February 26, 2010

COMMENTARYSenate should pass food protection legislation

— It's hard for me to imagine a time when I was carefree about what I ate.

It all changed in December 2008, when I suddenly became ill with what I thought was a stomach virus. It took weeks of illness before doctors finally discovered that I had salmonella, contracted from eating Kellogg's Austin Peanut Butter Crackers, which I had bought in my office cafeteria.

It was then that I realized I had become one of the tens of millions of Americans who is affected by food-borne illness each year -- made sick by basic food staples, from peanut butter to spinach and cookie dough.

And more than a year after the outbreak from contaminated peanut products, Congress has yet to pass food safety legislation.

Like many Americans who are affected by food-borne illness, I was shocked to learn that our food safety system is based, in large part, on laws enacted over 100 years ago, and that the Food and Drug Administration -- which regulates 80 percent of the U.S. food supply -- inspects domestic food-processing facilities on average only once every 10 years.

In the area of inspections, as well as other components of our food safety system, I learned firsthand that the laws and regulations are woefully inadequate to effectively oversee what has become a complex global food supply.

Unfortunately, most of the tracking in my case was left up to me.

At the outset, Kellogg's told me it was not linked to the outbreak. I was told that there was no recall on the crackers and that they had received no other complaints.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, peanut butter and peanut paste contaminated with Salmonella typhimurium resulted in nine deaths and over 700 illnesses in 46 states, with many more cases probably never reported.

Thousands of items -- including cookies, crackers, candy and ice cream -- that contained Peanut Corporation of America peanut products were eventually recalled.

As it turned out, I was one of the ''lucky ones'' -- I didn't die.

After using all of my sick and vacation time and struggling with growing household and medical bills, I finally started to feel better.

Today, I am much more careful about what I eat, what I feed my family and where I get my food. My husband and I are also pushing for national reform in the hopes of saving others from the horrors of food-borne illness.

Since my illness, we have become food safety advocates, traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with Sen. Susan Collins and with Sen. Olympia Snowe's staff, and to lobby Congress to overhaul the laws.

Fortunately, Congress is listening. Last summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an important piece of bipartisan legislation, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 2749).

Now it's up to the Senate to pass similar legislation.

Recently, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions unanimously approved the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). This bill is strongly supported by senators on both sides of the aisle -- something that is not often seen in Washington these days, and it signals that the time has come to make food safety a priority and enact sweeping changes to the nation's food oversight system.

Historic reform to protect Americans is in sight, and I ask Sens. Snowe and Collins to urge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring the bill to the floor for a vote as soon as the Senate is back in session in late January.

The longer it takes Congress to pass this comprehensive legislation, the more consumer confidence in our food supply will erode.

I never expected that a sickness contracted from something as simple as a pack of crackers would leave me ill, unproductive, and emotionally and financially strapped for months on end.

Safe food should be available to everyone. The thought of another person going through what I did is unbearable.

We need better regulations, because without them the outbreaks of contaminated food are sure to continue, causing millions more Americans to suffer the devastating and sometimes fatal consequences that come from an unsafe food supply.

— Special to the Press Herald

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