WASHINGTON — For three days after Merrill Behnke ate the tainted Italian cheese — before she was admitted to Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue for 16 days, before she racked up $60,000 in medical bills and almost died — she felt fine.
On the fourth night, Behnke developed an intense headache. She awoke the next morning to severe body pains and a temperature of 102 degrees. A lumbar tap and a CT scan indicated meningitis. A test of her spinal fluid linked the illness to Listeria, a rare but deadly bacterium.
Public-health officials later traced the germ to its source: Frescolina Marte brand ricotta salata cheese, bought by her father-in-law in August 2012 at a Whole Foods in Tigard, Ore., south of Portland.
Behnke, 31, will recount her bout with food poisoning in Washington, D.C., Thursday at a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hearing on how to ensure that foods from abroad are safe.
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The FDA — which has inspection powers over 80 percent of the nation’s food supply, other than meats and poultry, which are overseen by the Department of Agriculture — is in the midst of the biggest update of safety regulations for domestic and imported foods in more than 70 years.
The overhaul was mandated under the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by the Democrat-controlled Congress in December 2010 and signed by President Obama the following January. The FDA, however, is nearly two years late in finalizing regulations, delays that recently spurred a federal judge to impose a deadline of June 30, 2015.
Behnke is one of five people being flown in to testify at the expense of The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit foundation involved in various public-policy issues. Their testimonies are meant to counter objections from food processors and importers to tightened oversight.
Joining Behnke will be four people from a different
outbreak this summer that sickened 161 people who developed hepatitis after eating Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend of frozen fruit. The fruit mix, which was sold at Costco and other stores, contained pomegranate seeds from a Turkish importer suspected of carrying the hepatitis A virus.
Of the 21 others from a dozen states who fell ill with the same Listeria strain as Behnke, four died. It was one of three Listeria outbreaks in the United States since 2011, one of which involved cantaloupes from a Colorado farm and led to 33 deaths and one miscarriage.
Consumer advocates say the new law finally gave the FDA authority to prevent, not just react to, such foodborne illnesses. But the agency repeatedly has delayed issuing final rules. An FDA field hearing in New Hampshire last month drew protests from farmers about the costs of complying with new domestic rules.
For the first time, for instance, the FDA plans to require that harvest workers wash their hands and that fields be irrigated with clean water, and to put the legal onus on importers to vouch for their suppliers’ safety compliance.
In July, House Republicans passed a farm bill containing an amendment requiring the FDA to conduct “scientific and economic analysis” of the proposed regulations, which consumer advocates saw as a delay tactic. The farm bill remains in limbo because the Democratic-majority Senate and the Republican-led House are sharply divided on cuts to the food-stamp program that makes up the main portion of the legislation.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million Americans fall ill, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases.
Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C., said changes to food-safety rules are overdue and critical as Americans’ food supply grows increasingly global.
Foods imported from 150 countries make up as much as 15 percent of foods consumed here. Nearly two-thirds of fruits and vegetables and as much as 80 percent of seafood, according to the Government Accountability Office, come from abroad.
“All food producers should be meeting U.S. standards for food safety whether they produce food in the U.S. or in foreign countries,” Waldrop said.
Ben England, a former regulatory counsel at the FDA who is now a consultant, dismissed many of the proposed regulations on imported foods as “meaningless” bureaucracy that wouldn’t make foods safer.
Making importers legally liable for suppliers’ hygiene practices, for instance, is largely toothless if regulators don’t check for themselves, said England, chief executive of FDAImports.com, a Baltimore-area consulting firm for importers and foreign suppliers. “The FDA cannot be the food police of the world,” he said.
England contends it’s fear of lawsuits that keeps companies in check and consumers safe. That won’t curb “outlier” problem suppliers and producers — on whom England argues the FDA should focus its attention.
“The (draft) regulations are treating everyone as the same,” he said.
Behnke, the Bellevue woman, believes regulators can be better protectors. Her ordeal dented Behnke’s trusting nature. It also turned her into a vigilant consumer, one who avoids unpasteurized foods, washes all produce and never orders steak rare.
Still, “there is only so much that I can do,” said Behnke, an account executive for SH Worldwide, an event-planning firm. “The system still needs better monitoring.”
Behnke, whose father, Carl Behnke, is the former chairman of Sur La Table, a Seattle-based kitchen emporium, filed a lawsuit after her discharge from Overlake. Among the defendants were the New York company that imported the cheese; the Auburn company, Peterson Cheese, that distributed it; and Whole Foods.
Two weeks ago, Behnke reached a confidential settlement. Part of the money will go to reimburse her insurer for medical bills.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong