WASHINGTON - Months after her 2-year-old son died from eating a fast-food hamburger tainted with E.coli, Diana Nole of Gig Harbor, went to Capitol Hill and asked Congress to overhaul the nation's food-safety laws.
Now, 17 years later, Congress could be on the verge of passing a sweeping food-safety law Nole and others call a “step forward” but say falls short of what is truly needed.
The Senate on Tuesday approved a measure designed to give the Food and Drug Administration new powers to protect consumers from unsafe food. The measure was approved 73-25 and an effort was under way to pass it quickly in the House before the lame-duck session of Congress ends. President Barack Obama has indicated he would sign the bill.
For Nole, the passage of time has helped ease the pain of her son Michael’s death. But it remains.
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Michael was the first of three children in Washington who died in January 1993 after eating contaminated and undercooked meat from a Jack In The Box fast-food restaurant. More than 600 people were sickened, with more than 100 hospitalized.
“It’s easier than it was,” said Diane Nole. “Of course I think of him every day. I see him in my other kids.”
Nole and her husband often visit their son’s grave on his birthday, Dec. 9.
The Noles have two other children, boys 17 and 13, and much of their energy is focused on raising them rather than advocating for new food-safety laws.
The Senate bill would give the FDA new powers to recall tainted food, increase inspections of food processors and impose tougher standards on producers. The action came after hundreds were sickened by contaminated eggs, peanuts and produce. Earlier this year, 550 million eggs suspected of salmonella contamination were recalled.
The measure does nothing to sort out the overlapping jurisdictions between FDA and other federal agencies that regulate food safety. Meat, poultry and eggs are not covered by the new bill because they are regulated by the Agriculture Department.
The bill also requires the FDA to inspect “high-risk” producers only once every three years. The FDA will write the definition of high-risk producers. The bill also exempts small farms from the new requirements.
Even so, backers of the measure said it represents a major overhaul and are quick to point out it received bipartisan support. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control, 76 million American’s are sickened by food-borne illness every year, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000, or 14 a day, die.
“This legislation means that parents who tell their kids to eat their spinach can be assured it won’t make them sick,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee wrote the bill.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is also a member of the committee.
“Today marks a bittersweet and long overdue victory for the families and individuals that were affected by the E.coli outbreak that shook Washington state and the Northwest in 1993,” Murray said. “This legislation is the first food safety legislation to pass in decades and will go a long ways to making sure the U.S. continues to have the safest food supply in the world.”
But others, including Nole, aren’t so sure. Nole said she was especially bothered that it didn’t cover meat, poultry and eggs. She also said that all farms, regardless of size or whether they are organic or not, should be covered.
“I’m glad to see it is still moving forward,” she said of the effort to secure tougher food-safety regulations. “But I don’t trust the government. It’s up to the consumer.”
Nole was one for the founders of a food safety group called Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP). Nancy Donley, president of the group, said the Senate bill could have been better, but it will improve food safety.
“The bottom line is we believe it will save lives, but we still have a few issues,” Donley said. She added that she felt the bill lacked the “teeth” to be effective.
Nole said she hasn’t been active with STOP lately, but that could change when her two sons are grown.
“You have two choices in life,” she said. “You can let it beat you or you can beat it. I decided it wouldn’t beat me.”