How Safe Is Our Meat? Twenty years ago this week, a toddler named Riley Detwiler died from exposure to E. coli, one of four children who succumbed to an outbreak that sickened hundreds in the Northwest. That event took the country by surprise and cast a bright light on the problem of food-borne illness. Host Jacki Lyden speaks with Riley's father, Darin Detwiler; Carol Tucker, foreman of the Food Policy Institute; former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy; and New York Times journalist Michael Moss.

How Safe Is Our Meat?

How Safe Is Our Meat?

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Twenty years ago this week, a toddler named Riley Detwiler died from exposure to E. coli, one of four children who succumbed to an outbreak that sickened hundreds in the Northwest. That event took the country by surprise and cast a bright light on the problem of food-borne illness. Host Jacki Lyden speaks with Riley's father, Darin Detwiler; Carol Tucker, foreman of the Food Policy Institute; former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy; and New York Times journalist Michael Moss.


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up this hour, a climate change rally on the National Mall. And later, the 100th anniversary of the income tax. We'll also check out a security app that destroys sensitive data and hear our second Three-Minute Fiction entry. First, though...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There is a scandal that is rocking Europe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Urgent tests on beef products for the presence of horsemeat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...was found to be 29 percent horsemeat.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...the scandal be brought to justice.

LYDEN: This past week, a lot of people looked down at the ground beef and wondered, what's in there exactly? While the horsemeat scandal is contained to Europe so far and no one has suggested that horsemeat is dangerous, it's caused a lot of people in the U.S. to wonder, once again, how carefully controlled our meat supply really is. For our cover story today, we look back at a watershed moment in food safety history.

Twenty years ago this week, Riley Detwiler lost his life because of a hamburger. He was just a year-and-a-half-old. Riley was one of four children in the Northwest who died that winter as the result of an E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants.

DARIN DETWILER: You know, the world of a young parent at the time, you have so many things you take for granted and so many things you assume you'll be able to do later. You envision milestones down the road. You don't envision things such as illnesses that land your child in the hospital or the death and burial of your son.

LYDEN: Darin Detwiler and his wife Vicki were parents to a 9-year-old son and 16-month-old Riley. They'd found out about the E. coli outbreak a little more than a week before Riley started to get sick.

DETWILER: We were more afraid for the 9-year-old. We thought that he would be more likely to get sick, so we made some, OK, let's not go eat at Jack in the Box. Let's not go eat a hamburger in Seattle. Let's try to take those steps. We had no idea that it would be our youngest son, only a year-and-a-half-old at the time...

LYDEN: He actually did not eat anything at Jack in the Box.


LYDEN: You had dropped him off at daycare.

DETWILER: He had never been to a Jack in the Box restaurant. He had never eaten a hamburger. He was only a year-and-a-half-old.

LYDEN: Right. So Riley contracted this illness from another child.

DETWILER: Right. Unfortunately, though, that child's mother and father both worked at the only Jack in the Box in Bellingham, Washington.

LYDEN: Yeah. How quickly did the illness overtake Riley?

DETWILER: Obviously, it was too fast. He showed symptoms that first night after we had the flyer saying what to look for. We took him to the hospital, he was admitted. Two days later, he was airlifted to Children's Hospital. He was put into ICU that day. The next day, he was taken in for exploratory surgery where he had the majority of his colon removed because it had been so ruined by that point. Essentially, he was placed in a medically induced coma.

And, you know, to paint a picture of the scene, imagine you're looking at a full-size hospital bed and you're looking at your son with his blond hair and his eyes, he looks like he's asleep, but he's almost completely dwarfed by wires and probes and tape and things that you just would not associate with a child, let alone your own child.

LYDEN: Yeah.

DETWILER: And it was - from start to end, it was less than a month between, you know, me holding my son, comforting him while he was looking at me and I was talking with him to holding my son for the very last time, as he had been taken off of life support.

LYDEN: Darin Detwiler turned his grief into action. He became an advocate for food safety issues, serving on the USDA National Advisory Committee on meat and poultry. He's now a schoolteacher in Redmond, Washington, and he shares the lessons he's learned with his students.

In all, nearly 500 people became ill through exposure to E. coli from those Jack in the Box hamburgers, and the country was riveted.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Now, the second thing, this E. coli thing - have you all been following it up in Washington? It's a...

LYDEN: While Riley Detwiler was in the hospital fighting for his life, his parents appeared at a town hall meeting with newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton.


CLINTON: I asked the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, who is responsible for the regulation of the slaughterhouses and the meat before it comes to a restaurant, to go up there and look into the situation.

MIKE ESPY: I had been at the job then for about three days.

LYDEN: Mike Espy is now a lawyer in Jackson, Mississippi, but 20 years ago, he quickly became the new administration's point man to the crisis.

ESPY: You know, 0157:H7 strain of E. coli - I had no idea what that was.

LYDEN: As a matter of fact, most of the country had never heard of such a thing. And what Espy discovered would lead to action.

ESPY: And I learned about a rule called the dime standard, which basically was when you had the carcasses, mostly cows, you know, coming down an assembly line, the dime standard was basically that if the federal slaughterhouse worker at the point observed a fecal chip, which was larger than the dime - of a dime than he could slow the line down and carve it away.

LYDEN: But if it was smaller, the potential for that was ignored. And just a tiny amount of E. coli can make you ill. The dime standard was eliminated under the Clinton administration. Another significant change, the labeling of meats at the grocery store and the establishment of clear food handling and cooking standards for the public. That all happened as a result of the Jack in the Box outbreak.

And here's another thing: It had been nearly impossible to figure out where the outbreak originated.

ESPY: We did not have enough authority. There was not enough authority at that time in the Department of Agriculture to begin a trace-back investigation or to condemn whatever adulterated meats had become suspect.

CAROL TUCKER-FOREMAN: From then on, any amount of E. coli 0157:H7 that appeared in ground beef would render that ground beef adulterated, and it has to be taken off the market.

LYDEN: That's Carol Tucker-Foreman, a distinguished fellow at the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.

TUCKER-FOREMAN: If there ever can be any comfort to people who have lost a child, it ought to be that in this case that the magnitude and the importance of the changes that began then are very substantial. We've come a long way in improving food safety.

LYDEN: According to their 2011 estimates, the Centers for Disease Control report a little more than 1,350 deaths that year from the pathogens known to produce food-borne illnesses.

MICHAEL MOSS: So there's been actually what seems to be a remarkable decline in outbreaks.

LYDEN: That's New York Times reporter Michael Moss.

MOSS: They are doing much more testing at the slaughterhouse. I think the controls there are much better. I think they're paying much more attention, in part because public health officials have been getting better and better about catching them and tracing back food illnesses when they have them.

LYDEN: But he notes that finding pathogens is a needle-in-a-haystack proposition, as he put it, one that still confounds those charged with overseeing meat safety. It came into focus again in 2007. Moss won a Pulitzer prize later for his investigation into the story of a young dance instructor named Stephanie Smith. She'd eaten one of those premade hamburgers bought in bulk at the grocery store. She became so ill, she was left paralyzed.

MOSS: The hamburger is not what I thought it was, which was, you know, a single chunk of meat from the cow. It was an amalgam of scraps from cows from multiple slaughterhouses around the world.

LYDEN: In the case of Stephanie Smith's burger, the meat came from Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay. Countries all over the world export their product to the United States.

MOSS: And the USDA has largely deferred to these countries to do their own inspections and their own control systems with some oversight by the USDA.

LYDEN: And according to Carol Tucker-Foreman, the testing of foreign meat recently became a little less thorough.

TUCKER-FOREMAN: If you want to send a product over here, before you can do that, our government has to go over there and inspect both the safety system that the country has and the safety system that the individual plant has and say these meet our standards. They're equivalent. USDA then, in addition, re-inspects the food when it gets here to our shores.

Now, without telling anybody, three years ago, the Food Safety and Inspection Service at USDA stopped going once a year to check out whether these countries were meeting our standards. It's just outrageous. This has been one of the best things about the food safety laws that you don't have the Chinese shipping meat here with nobody checking to be sure that it's OK.

LYDEN: To be fair, the government does still perform on-site checks of foreign meat, but those once-a-year trips overseas were reduced to once every three years. The USDA and the FDA were unable to provide representatives to speak with NPR for this story. But according to a USDA statement, this updated policy in no way undermines public health and safety. And if the current European horsemeat scandal is cause for concern, they further state that none of the European producers implicated are eligible to ship beef into the U.S.

And now, there's a looming fear for food safety advocates and it's coming up soon. And that's the dilemma posed by sequestration in March. If a budget deal isn't negotiated by Congress in time, drastic cuts in domestic spending will impact food inspection. According to the USDA, sequestration will result in a furlough of as much as 15 days for food safety employees. That means the food reduction system could shut down for that time, affecting meat, poultry and eggs. And the Food Policy Institute's Carol Tucker-Foreman hopes the safety standards won't suffer as well.

TUCKER-FOREMAN: There are some things we cannot do for ourselves, and one of them is we can't look at the food and know whether or not it's contaminated. Government has to step in and take care.

LYDEN: There is a role for the government, but in the meantime, a more vigilant public should perhaps take a leap from decades past, caveat emptor or buyer beware. Even the best food inspection isn't perfect and challenge it to the systems stretched around the world and down the block.

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