Taco Bell just latest failing in food safety failing

Former victims campaigning for reforms

As the people sickened by last week's E. coli outbreak continue to recover -- and contact lawyers -- the restaurant chain involved is getting rid of all of its green onions, sanitizing the affected restaurants, and setting up a toll-free number for people to call with concerns.

Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
After eating green onions at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in 2003, Richard Miller contracted hepatitis A and had to have a liver transplant. He sits with his wife, Linda.
Click photo for larger image.

But to Patricia Buck, 60, of Grove City, Mercer County, who lost a grandson to E. coli in 2001, such steps amount to damage control. It's too little, too late.

"We have the knowledge and technology to change it, to make [food] safer," said Mrs. Buck, who has spent the past five years pushing for stronger food-safety legislation. "Unfortunately, food safety is a very complex issue. The situation we're in today didn't develop overnight, so untangling the situation isn't going to be [like using] a magic wand and everything's going to be fixed."

The investigation into how at least 62 Taco Bell customers, most of them in the Northeast, became infected with E. coli is just beginning. In fact, health officials aren't certain the outbreak has been contained.

"Illnesses are still occurring, and we consider the outbreak to be ongoing," said Dr. Christopher Braden, an epidemiologist with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Allegheny County Health Director Dr. Bruce Dixon said four people in Western Pennsylvania went to emergency rooms with diarrhea and fever. All four said they had eaten at Taco Bell restaurants.

Another Pennsylvanian, Stephen Minnis, who lives in Schwenksville outside Philadelphia, has filed a lawsuit against Taco Bell-parent Yum Brands Inc. and Boskovich Farms in federal court in Philadelphia, saying he got sick and had to be hospitalized twice after eating food from a Taco Bell in Gilbertsville.

The lawsuit accuses the companies of negligence and of violating federal, state and local food-safety regulations.

The current focus of the investigation is on green onions. Taco Bell ordered them removed from its 5,800 restaurants nationwide last week after testing by an independent lab suggested the bacteria may have come from tainted scallions.

If the E. coli is traced to green onions, it will be a frustrating flashback for 660 Western Pennsylvanians who were sickened with hepatitis A after eating tainted green onions at a Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant in Beaver Valley Mall in 2003. Four people died and one, Richard Miller of Beaver, had to have a liver transplant.

"I said, 'Oh no, not again,' " Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Miller, 60, who was a railroad contractor before the incident, has been unable to work since. He has had to give up many of the activities that he used to enjoy and he still endures pain.

"I'm doing a lot better than I was," he said with a laugh. "But it's a long-haul thing. I have problems with stamina. I have to take about 12 different medications every day -- and I will forever, I'll never get out of it. And they continue to mess me up."

Mr. Miller and his wife, Linda, who also was made ill by eating at Chi-Chi's, were among the first to sue the now-defunct restaurant chain, and among the last to come to terms. After a two-year legal battle, they received more than $6 million, the largest of the Chi-Chi's settlements.

The Millers spend much of their time now working to change the laws and procedures that permitted tainted food to be served to people. They've told their story on national television. And with every outbreak of food-borne illness, their telephone starts to ring.

Mr. Miller said he and his wife still go out to eat, but they're "pretty particular."

"There's so much out there," he said, mentioning the recent recall of tainted bagged spinach and incidents of salmonella traced to tomatoes at Sheetz convenience stores in 2004. "The main thing that hurts the most is that, in our case, well over 600-and-some people got sick and four people died," he said. "I, by the grace of God, made it through the liver transplant the next day. My heart just goes out to those people. Because they ate at a restaurant, they're dead.

"I just hope somewhere along the line, something can be done to control our food supply so these things don't happen."

Not willing to sit by, hoping that someone else will act, the Millers joined an organization called STOP -- Safe Tables Our Priority. The group was founded after a January 1993 outbreak of E. coli in the Northwest associated with Jack in the Box hamburgers. Hundreds of people were sickened and four children died.

According to its Web site, "STOP is a nonprofit grass-roots organization devoted to victim assistance, public education, and policy advocacy for safe food and public health." The goal is to make food safe "from farm to fork."

The current president of STOP is Barb Kowalcyk, the daughter of Mrs. Buck and the mother of Kevin Kowalcyk, who would have been 8 years old yesterday. Kevin died in August 2001, when he was 2, after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli.

Since then, Mrs. Kowalcyk and Mrs. Buck have been activists for safe food. The thrust of their campaign has been in the form of "Kevin's Law, the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act." It's a piece of bipartisan legislation intended to strengthen the ability of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set and enforce food safety and sanitation standards for meat and poultry.

"Most people don't realize that when it comes to food, the USDA, the United States government, does not have any authority to mandate a recall of food," Mrs. Buck said. "All they can do is negotiate with industry to come up with a workable solution, and then industry claims it has voluntarily recalled the food. And that's just crazy.

"They can shut companies down, but there are just so many loopholes in the food protection system."

Still, the legislation has not passed.

"It's been introduced in the 107th Congress, the 108th Congress and the 109th Congress," Mrs. Buck said. "And we have every intention, my daughter and I, to have it introduced in the 110th. Something has to be done."

Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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