Two summers ago, 20-month-old Nicolaus Arthur Brayton died from eating E. coli-tainted ground beef.
He left behind a twin sister, an older brother and a mother and father who are still coming to terms with his death.
Tom Brayton, Nicolaus’ father, has become involved with making sure rules and regulations that are supposed to guard against food-borne illnesses are enforced rigorously by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The 37-year-old Parsippany resident spoke to reporters this week in Washington, D.C., about his son’s death and how it could have been prevented. He also testified before the National Academy of Sciences in the nation’s capital in August. Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP, a nonprofit organization comprised of victims of food-borne illnesses, asked Brayton to speak at both events.
“Our organization released a letter to President Bush asking him to grant the USDA authority to recall contaminated food,” STOP Executive Director Karen Taylor Mitchell said Thursday. “They don’t have that authority right now. Toys and tires can be recalled by the government if they’re defective. Food can’t.”
In addition to stopping the spread of E. coli, Brayton said he wants to stop other food-based illnesses, such as listeria. The disease was found in a drain at the Wampler Foods plant in a Philadelphia suburb, leading to the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride, owner of Wampler Foods, announced a nationwide recall of 27 million pounds of turkey and chicken products earlier this month after tests found listeria in the drain.
A potential E. coli outbreak also was attributed to the Colorado-based ConAgra Foods recall of approximately 19 million pounds of beef trim and fresh and frozen ground beef in July.
The CDC reports an estimated 73,000 cases of E. coli each year across the nation, with 61 deaths. But health officials say the disease isn’t always reported to authorities because many people simply think they have a stomach virus.
Brayton on Thursday said food companies and those who distribute beef need to ensure that all safety standards are met, and that the government needs to hold accountable those responsible for failing to meet safety requirements.
“I want to get the USDA to try to figure out who they’re working for us or their corporate profits,” Brayton said.
One positive step would be for the federal government to give the USDA the power to close unfit meat processing plants and issue mandatory meat recalls, Brayton said.
Matt Baun, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, said his agency does close unsanitary plants.
“We have done that. We shut down plants all the time,” Baun said. He added that the department did close the processing plant in Pennsylvania where listeria recently was discovered.
The USDA does not, however, have the authority to order meat recalls, said Baun, who added that the current voluntary recall system works.
“The voluntary recall is much more efficient and much more timely,” he said.
Baun said the biggest priority is getting suspect meat quickly off the market, and that it likely would slow down that process if the government were in charge of ordering a recall. He said no meat company has ever refused a recall upon hearing of a positive test for a food-borne illness.
Should a company refuse, Baun said, the government does have seize-and-detention authority, meaning that the USDA can go to retail markets and pull the tainted products off the shelves.