspection force. The consequence: Inspections at facilities have fallen to an average of once every 10 years.

The lack of government oversight has resulted in some retailers demanding food facilities do their own testing.

But Halloran said voluntary efforts proved ineffective after a company tested its food positive for salmonella, failed to report it, then conducted additional tests until it found a negative.

"Food is completely fundamental. Everybody has to eat; we have no choice about it," Halloran said. "Experiences like Karen's should not happen. We should not have a food supply that kills people."

Hibben-Levi said she nearly died from her illness, so the decision to make the trip was an easy one. The only reason she survived, she said, was because a friend who heard about an outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses urged her to go to the hospital. When she arrived, doctors told her waiting much longer would have likely resulted in her death.

Her daughter-in-law, Kim Hibben, said her entire family was left shaken by the episode.

"The doctors didn't know if she was going to be OK. They said she could possibly have internal organ failure. When they mentioned that, that was a shock," she said.

Hibben-Levi said it took her six months to fully regain her strength. Initially, the experience left her angry. While those feelings subsided, her outrage over the lack of food safety has not.

"I'm not kidding you, I am so disgusted that there isn't more scrutiny over food processing," she said.

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