Foodborne Illness Victim Becomes a Poster Child For Change

Idaho family pushes for full implementation of Food Safety Modernization Act

| September 19, 2012
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- James Lloyd

The first thing Pocatello resident Jeff Allgood will tell you about his son Kyle is that he was always in a hurry. Kyle was born in the Allgood family's upstairs bathroom because he arrived faster than an ambulance could. He was a quick learner and walked and talked well before he was expected to.

"He was pretty excited to get into this life, I guess," said Allgood. "That's kind of how his whole life went. He was always in a hurry to grow up."

Kyle was a strong, healthy and active 2-year-old when he fell ill with what appeared to be a bad stomach flu.

"It didn't really worry us at first," said Allgood. Kyle's older sister had been ill for several days, and Kyle didn't begin to show symptoms until after she had recovered. But in the first few days of his illness Kyle's symptoms worsened, and Allgood suspected he knew why.

"We had heard the reports that there was E. Coli in spinach and we were eating it regularly," he said. "We said that we think that it's E. Coli, so that's how we were treating him the whole time."

But E. Coli treatment can only target the symptoms of the infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence that treatment with antibiotics is helpful.

After the toddler was flown to a larger hospital in Utah, his health continued to decline.

"Once we got there, his condition tanked very quickly," said Allgood. "We were probably only there about three hours before he passed away."

Since Kyle's death, Allgood has become an advocate for better food safety regulations. He is currently involved in a campaign to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, a law signed by President Barack Obama in January 2011. The act is a consolidation of several laws drafted gradually over the last 15 years and serves mainly to update food safety provisions upheld by the Food and Drug Administration. According to Sandra Eskin, project director of the Pew Health Group's Food Safety Campaign, certain food safety regulations haven't been changed since the 1930s.

"What you were dealing with in terms of food safety threats at that point are very different than what we deal with now," Eskin said.

In the first half of the century, regulations dealt mainly in preventing adulteration of food products, while, according to Eskin, "the big threats now in terms of food safety are bacteria, viruses and other pathogens."

Food safety regulations that are in place now are reactive, or designed to respond to outbreaks of foodborne illness once they have occurred. The FSMA will signal a shift to a system that strives to prevent outbreaks before they happen by holding importers, growers and processors of food to higher safety standards. The new law will require there be Food and Drug Administration offices in at least five foreign countries that export food to the United States.

It will also update safety standards for the growth and harvesting of produce and the processing of high-risk food products. These three provisions are designed to improve food safety oversight and reduce the risk of contamination.

Eskin and the Allgoods worked together in petitioning Congress to draft updated laws, and although the FSMA is now law, the three provisions pertaining to importers, growers and processors that will help prevent food contamination are no closer to being implemented than they were before the law was passed.

"There are three major components in the law that reflect that prevention basis," Eskin said. "Those are the three for which we're still waiting for these implementation regulations."

The FDA has drafted the three provisions and sent them to the White House's Office of Management and Budget, where they have stalled enough to miss the final deadline outlined in the law for public proposals to be published. Nearly two months have passed since the July 4 deadline, and Eskin, Allgood and other food safety advocates are still waiting.

"We just don't understand why they're being held up," Eskin said. "There's no reason for it. We know they've been written."

The OMB issued an official statement to the media in late July, stressing the importance of getting the rules right and claiming the delay is caused by their "complexity and importance." But the FDA can't enforce the new regulations until they are finalized and approved by OMB, which has been causing frustration and impatience among the law's supporters.

Eskin and her food safety coalition are now working to bring publicity to the issue, increasing pressure on the OMB to release finished proposals. Most recently, the coalition began to run advertisements featuring photos of foodborne illness victims, including Kyle Allgood, in several national papers.

"Our efforts have been, if not under the radar, just above the radar," Eskin said. "Starting in January, we sent an initial letter to the White House. Many representatives of our coalition have met with White House officials. We tried to impress upon them how important these rules were. It wasn't until we exhausted all of those avenues that we decided to go more public. There was a desire to not make this a big issue if it didn't need to be. We've been echoing the message for months now. We pressed for as long as we felt like we could, but we reached a point where there was no one else to talk to. We felt like it was important enough to go public in a big way."

In the wake of two deaths in late August linked to a salmonella outbreak from Indiana cantaloupe, the Center for Food Safety joined the fight, filing suit against the FDA and the OMB, claiming the delays were "unreasonable and dangerous."

The lawsuit seeks to force the FDA to implement the new regulations before they are finalized by the OMB, preventing further holdup after more than 18 months of delays.

But Idaho officials insist that many foodborne illness safeguards are already in place here. According to Patrick Guzzle, a food safety expert at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, while the FDA only inspects higher-risk food establishments yearly, the case in Idaho is different.

"We have a statutory obligation in Idaho to conduct inspections of all food establishments under our jurisdiction at least annually," said Guzzle.

But only Idaho producers fall under that jurisdiction, and the FSMA will help regulate food that is imported into the state, hopefully precluding another tragedy like the one that befell the Allgood family.

And while some provisions may be stalled, the FSMA has already affected Idaho by improving communication between state and federal agencies.

"Because of [FSMA], there is a much enhanced ability to share communication between my agency and the FDA when it comes to food safety," Guzzle said. "Since its passage, I've been able to get information much more quickly and much more efficiently than I ever have before."

According to Allgood, this is a major step in the right direction.

"Communications need to be improved," he said. "Ability to trace to a source is very important."

But Allgood's tragic personal experiences make him believe more needs to be done to improve safety standards and prevent outbreaks.

"For the sake of the whole industry, whether it's a program that's implanted by the government or just by the companies on their own, something needs to change."

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