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E. coli victim’s mother says leafy greens industry is working on safety measures

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 I was an active advocate for the Food Safety Modernization Act, landmark legislation which was signed into law Jan. 4, 2011, and is now being implemented throughout the nation. I don’t have a background in nutrition, microbiology, epidemiology or agriculture. My sole qualification as a food safety advocate, is that I’m a consumer and the mother of a survivor of the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to fresh, packaged spinach. 

My daughter Rylee was 8 years old; it was two days before her ninth birthday. She had gone to the grocery store that day with her stepfather, she picked out the cake mix and frosting for her birthday cake, and she chose the package of “triple washed, ready to eat” spinach we used to make our dinner. We didn’t know it at the time, but that spinach was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. One week later, my daughter was fighting for her life. She spent 35 days in the hospital, 24 of those days in the ICU and 11 days on a ventilator.

Rylee and I continue to advocate for safe food by working with STOP Foodborne Illness, a non-profit group that strives to prevent foodborne illness and supports people directly impacted by it. As part of our work, we’ve come to know another organization dedicated to preventing foodborne illness – the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA).

My first experience with LGMA was in June 2013, when the organization invited a small group of food safety advocates from Stop Foodborne Illness to tour farms and processing facilities located in the Central Coast of California. Rylee was still dealing with the long-term affects of her illness, and it was my belief that she was just a faceless statistic to the industry that sold the spinach that made her ill. We were apprehensive at best.

However, what we saw during that trip was not what we expected.  We were given an overview of LGMA’s food safety program and procedures and saw it in action on farms and in processing facilities; from the workers harvesting the crops, to the packaged product ready to ship. It was clear that the safety of the product was taken into account at every step.

But it wasn’t the processes, or the extensive government audits, or even the science behind it all that stood out to me. It was the people. I met farmers, harvesters, packers, and shippers who feed their children and grandchildren from the same fields they work on. The leafy greens we buy at the store do not come from an impersonal corporate entity. They come from real people; many working on family farms, doing their jobs to provide us with a safe product.

So, when the LGMA approached me last year to join their Board of Directors as a public member, I said yes without hesitation, not only because I have a great amount of respect for the work of this organization, but because I wanted to ensure the interests of consumers are represented in the policies and decisions.   

Much has changed since my daughter’s illness in 2006, with efforts on many fronts to prevent foodborne illness. The work is clearly not done and, as I’ve come to understand, growers of leafy greens are more frustrated than anyone that outbreaks continue to occur. I’m very pleased to be working with the LGMA and I believe they will find solutions to prevent someone from experiencing a foodborne illness. Someone like Rylee.

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