When Arizona’s Yavapai County Board of Supervisors were first asked to consider approving the 2009 FDA Food Code on June 4, two of the three board members spoke strongly against it. They characterized the code, which introduced five new regulations for the food industry, as an example of overreaching government control.
One rule in particular — a provision requiring that children’s menu hamburgers be cooked well-done — received targeted criticism. Board member Carol Springer said that the government shouldn’t decide what a parent orders for a child.
“Do we have a lot of kids getting sick in Yavapai County from eating rare hamburgers?” asked board member Chip Davis.
County health officials said they could not say for certain, as the majority of foodborne illnesses go unreported.
But they did know of one county resident with a compelling food poisoning story: 13-year-old Jacob Goswick, a Prescott, AZ resident who fell seriously ill with E. coli O157:H7 in the 2006 bagged spinach outbreak at the age of 8.
Along with his mother, Juliana, Jacob spoke before the board at its June 19 meeting to share his experience of being hospitalized at Phoenix Children’s Hospital for two months, a time that included one month on dialysis due to complete kidney failure, he said.
While Jacob got sick from eating spinach, the E. coli bacteria itself originated in cow manure that somehow contaminated the spinach leaves. E. coli O157:H7 is most often associated with beef, and it can survive in ground beef until cooked internally to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Children, the elderly and other with weaker immune systems are especially susceptible to illness if infected with the pathogen.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak to 3 deaths and 199 illnesses, including 102 hospitalizations.
“One person is too many to get sick from E. coli,” Jacob told Food Safety News.
By the end of the County Supervisor meeting, board member Davis had shifted his stance to favor the updated food code, though he cited its impact on local business as the deciding factor. Many restaurants in the county already operate according to the 2009 code despite county law still following the 1999 code.
Speaking with Food Safety News, Juliana called that rationale shortsighted, saying that foodborne illness outbreaks will not only harm customers, but hurt local business even more.
“If a restaurant gets people sick, doesn’t that harm their business?” she asked. “I’m not going to eat at a restaurant that’s been involved in food poisoning — that’s going to cause them to lose business.”
Regardless of the arguments, the new code passed with a 2-to-1 vote, and that was what the Goswicks and the county health officials had come to see happen. Juliana said her son walked out of the meeting feeling “pretty empowered.”
“I’m incredibly proud of him,” she said. “I think he sees himself as an agent of change and no longer the victim. He’s confident speaking about the need for safe food legislation.”
A Popeye Protégé
Jacob acquired a taste for spinach at the age of 8 because it was the go-to superfood of his cartoon idol, Popeye the Sailor Man. Just months before falling ill, he joined the YMCA swim team, training daily and earning three ribbons in his very first competition.
But in late August 2006, he ate from a bag of contaminated Dole spinach bought at a supermarket. The spinach was advertised as pre-washed, and even though it had been washed again at home, health officials say there was little likelihood of eliminating the contamination.
Along with many others in the 2006 outbreak, Jacob and his family eventually sued Dole and received a settlement for their ordeal. They were represented by food safety law firm Marler Clark, which underwrites Food Safety News.
Nearly six years after his hospitalization and acute renal failure, Jacob lives a normal teenager’s life. One thing that sets him apart from most of his peers, however, is his awareness of the food he eats.
His family buys food grown much closer to home these days, and while he couldn’t bring himself to eat spinach for a few years after his illness, he now eats spinach grown at nearby Whipstone Farm.
Following the 2006 spinach outbreak, Jacob and his family flew to Washington D.C. to lobby for improved food safety legislation at the national level, helping give voice to measures finally signed into law in 2011 with the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Jacob said he doesn’t have plans to pursue food safety activism, but he agreed to speak in front of his county’s board because the issue is close to his heart.
“I actually didn’t think it was going to pass, but it did,” he said. “I was very proud of myself and my mom.”
Juliana spoke to the board as well, urging them not to characterize the new food code as a political issue, but as something that would protect children from potentially life-changing illness.
“I’m thankful one of the supervisors could stay open-minded and change his position, but it’s still based on the idea of the local business — the almighty dollar. They’re worried business might get hurt over this,” she said. “But the crux of it — where it should have touched him and everybody in Prescott, Arizona, it doesn’t, and I can’t understand why. They’re worried about the money and creating a larger government that they don’t want. Those shouldn’t be driving forces of the issue — it should be protecting children and bringing good food to the table.”© Food Safety News