This story was originally published by ProPublica.
A salmonella outbreak sickened more than 60 people at a funeral reception in Texas. Two years later, some of them are still coping with the financial and medical consequences.
On a cloudy day in November 2019, family and friends gathered in Austin, Texas, to mourn the passing of Lovey Jean Carter.
Carter, who had heart trouble and other ailments, had died at 67.
After the burial, many of the mourners returned to Rising Star Baptist Church to share a meal. The brisket was home cooked, but everything else — rotisserie chicken, potato salad and fried chicken — was bought ready to eat from local grocery stores. One of Carter’s brothers, James Monroe, had picked up 15 rotisserie chickens ordered from the Sam’s Club on the south end of Austin. It was all simple. And it was all supposed to be safe.
But that night dozens of the attendees were stricken by illness, overcome by nausea, cramping, vomiting and diarrhea, according to an investigation by Austin Public Health, which found that at least 61 people reported symptoms of food poisoning after the reception.
“Seemed like a dream that everyone was calling saying, ‘I’m sick, I’m sick, I’m going to the hospital,’” Joyce McDowell, one of Carter’s younger sisters, recalled.
Hundreds of people die every year in the United States after eating food tainted with salmonella, listeria and other dangerous pathogens. As wrenching as those deaths are, though, they are only the tip of the toll that food poisoning takes on the United States, where millions more people are sickened each year.
Salmonella is a leading culprit, with an estimated 1.35 million infections a year, resulting in thousands of hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For many of those victims, the effects can be life-altering. There can be kidney or gastrointestinal troubles that persist for years. There can be staggering hospital bills that for some patients, especially those without health insurance, seem to never let up.
And long after the worst of the illness has passed, anxiety about eating and the frustrating, often futile, search for answers can linger.
The rate of illnesses caused by salmonella hasn’t lessened in 25 years in the U.S., which continues to lag many countries in curbing the spread of the pathogen.
A ProPublica investigation
of the U.S. food safety system found that federal regulators don’t have the power to stop meat and poultry contaminated with risky strains of salmonella from being sold to consumers. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees meat and poultry, detects the pathogen, the agency can’t issue recalls or halt plant operations.
It can only act if it is able to tie a case or cluster of cases of foodborne illness to a particular product. Inhibiting oversight further, a total of 15 federal agencies have a hand in food safety, with much of the responsibility split between the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, a fragmented structure that critics say has impeded progress.
Nationally, the price tag in costs of treatment, lost work hours and premature deaths is estimated at $4.1 billion a year, according to the USDA.
“Salmonella is a very expensive pathogen, partially because it causes a lot of illnesses and partially because it can cause pretty severe disease as well,” said Sandra Hoffmann, a senior economist at the USDA. “You think, ‘Oh, foodborne illness is just a bellyache,’ but it is quite costly.”
The experience of Carter’s loved ones would end up a testament to the toll salmonella can take and to the obstacles to holding anyone accountable when illness strikes. Continue Reading
This story was co-published with The Texas Tribune.