On Wednesday, Jan. 20, I sat through a few meetings, delivered a presentation on food safety labeling, and was interviewed for a podcast on food safety. All of this work took place at my home as we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, I joined much of the nation as my attention was also drawn to a second monitor with the live coverage of the inauguration of Joe Biden as our 46th president.
In the middle of the interview, I could not help but acknowledge to the podcast hosts my sense of déjà vu — this day was eerily similar to that of 1993.
On Tuesday, Jan. 12, 1993, the University of Washington and Seattle’s Children’s Hospital filed a report with the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) about a perceived cluster of children with bloody diarrhea and Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) likely caused by E.coli O157:H7. By that Friday, reportings increased rapidly to 40 cases of young victims being admitted to local hospitals and being airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Seattle. Within 24 hours, the DOH had enough information from victims and families that allowed them to develop suspicion of contaminated hamburger patties sold at a chain of fast food restaurants as a potential source.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would soon identify potentially related cases in California, Oregon, British Columbia Canada, and Nevada. By Monday, Jan. 18, 1993, DOH officials went public with an announcement about the source of theE.coli O157:H7 outbreak at a news conference that took place during that year’s Martin Luther King holiday weekend. After that press conference, executives at Jack in the Box — the identified fast food restaurant chain — agreed to stop serving hamburgers and quarantine their meat.
Two days later, on Jan. 20, 1993 — the day of President Bill Clinton’s inauguration — a powerful storm ravaged the Puget Sound area, which includes Seattle and King County, knocking out the power for hundreds of thousands of residents across three counties, leaving many homes and restaurants without power for refrigeration or cooking, and even leaving them without water for washing hands for a few days. Health officials tracked how many people were sick in an effort to determine if the outbreak was getting worse or if it had reached its peak. Data would later show that the peak took place between the dates of the DOH announcement of the source of the outbreak and the middle of the storm.
Dr. John Kobayashi, then a lead epidemiologist for Washington State, recalls that period of concern:
“The amount of conversations with the federal level at that time was enormous. It was very clear that we were not just dealing with a regional outbreak, that we were dealing with a national problem. And when things change from a regional outbreak to a national outbreak, it makes life a lot more complicated. But you also had the complication of the person-to-person infections. And that was a big concern.” (From my book “FOOD SAFETY: Past, Present, and Predictions,” 2020.)
By this time, the news of the 45 infected children who required hospitalization, 38 of whom suffered serious kidney problems and 21 required dialysis, found their place in the headlines and on the evening news.
Only days after taking the oath of office, President Bill Clinton discussed the ongoing food safety situation on a live, televised “Town Meeting,” talking directly to live audiences in Detroit, Miami, and Seattle. The Seattle ABC affiliate invited me, as the father of 16-month-old Riley Detwiler, and Riley’s mother to attend the Town Meeting and tell the president about our son, listed in critical condition — sick with E.coli — in Seattle Children’s Hospital. In his response, President Clinton stated that “We can do more (meat) inspections in a more effective way, hire more inspectors, and do a better job. We can empower the inspectors to do more things.”
President Clinton flew out to Seattle and intended to visit my son, Riley. While en route, the president was informed of my son’s death, as Riley would be the fourth and final child to die in this landmark E.coli outbreak. President Clinton called me from Air Force One, expressing his condolences, his emotional reaction, and personal thoughts as a father. His words comforted me while inspiring me to continue being a father to my son through advocacy, education, and policy support.
By the time the outbreak was determined to be over, the E.coli contaminated meat had infected 732 people across California, Idaho, Washington and Nevada, with the majority of cases in Washington State. The pathogen killed four children and left 178 other victims with permanent injury including kidney and brain damage. The outbreak involved 73 restaurants of the fast food chain across four states.
Today, most news outlets put COVID-19 pandemic data at the top of the page or side of the screen — numbers of confirmed illnesses and numbers of deaths. As these numbers increase we must not forget that these also reflect the numbers of families whose lives may never return to normal and those families who will live with a chair forever empty at the family table.
Similar to President Clinton in 1993, President Biden’s call for unity during his inauguration must not be seen by us as purely political. Unity is found in our vulnerability as well as in our resolve. Unity is part of the Herculean effort needed to end this pandemic and to overcome our many challenges ahead.
About the author: Darin Detwiler, LP.D., M.A.Ed., is the founder and CEO of Detwiler Consulting Group LLC. He is also the assistant dean at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies and the lead faculty of the Master of Science in Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries. He is an internationally recognized and respected food policy expert with more than 25 years’ experience in shaping federal food policy, consulting with corporations, and contributing thought leadership to industry events and publications, advising industry, NGOs, and government agencies, and addressing food safety and authenticity issues in the U.S. and abroad. In 2018, Detwiler received the International Association for Food Protection’s Distinguished Service Award. Detwiler is the author of FOOD SAFETY: Past, Present, and Predictions (Elsevier, 2020); and Building the Future of Food Safety Technology (Elsevier, 2020).
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