A Colorado grandmother hospitalized for five days after eating an appetizer made with salmonella-tainted eggs urged Congress to pass food safety laws that might have prevented her suffering.
Carol Lobato, 77, of Littleton, developed septic shock and nearly died in July from illness linked to a massive salmonella outbreak and the nationwide recall of half a billion eggs. She was one of two confirmed victims who testifed in a hearing today that also included the owners of the Iowa farms deemed responsible for the crisis.
“The infection wiped me out to the point that I could not function on my own,” said Lobato, who flew to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. “On behalf of myself, my family and the 1,500 others who were sickened, please make our food system safer.”
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Lobato was joined by Sarah Lewis, 30, a mother of two young girls from Freedom, Calif., who was hospitalized twice after eating tainted egg custard at a May graduation ceremony. The salmonella infection and antibiotics used to treat it left Lewis with a case of C. difficile colitis, a dangerous gut infection.
"I still have severe cramping, diarrhea, fevers and also the fear that the salmonella is still in my body," Lewis said. "I wish I could say 'this will never happen again,' but that is up to you. Please consider changing your FDA policies to more closely monitor the egg industry."
Egg farm owners asked to testify
The women were followed by Austin “Jack” DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa, and his son, Peter DeCoster, the firm's CEO. Orland Bethel, owner of Hillandale Farms of Iowa, based in New Hampton appeared at the hearing, but refused to answer lawmakers' questions, citing the Fifth Amendment. The subcommittee, led by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., was tasked with examining the outbreak that government health officials now say has sickened at least 1,608 people since May.
The hearing was held even as the Senate wrangles over whether to vote on a landmark food safety bill that would give the federal Food and Drug Administration new authority to order recalls, inspect sites and investigate contamination. FDA head Dr. Margaret Hamburg has said the proposed law would give allow the agency to prevent future outbreaks. A House version of the bill passed last year.
Such a law might have avoided the severe infection that struck Lobato, who fell sick after eating an unusual appetizer on July 10 at The Fort restaurant in Morrison, Colo. Until the outbreak, the upscale restaurant specialized in “rattlesnake cakes,” patties of cooked rattlesnake meat similar to crab cakes, topped with an avocado relish, cilantro greens and a chile aoli sauce.
“All of us tasted the dish, but none of us particularly liked it,” said Lobato, who eventually was among more than two dozen people sickened by the appetizer, which since has been removed from the menu, restaurant vice president Mark Steed said.Story: Egg company heads give Congress few answers
Dr. Mark Johnson, the health director in Jefferson County, Colo., said the culprit was the aioli, a sauce made with uncooked eggs that tested positive for the strain of salmonella linked to the outbreak — and to Wright County Egg.
Lobato became ill the next day, suffering fever and chills, waves of vomiting and diarrhea. She went to the local emergency room, where doctors gave her IV fluids and sent her home. The next day, her family doctor diagnosed her with septic shock, a life-threatening condition. Lab tests showed she had salmonella bacteria in her gut and bloodstream, which can be especially dangerous to elderly people and those like Lobato, whose immune system is impaired by rheumatoid arthritis.
‘The salmonella infection is not over for me.’
More than two months later, Lobato has not fully recovered.
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“The salmonella infection is not over for me. I have lost my stamina. I often experience indigestion and it is difficult for me to enjoy certain foods,” said Lobato, a former surgical nurse for an oral surgeon. "My doctors have told me I almost certainly would have died without aggressive intervention.”
Lobato, who was accompanied by her lawyer, Ron Simon of the firm Simon and Luke in Houston, said she was shocked by reports of filthy conditions FDA inspectors found at the suspect egg farms. Investigators discovered rodents, seeping manure and maggots at the two farms, plus multiple sources that could have led to salmonella contamination.
Lewis, the other victim, said her sister was also sickened by the egg dish. Lewis added that her family runs a small butcher shop and that she was appalled at the conditions shown in photographs of the Iowa farms.
"We have to uphold and maintain a certain standard," Lewis said. "This is not acceptable."
Just last week, DeCoster was criticized by Stupak and Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., after committee investigators found evidence that DeCoster had received more than 400 positive test results for salmonella, including the outbreak strain, and ignored them.
The hearing was being conducted in the shadow of the sweeping food safety bill. That bill has been stalled in the Senate, despite having broad bipartisan backing and support from an unusual coalition of industry and consumer groups.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to schedule a vote on the bill, seeking to limit debate on the measure in a busy Senate calendar. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., refused, saying that the estimated $1.4 billion cost of the bill needed to be matched with spending cuts and that it might give too much power to the FDA.
On Tuesday, Reid “hotlined” the bill, notifying senators he’ll seek unanimous consent on the issue, according to memos. But a spokesman for Coburn told msnbc.com that he remains opposed to the bill.
To Lobato, the political maneuvering should give way to common sense.
Ironically, Lobato said, she grew up on an Iowa family farm as one of five girls who shared chores that including raising chicks and tending hens for eggs.
"Our farm never looked the way these two egg farms have been described," Lobato said. "We never had any problems on our farm because we kept things clean, took proper care of our chickens and did things the right way."
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