20 years after deadly E. coli outbreak, some food safety standards fading

SEATTLE -- This month marks the 20th anniversary of a turning point in food safety, when an E. coli outbreak killed four local children and sickened hundreds more.

But one of the landmark changes that came out of the outbreak could be fading, and the father of one of the victims worries we might be forgetting what we learned in the wake of his son's death.

In February of 1993, the name Riley Detwiler dominated the news. Most have forgotten Riley's name, but not the reason he died.

E. coli, a bacteria few people had even heard about 20 years ago, became a household name because of an outbreak that began at Jack in the Box restaurants.

The nation learned a tough lesson through Riley and the three others who died in the outbreak, and his father, Darin Detwiler doesn't want anyone to forget.

"The word, the concept of E. coli was new to us. I think it was new for most people." Detwiler said.

After his son died, Detwiler became one of many leading the charge to make food safer. Significant progress has been made in the last two decades, but Detwiler worries a signature change is fading away.

All meat is supposed to include safe handling instructions, but on a recent trip to a grocery story, Detwiler found meatloaf and other raw products with no labels.

The label is required by law -- a direct result of the 1993 outbreak.

"There's no safety label whatsoever. There's no consistency," Detwiler said as he browsed the grocery store.

The safe handling labels remind consumers to wash their hands, to keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods and to cook it thoroughly.

Detwiler knows most people probably don't look at the information, but he's got to believe it reaches someone.

"There's a lot of things that sounds like very simple decisions or steps to take, but the consequences, the negative, devastating consequences out there, unfortunately, I lived that first hand," he said.

The most important changes in meat safety came at the source, well before food reaches the grocery store.

Seattle attorney Bill Marler represented families in the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak and built his career around food safety.

He said the meat industry cleaned up its act when it became illegal for hamburger to contain E. coli.

"They were forced to test for it. They were finding it, and then they had to destroy a lot of product,"Marler said. "When that happens, it's expensive. So they found different ways to intervene and get E. coli out of hamburger."

Marler said E. coli in hamburger is almost unheard of now, but he agrees the safe handling label is an important final step for food safety.

It's a lesson we were supposed to have learned in Riley's death. Detwiler doesn't think we've forgotten, but if safe-handling labels fade away, he worries we could.
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