This story was originally published by ProPublica.
The U.S. has one agency that regulates cheese pizza and another that oversees pepperoni pizza. Efforts to fix the food safety system have stalled again and again.
For Nancy Donley, the fight for safer food started one agonizing summer night in 1993.
She and her family had hamburgers for dinner, and soon after, her 6-year-old son Alex complained of a stomachache. Within hours, he had curled himself into a ball and was begging his mother for comfort.
The next morning, thinking Alex might have appendicitis, Donley took him to the pediatrician. The doctor sent Alex to the emergency room at a children’s hospital near their home in Chicago.
A toxin was invading the boy’s body. Blood began to flow from Alex’s bowels, and when he became too weak to stand, Donley helped change a stream of soaked diapers. Soon Alex lost neurological control and battled tremors and hallucinations. His kidneys shut down, then his lungs. After Alex suffered a massive seizure, his mother watched as the brain waves on his monitor flatlined. “He was gone,” Donley said.
On July 18, 1993, Alex died of hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result when bacteria damages the blood vessels.
In Alex’s case, it was caused by a dangerous strain of E. coli known as O157:H7, which originates in livestock feces.
It was the same bacteria that had generated national headlines less than a year before when it killed four children who had eaten Jack in the Box hamburgers. Federal officials had closed their investigation into the “hamburger disease” in February 1993, but the pathogen was still circulating because the country’s turn-of-the-century meat safety laws didn’t outlaw the sale of bacteria-tainted beef.
The children’s deaths captured the attention of policymakers and spawned a fervent push for safer food. Donley, seeking to channel the anger and grief that consumed her, joined the fight. “Alex was very much let down by industry, by government,” she said.
Donley became a prominent national voice for food safety, successfully pushing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take steps toward modernizing meat inspection and inspiring officials to ban the sale of meat contaminated with the type of E. coli that killed Alex.
These victories in the early years of her advocacy seemed to presage sweeping changes to the country’s food safety system, a maze of 15 agencies operating under nearly three dozen laws, with no single person or entity in charge.
But then one effort at reform after another fell short, leaving Donley deeply frustrated — and leaving the failed regulatory scheme much as it was.
“To say it’s broken suggests that it was working properly before,” said Thomas Gremillion, the director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America. “We’ve just followed this path and it’s become more and more dysfunctional.”
ProPublica’s recent investigation
into a nearly four-year-old salmonella outbreak found that when an antibiotic-resistant strain took hold of the chicken industry, food safety officials were powerless to stop it from sickening the public.
That outbreak, which continues to this day, was yet another reminder of the shortcomings that for more than 70 years have led consumer advocates like Donley, along with government experts, members of Congress and several presidents, to call for a single food safety agency.
But the idea has stalled again and again, easy to propose but all but impossible to enact. Continue Reading