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Local survivor of foodborne illness becomes advocate for families

by Keith Barber

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Allison Stadler was born seven weeks prematurely after her mother, Erin, ate a piece of contaminated cheese and contracted Listeria. Erin Stadler is now an advocate for tougher federal regulations of the food industry. (courtesy photo)
During her baby shower 13 years ago, Erin Stadler ate what appeared to be a harmless piece of cheese no bigger than her thumb. Stadler trusted that the food was safe, and that innocent assumption proved to be a turning point in her and her daughter, Allison’s life.

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Stadler, a Winston-Salem resident, was 33 weeks pregnant with Allison when she ate the cheese, which she found out later was infected with Listeria, one of the most deadly foodborne pathogens. The next day, Stadler was rushed to the hospital when she sensed something was wrong with Allison. Physicians performed stress tests to get a response from Allison, but nothing worked.

Hours later, Stadler went into labor. Her due date was seven weeks away. After doctors broke Stadler’s water at midnight, Allison’s heart rate began to drop. By 3 a.m., Stadler’s doctors performed an emergency Caesarian section delivery. Fortunately, Allison survived the procedure but was placed in an incubator due to the fact she was born prematurely. Allison would remain in the hospital another two weeks due to complications from listeriosis.

When Stadler was told she and Allison had contracted Listeria, she said she was in disbelief. Stadler traced the Listeria back to that tiny bit of Brie cheese. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2,500 illnesses and 500 deaths in the US are attributed to listeriosis annually. Neonatal infections are often severe, with a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent. After Stadler’s gynecologist told her about the deadly nature of listeriosis, she began researching the disease and other foodborne illnesses, and what she discovered shocked her.

Stadler joined Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP, a non-profit organization dedicated to “preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens,” according to the group’s website. On a daily basis, Stadler receives e-mail alerts from STOP about recalls of contaminated food. It has become part of Stadler’s daily routine to learn all she can about everything out there that could be harmful to her family.

“To this day, I won’t let Allie eat cafeteria food,” Stadler said. “I will not eat in cafeteria-style restaurants. I won’t eat brie cheese anymore. It’s made a huge difference in my life.”

Stadler’s vigilance comes from her realization of the price she almost paid for eating a single piece of contaminated food.

“If I hadn’t been so in tune with my body and I had not gone to the hospital that night, they said [Allison] would’ve died the next morning,” Stadler said.

Allison pulled through but she struggled with a number of health issues in her formative years.

“[Allison] had such bad acid reflux that she would projectile vomit,” Stadler said. “She was always tiny, she didn’t even make the growth chart until she was 4. She weighed four pounds when she was born and 17 pounds at one year. My life was hell that first year.”

Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Project for the Pew Health Group, said stories like Stadler’s are far too common. That is why Pew Health Group has joined forces with STOP to pressure Congress to pass food safety legislation. The US House of Representatives passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act in July 2009. The US Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee unanimously approved the food safety legislation last November but the bill has not yet reached the Senate floor. One of the sponsors of the bill is Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC).

Eskin said the Senate legislation would bring government oversight of the food industry into the 21 st century. Under the current approach, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) merely reacts to contamination and disease rather than acting to prevent disease outbreaks. The Food Safety bill would revolutionize the government’s approach to food safety. The new legislation shifts the focus from reaction to prevention by mandating that food producers design food safety plans. It puts measures into place to eliminate the problem of foodborne contamination, and ramps up FDA monitoring of the food industry, Eskin explained.

At the moment, the FDA does not have a specific mandate to inspect on a regular basis, and FDA inspectors go into food processing facilities on average once every 10 years. Under the new legislation, the FDA would have mandatory recall authority. Eskin said most people are shocked to learn that the FDA doesn’t have the power to force a food maker to recall a product.

“Consumers’ confidence in the food industry is at an all-time low,” Eskin said. “The egg outbreak illustrates how serious foodborne disease problems continue to harm consumers and the food industry bottom line.”

On Aug. 13, Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa voluntarily recalled more than 380 million of its shell eggs contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis distributed under different brand names. On Aug. 19, Hillandale Farms of Iowa initiated its own voluntary recall of shell eggs contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis that went to grocery stores, distributors and wholesalers in 14 states. More than 500 million eggs are now involved in the nationwide recall. Investigations conducted by public health officials in California, Colorado and Minnesota revealed a connection between the contaminated eggs and salmonellosis suffered by several people eating at the same restaurant, according to the FDA website.

The nationwide outbreak of salmonellosis has been linked to illnesses in nearly 1,470 people, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In July, the FDA implemented new regulations that “require the egg industry to take specific preventive measures to keep eggs safe during their production, storage and transport,” according to the FDA website. The agency took this measure because Salmonella enteritidis has been linked to 142,000 illnesses each year by people consuming contaminated eggs in the US.

FDA records indicate it sent a warning letter to Wright County Egg owner Austin “Jack” DeCoster in 2004 for “significant deviations from the Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations for Medicated Feeds.” In 1996, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) fined DeCoster $3.6 million for mistreatment of workers at his Maine egg farms.

DeCoster’s previous run-ins with federal authorities raises grave concerns about the safety of the food we place on our tables, said Stadler.

“Over half a billion eggs have been recalled and this guy is a repeat offender,” she said. “It’s traced back to feed that the chickens ate— this guy has had seven or eight citations and he’s still in business. If we had the traceability and the FDA had the power to get in there, this guy would’ve been held accountable. If he’s had seven or eight violations and we’re just now doing the recall, how many slipped through the cracks?” A 1998 study by the FDA revealed that of the 47 billion shell eggs consumed annually in the US, 2.3 million are contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis. Eskin pointed out that the FDA is responsible for 80 percent of the food supply, and in the past few years, we’ve witnessed a dramatic rise in foodborne contamination outbreaks. Last year’s peanut butter outbreak has been linked to the deaths of nine people, and an additional 700 people getting very sick.

As a citizen and a mother, Stadler said she felt it was her responsibility to educate herself about foodborne illnesses.

“I’m a mom, and I don’t want to have to worry about what I put on the dinner table,” she said. “There’s enough stuff to worry about in the world without me having to worry about what I put on the dinner table.”

Today, Allison is a healthy middle school student who enjoys a variety of sports including softball. But it hasn’t been an easy road.

Allison struggled with learning disabilities in elementary school due to her premature birth, but she has persevered.

“It’s been a tough go,” Stadler said. “School was tough from second grade until six th grade. But physically, you could look at her now and you would never know.”

Stadler said she is acutely aware of those parents who were not as fortunate as she was, which is why she continues to educate herself and fight to raise awareness about foodborne illnesses and the need for tougher regulations on the food industry.

“I don’t want to be a repeat survivor,” she said. “I don’t want to die from something I ate in my pantry. This is crazy. It’s 2010 — we shouldn’t have to worry about unsafe food.”

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