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 outbreaks. Hundreds of people got sick from eating contaminated burgers. For Connie Chrobuck, it was a meal that would change her family’s life.
It was 1993 and Connie 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.
“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,” she said. “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 a stomach ache. Then she began vomiting.
Connie remembers that day. It was January, the day of the Inauguration Day storm. Strong winds ripped power lines down throughout the city. “By the time I got home it was dark and all the lights were out and it was a dramatic scene,” said Connie. “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. She said not recently; she didn’t make the connection. So 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. “Tim and I literally took four hour shifts, day and night, just to try and help her be more comfortable,” she said. “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 the strain Alyssa had causes serious illness. It produces toxins that damage major organs — the kidneys, the liver, the pancreas.
There would be 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 was instructed to stay at home as long as possible even though she was in extreme pain. Doctors continued to monitor her kidneys. But one night, Connie noticed something different about Alyssa. “She was puffy, she was white,” Connie said. “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. “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,” she said. Even decades later, Connie struggled for composure when she tells the story. “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.
“They suggested that we prepare our family that she wouldn’t make it,” Connie said. “That was a low point.”
But Connie wasn’t giving up. She knew her daughter. “I didn’t think they were right,” she said. “I didn’t think they were right. I think she still had another fight or two in her.”
Alyssa survived the ordeal. But she says those days in the hospital were a blur. “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,” said Alyssa.
Alyssa’s parents have had to fill her in on the details. Alyssa spent 10 days in the intensive care unit. Her kidneys and pancreas were badly damaged. She went through a series of hemodialysis and transfusions before her condition improved.
Today, Alyssa is 25 years old. She continues to live with long-term health problems. And they come in waves: renal-induced high blood pressure, scar tissue that constricts her abdomen, endocrine problems. She’s had at least a dozen surgeries to fix some of the problems. She can’t remember a year when she hasn't had a health issue. Alyssa says it’s exhausting. Often the symptoms are unexplainable, or uncommon for someone her age. She often baffles doctors.
Some of Alyssa’s health problems are associated with E. coli. Doctors had told her parents what to expect down the road. But there have been issues that they could not have foreseen, and it's unclear as to whether all symptoms are linked to E. coli.
“I’ve only thought of one way to basically explain it,” Alyssa said. “There’s no sure way to tie all of these things to when I was sick. But would I have all of these things if I hadn’t had E. coli? There’s no way. My parents are healthy. My family is healthy. There’s no way.”
E. coli has altered Alyssa’s 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.
She recalls a year and a half ago when she went skiing and saw a kitchen staff preparing food. He picked up a raw hamburger with his hands and put it on a grill, and then picked up a cooked burger and put it on a bun. “I saw it and was like, oh my god, I was horrified,” she said. “I thought, you do that all the time, you’re feeding families, and like hundreds of them.” So she called the health department and reported what she saw.
Alyssa says she’s thrilled the FDA finally issued food-safety rules in January, but it’s taken so long that it hardly feels real.
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.
“Hopefully it will lead to more responsibility and less people being hurt,” she says. “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.”