A Long Road To Food Safety

Mar 28, 2013

The Food and Drug Administration recently proposed the most sweeping changes to food safety rules in 70 years. Now it wants to hear from the public. The new rules were triggered by a series of foodborne illness outbreaks. Twenty years ago Seattle was at the epicenter of one of the earliest and most notorious. Hundreds of people got sick from eating contaminated burgers. Ruby de Luna has this story of one family’s experience.

  For Connie Chrobuck, it was a meal that would change her family’s life. It was 1993. Chrobuck was coming home from a business trip. Her family picked her up from the airport. They had planned to eat at a restaurant that evening. But Connie’s flight was late. So the family decided to stop for fast food on the way home.

Chrobuck: “We selected Jack in the Box because at the time it was one of the few fast food restaurants that was offering salads, they didn't use lard at the time, and so we stopped at Jack in the Box.”

Connie’s husband Tim, and her five-year old daughter Alyssa had burgers. A week later, Alyssa complained of stomach ache. The next day she began vomiting. It was January, the day of the inaugural day storm. Strong winds ripped power lines down throughout the city…

Chrobuck: “By the time I got home it was dark, and all the lights were out, and it was a dramatic scene. Alyssa was so weak that she was on the floor…vomiting a lot.”

Connie called Seattle Children’s Hospital. The nurse asked if they had eaten at Jack in the Box. Connie said not recently; she didn't make the connection. The nurse told her to come in if the pain continued. It did. At the hospital, the doctor thought it might be the flu. He sent them home. But the cramping continued. The next morning Alyssa saw her pediatrician. He ordered lab work just as a precaution. The results would take up to five days. In the meantime, all they could do was go home and wait…

Chrobuck: “Tim and I literally took four hour shifts day and night just to try and help her be more comfortable, but there wasn’t anything more we could do.”

When Alyssa’s test results finally came, they were positive for E. coli. E. coli bacteria are common in humans and animals. Most strains are harmless. But this particular strain causes serious illness. It produces toxins that damage major organs—the kidneys, the liver, the pancreas.

There would more ominous news. People were coming down with e. Coli all over the region. The outbreak was traced to jack in the box burgers, and its meat supplier.

Alyssa’s pain didn’t let up, and doctors continued to monitor her kidneys. But one night, Connie noticed something different about Alyssa.

Chrobuck: “She was puffy, she was white. There was a vacancy in her eyes that I hadn’t seen before.”

Connie and Tim took Alyssa to the emergency room at children’s hospital. The doctor ordered more tests.

Chrobuck: “Just where we were sitting in the room I could see through the window next to the door, and I could see the nurse talking with the ER doctor, and I could see him wiping tears from his eyes… and he came in and gave us the bad news.”

Alyssa’s kidneys had failed. Doctors immediately put in a shunt to start dialysis. But it didn’t work. The next day, doctors told the Chrobuck family they were going to try a different kind of dialysis. But they weren’t offering much hope.

Chrobuck: “They suggested that we prepare…prepare our family that she wouldn’t make it. Yeah, that was a low point. I didn’t think they were right, even though she wasn’t talking. I didn’t think they were right. I think she still had another fight or two in her.”

Alyssa: “I truly don’t remember a lot of it, as much as it does affect me now, I don’t remember kind of the acute stage of when it was happening.”

Today Alyssa is 25 years old. She says those days in the hospital are a blur. Her parents have had to fill her in with details. Alyssa spent ten days in the ICU. Her kidneys and pancreas were badly damaged. She went through a series of hemodialysis and transfusions before her condition improved.

Alyssa continues to live with the long term effects. And they come in waves. She lists off some of them: renal-induced high blood pressure, scar tissues that constrict her abdomen, endocrine problems. She’s had at least a dozen surgeries. She can’t remember a year when she’s not had a health issue. Alyssa says it’s exhausting. Often the symptoms are unexplainable, or uncommon for someone her age. She often baffles doctors…

Alyssa: “I truly have wonderful physicians, but I see so many of them that sometimes it feels like a whirlwind of well, this could be, I have heard this could be cancer so many times in my life, and I always know that it’s not.”

E. coli has altered her health. It has also shaped her views about food safety. She’s cautious about where she buys her food, especially meats. Alyssa is involved with Stop Foodborne Illness, an advocacy group for food safety. She wants to help people understand why food safety is a serious matter.

Alyssa: I’m such a hawk. I went skiing a year and a half ago. I saw one of the kitchen staff pick up a raw hamburger with his hands and put it on the grill, and then pick up a cooked burger and put it on a bun. And I saw it and was like, oh my god, I was horrified. I thought, you do that all the time…you’re feeding families, and like hundreds of them. And so I called the state and reported them.”

Alyssa says she’s thrilled the FDA finally issued food safety rules in January. It’s taken so long, though that it hardly feels real.

Alyssa: “Hopefully it will lead to more responsibility and less people being hurt. There’s no reason we should be afraid of our food. There’s a lot of things we can be afraid of, and what we’re having for dinner doesn’t have to be one of them.”

It’s been 20 years since the Jack in the Box burger outbreak. More than 600 people got sick, most of them in Washington state. Four children died. There have been more outbreaks since then. Alyssa hopes the new rules will protect people from the trauma that she and her family have gone through.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio