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Washington should do more to protect us from food illnesses

By Paul Schwarz

MCT FORUM

Published: Friday, Oct. 12 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Unharvested cantaloupes sit in an unidentified field in Owensville, Indiana on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration linked cantaloupes from Chamberlain Farm Produce Inc. in Owensville, Ind., to the salmonella outbreak that has infected 178 people nationwide.

Erin McCracken, The Evansville Courier & Press, AP Photo/mbr

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My father was a World War II veteran, double Purple Heart recipient, avid sports fan and all-American hero. Tragically, it was a cantaloupe laced with the lethal bacteria listeria that ultimately killed him.

Always true to form, though, he did not go down without a fight. For nearly three months, my father suffered from brain trauma and inability to move his legs. After the painful effects of the Listeria took hold first of his body and then his brain, the infection finally defeated him.

My dad left behind five children, nine grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren — all who continue to mourn the loss.

Unfortunately, there were 32 other Americans who also died last year from listeria-contaminated cantaloupes from Colorado's Jensen Farms. The tragedies were widely publicized and the sympathy widespread. Family, friends and others grieved with us over my father's — and so many others' — untimely deaths, and politicians promised they would do more to prevent food-borne illness.

You would think we may have learned something from this heartbreaking event, but the truth is, nothing has changed.

In January 2011, President Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. The first major overhaul of the nation's food safety regulations in about 70 years, however, remains stuck at the White House Office of Management and Budget, where proposed regulations have been delayed for more than eight months.

Meanwhile, three ongoing food-borne outbreaks that sprung up in the last two months alone have been responsible for killing six, sickening more than 400, and hospitalizing nearly 150 Americans to date. For instance, in my home state of Missouri people are being affected once again. So far, 15 Missourians have fallen ill after eating cantaloupe contaminated with salmonella traced back to a farm in Indiana.

The latest salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter has sickened 30 people thus far, including one in Missouri. What's more, about 100 products that contain peanut butter are currently being recalled to prevent further illness.

These outbreaks only represent a small part of those individuals affected by food-borne illness each year. An estimated 48 million Americans — or one in six — suffers from food-borne illnesses annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three thousand of these people will die each year, and many more will be hospitalized as a result.

If implemented, the food safety law would put stronger protections in place to prevent food-borne illnesses from killing innocent people like my father. By introducing new, more stringent regulations for processed foods, like peanut butter; for imported foods; and for growing and harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables, the law would serve as a safeguard for susceptible Americans.

Most significantly, the law would change our nation's approach to food safety from a reactive system to a preventive one.

Since the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed, at least 14 multi-state food-borne outbreaks have swept the country. Millions of Americans will continue to get sick, thousands will be hospitalized, and many more will die while we wait for food safety rules to be implemented. So, my message to the White House is clear: Let's release the food safety rules now before more lives are lost and more families suffer unnecessarily.

Paul Schwarz lives in Independence, Mo. Readers may send him email at p-schwarz@sbcglobal.net.

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