Stretching the food safety net

Consumer activist Caroline Smith DeWaal mixes science, politics and advocacy to find foodborne illness solutions.

Caroline Smith DeWaal found her calling nearly 20 years ago, in the wake of a major foodborne illness outbreak related to E. coli-tainted burgers sold at Jack in the Box fast-food outlets on the U.S. West Coast.

Caroline Smith DeWaal

As part of her job at a communications firm, DeWaal was escorting heartbroken parents around Capitol Hill and government agencies in Washington, D.C., as they shared their stories about watching their hospitalized children suffer terribly after eating the hamburgers. One woman told DeWaal of watching her 6-year-old daughter suffer a series of heart attacks before dying a few days after Christmas. Another child survived but was confined to a wheelchair forever because of brain swelling.

As the parents repeated the same horrific tales at each meeting, “they cried. We all cried,” remembers DeWaal.

The families’ tragedies inspired her to dedicate her career to fighting foodborne illnesses by documenting them and advocating for faster and stricter reporting standards, says DeWaal, an attorney who has served as food safety director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) for the past 20 years.

DeWaal has played a major role in refocusing U.S. government inspection policies on foodborne pathogens by testifying before Congress and lobbying federal regulators about the problem. She has educated consumers about their dangers through frequent media appearances and by tracking outbreaks with an extensive database that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used as its model. On a global scale, DeWaal also has worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) to find ways to improve food safety worldwide. She currently represents international consumer food organizations at Codex Alimentarius, a commission set up by the UN and WHO to develop coordinated international food standards and codes of conduct that protect the health of consumers.

“I find the issues incredibly compelling. Everybody eats, and everybody is making decisions about what they’re going to eat every day,” says DeWaal. “If you have a major outbreak, it can cause consumers to stop buying certain food products for months or years. It’s really important we get good information to consumers so they know what NOT to worry about.”

Signs of progress

One of DeWaal’s key achievements is the CSPI Outbreak Alert! database, which tracks the 7,000 food-related outbreaks that have occurred in the United States since 1990. “My team has really used this outbreak database as a tool to examine the food products causing the most outbreaks and the greatest impact on consumers,” she says. “That helps us focus advocacy efforts on those food products with the greatest public health effects.”

The good news is that outbreaks reported by states to the CDC have declined by 40 percent since 2000, with illnesses related to meat and poultry products showing some of the biggest reductions. But DeWaal isn’t ready to declare victory yet. “Fewer outbreaks could be a sign of improving food safety,” she says. “But we’re cautious because it also could be a sign of the declining number of public officials at the state level to do these investigations.”

It’s really important we get good [food safety] information to consumers so they know what NOT to worry about.”
—Caroline Smith DeWaal

Among her chief concerns is the growing number of illnesses related to raw milk consumption and contaminated fresh produce. “We’re really concerned about parents buying raw milk thinking it’s better for their child,” she says. “It’s really Russian roulette. If the children get sick, they get very sick.”

To help combat both today’s outbreaks and new issues that arise in the decades to come, DeWaal says CSPI sees possible opportunities in such areas as high-pressure processing, irradiation, and treatments with substances such as lactic acid or citric acid.

“We’re taking a broad look at technologies that look promising,” she says. “We’re a membership organization, so we have to be respectful of consumers if they don’t want a specific type of technology. But we’re [also] evidence-based, and we want to look at the science of whether concerns are warranted. Part of our work right now is to see if there’s something that could get us to the next level.”

Eliminating foodborne illness, however, is likely not on the horizon even 40 or 50 years from now, says DeWaal. “I would like to think that we could get there, but I’m acutely aware that bacteria evolve much faster than we do,” she says. “The next big solution may not work in five years’ time.”

DeWaal is currently focusing much of her efforts on educating consumers about food safety, including promoting her new book, “From Supermarkets to Leftovers,” which details safe food handling for consumers from the grocery store to the dining room table.

She’s also working with a coalition of consumer organizations, food retailers, growers and farm worker unions, known as the Equitable Food Initiative, to create a label program for field-packed produce certifying that food has been grown, harvested and handled in a responsible, safe way. To qualify for the label, which DeWaal expects will be rolled out before the end of 2014, farms would have to educate their workers about food safety and environmental protection, among other requirements.

“Farm workers are often the very first people who touch our food,” DeWaal notes. “Having workers trained in food safety will have a huge impact in ensuring that food is responsibly picked. We want to make sure farm workers are part of the system of public safety.”

Science-based solutions

For someone who can reel off the complex names of E. coli and listeria strains with ease, DeWaal was a relative latecomer to the world of food science. But she was exposed to basic science from her earliest years through her father, who was a chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Vermont.

“I grew up literally in a laboratory,” she says. “My dad had ongoing experiments. I helped weigh baby rats. I grew up in a family of scientists, and I was a rebel. I was the first lawyer in the family.”

DeWaal has carried that healthy respect for science to her work with CSPI, which has embraced some new technologies in a way that not all food advocacy groups have done.

CSPI views genetic engineering of foods, for example, as having the potential for both benefits and harm, and the organization is very interested in investigating new ways to make food safer, says DeWaal. That includes irradiation, a practice that has alarmed some industry observers and consumers. The jury is still out on irradiation, DeWaal adds, but if it can save lives, she is willing to consider its use.

“I think the job I have is unique,” DeWaal says. “I can look at the wide range of public health problems, and we can look at solutions that involve government, industry or consumers. I’m not hemmed in to one approach.”

Susan Chandler

Susan Chandler is an award-winning journalist who has covered business and the economy for the Chicago Tribune, BusinessWeek magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. Since 2009, she has combined writing with teaching at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

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