We can't wait for stronger food safety

This Friday, Jan. 4, marks two years since President Obama signed landmark food safety legislation. But Americans continue to get sick, rushed to the hospital, and sometimes die from preventable foodborne illnesses while the White House allows implementation of food safety rules to be delayed.

I can attest to the need for these rules. After eating E. coli-contaminated spinach in 2006, my then 9-year-old daughter, Rylee, spent a month in a pediatric intensive care unit and two more months at home, away from school and her treasured dance lessons. She needed speech therapy to regain the use of her voice after being intubated. The damage to Rylee's kidneys, however, is irreversible. And if all that were not enough for one young girl to endure, earlier this year, doctors diagnosed Rylee with Type 1 diabetes that may have been caused, in part, by her foodborne illness.

After Rylee recovered, my family - outraged that the U.S. government fails to protect its citizens from foodborne illnesses - became tireless advocates for food safety. We took time off from work and school to speak publicly about the need for stronger safeguards and visited Sen. Harry Reid many times in DC, as well as with members of his Nevada staff to urge action on a bill to improve the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) oversight of our nation's food supply. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) - the first update to the food safety system since the Great Depression - passed in 2011. Senator Harry Reid's leadership was critical to our success.

FSMA signals a much needed shift in FDA's approach to food safety. The focus is now on prevention - not reaction. There are provisions in the law designed to prevent outbreaks like the one that threatened Rylee's life. But food contamination continues to harm countless Americans because draft regulations have still not been implemented. While people like my daughter suffer, the rules have been awaiting approval for more than a year.

There have been 15 reported multi-state outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated products since FSMA became law. The hundreds of families who have had to sit, wait and wonder whether their loved ones would ever come home again is hundreds too many. It is unbearable to think of the 40 Americans who have lost their lives to a foodborne illness since the law was enacted, all because of something they ate.

As recently as last fall, a fellow Nevadan was one of 42 people sickened by the Salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter. But even if the next outbreak or the outbreak after that does not touch you personally, please know that there are many whose lives will never be the same. And any of us could be next.

While FSMA's rules continue to be delayed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, 48 million Americans get sick due to a foodborne illness, 127,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. I ask you to join my family and all those around the country who have been affected by foodborne diseases and urge the president to release these lifesaving rules today.

Kathleen Chrismer lives in Henderson. She serves on the board of the Chicago-based STOP Foodborne Illness, Inc., a non-profit public health organization.