The 1993 “Jack in the Box” E.coli outbreak affected over 700 people, hospitalizing over 100 victims — mostly young children. Four children died.
My 16-month-old son, Riley, was the last victim to die. He became ill from contact with a daycare playmate who had eaten a contaminated burger. Riley’s death, nearly 25 years ago, created my drive to prevent others from suffering due to foodborne illnesses.
Lessening the burden of foodborne illness
I have since worked with policymakers, industry, and regulatory agencies in improving food safety. As a professor of food regulatory affairs at Northeastern University, I now teach students about changes I have witnessed since 1993. Food companies prioritizing food safety far outnumber the ones that turn consumers into casualties. However, the burden of foodborne illness is still great today. Based on CDC estimates, over 75,000 people have died in America due to foodborne diseases since 1993.
Pathogens, such as E.coli, are often foodborne, but doctors warn that many patients got sick through animal contact (including petting zoos and fairgrounds) waterborne exposure (including pools and waterparks) person-to-person contact (such as daycare centers, schools, and in the home) and, in the case of Norovirus, airborne exposure.
Families need to consider that all foods, not just meat, can become unsafe and make consumers sick. Over the past 25 years, investigators have tied multi-state outbreaks to spinach, cantaloupe, cucumbers, sprouts, flour, dairy, eggs, peanuts, salads and even ice cream.
What can you do
Outbreak victims and families play a significant and increasing role in persuading legislators to pass new food safety regulations for the USDA and for the FDA. Victims should report illnesses to their local health department. This is critical in helping the victim and in potentially preventing others from becoming ill from the same source.
Many sick consumers have also added food poisoning information to online crowd sourcing sites. These pieces of information have helped authorities identify outbreaks and their sources.
Finally, families can take steps in the home to help ensure store-bought foods are safe. Please follow CDC recommendations for food safety in the kitchen include areas relating to cooking, cleaning, preventing cross-contamination, and refrigerating. Many illnesses can be prevented with these practices.
Everyone from the farm to the fork plays a role in food safety, including consumers themselves. We all must be proactive in preventing another chair from becoming forever empty at the family table.