Healthbeat Report: The fight to make food safer

June 11, 2009 9:53:50 PM PDT
Each year 5,000 Americans die from food poisoning.And it's estimated one in four become ill from eating foods contaminated with germs such as E. coli and salmonella.

ABC7 took a look at a new effort to make food safer.

Two-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk's family thought he had a bad case of the flu.

"The lab report came back that it was positive for E. coli," said Pat Buck, Kevin's grandmother.

It turned out to be a deadly strain of bacteria that came from something he ate.

"He crashed by having a heart attack," said Buck. "His little body swelled up to three times his normal size. Then he had his third heart attack, and then he died."

Kevin's grandmother Pat Buck uses her heartache to fuel her mission. She runs the Center for Food Borne Illness Research and Prevention.

"This is unacceptable and I will work as hard as I can, talking to people about it so they understand," said Buck.

In recent years, food safety problems have come to a head. There's been E. coli in spinach, salmonella in japaleno peppers and peanut products.

The Food and Drug Administration is in charge of 80 percent of the food supply. Experts argue it doesn't have the staff or resources to keep up.

"There are signs of a Food and Drug Administration that's really not capable of controlling problems in the food supply," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The FDA regulates more than $1 trillion in consumer goods. That's 25 cents of every consumer dollar.

Complicating the issue is the fact that a dozen other federal and state agencies bear some responsibility for keeping an eye on our food.

"The food safety functions at the FDA have really been the step child at the agency. It doesn't get enough resources," said Smith DeWaal.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are now working on legislation designed to drastically change the nation's food safety system. One proposal calls for increased oversight of food facilities including more frequent inspections. It would also let the FDA order rather than request recalls.

Margaret Hamburg, the new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, says a safety overhaul is a step in the right direction.

"This is an historic moment for food safety in teh United States. Success means fewer hospitalizations and deaths fewer devastating recalls and greater health for the American people," said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, FDA Commissioner.

No one would like to see a food safety overhaul more than Richard and Linda miller. They both got sick after eating green onions laced with E. coli. Linda recovered but Richard needed a liver transplant.

"I pray that people get their heads screwed on straight and demand that our food supply is much safer than it is," said Richard Miller, liver transplant recipient.


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