His chair at the table is still empty

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Exactly 24 years ago today my 16-month-old son Riley died from E.coli/HUS during the 1993 “Jack in the Box” outbreak. He was the last of the four young children who paid the ultimate price for failures in food safety protocols at that time.

The landmark outbreak is often referred to as the 9/11 of the food industry. In the many years since, we have gained new federal policies, advancements in science and in reporting data collection, and even a whole new “culture of food safety.”

I was 24 at the time and have now literally lived half of my life in the shadow of that event. Rarely a day goes by without reading of an illness, an outbreak, a death, or some other news item that reminds me of the faults in my early assumptions of the government or the industry solving the problems with food safety.

According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the years since my son died have witnessed over 1.1 billion Americans becoming ill, almost 3.1 million Americans hospitalized, and 72,000 American deaths due to foodborne pathogens. Most of these illnesses and deaths could have been prevented.

Some outbreaks and deaths were unintentional and could have been prevented with stronger policies and better training. Other incidents, unfortunately, have causes linked to greed and intent. A few notable trials — Peanut Corporation of America, the DeCosters of Quality Egg, etc. — show that some are able to consider the worst impacts on the lives and health of consumers as a cost of doing business. This should never be a cost that consumers, especially the young and vulnerable, should be expected to bear.

Today, I am a food policy professor, columnist, and food industry consultant. I gain much satisfaction in knowing that for every company that has failed to prevent such impacts on public health, hundreds of other companies place a high priority on food safety. They invest in ensuring that their products are going to be safe and wholesome.

While many, if not most food companies understand their role in preventing another illness or another death, far too many victims and families know the true burden of disease.

Too many homes in this country include a chair forever empty at a family table due to food safety failures.

Darin Detwiler

Darin Detwiler

About the author: Darin Detwiler, founder and president of Detwiler Consulting Group, LLC, is the director of the MS in Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industry and Professor of Food Policy at Northeastern University in Boston.  In addition to serving as the executive vice president for public health at the International Food Authenticity Assurance Organization, Detwiler serves on numerous committees and advisory panels related to food science, nutrition, fraud, and policy. He is a sought-after speaker on key issues in food policy at corporate and regulatory training events, as well as national and international events. Detwiler holds a doctorate of Law and Policy.

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