Bend family whose child almost died from E. coli presses officials for quicker action on food safety

Stephen and Sarah Valenzuela  took the day off work on Friday, bundled up their 5-year-old son and 3-week-old  daughter to travel from their home in Bend to Portland to put a public face on food poisoning.

In a meeting with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Oregon public health officials about a federal food safety bill, the Valenzuelas described how their son Jet  fell violently ill when he was 3. He was hospitalized on and off for nine months. He suffered acute renal failure, was in a medically induced coma for a week, underwent dialysis and four surgeries. He almost died two times.

“We’re just lucky we got him back,” said Sarah Valenzuela.

Jet was sickened by E. coli O157:H7,  a potentially fatal bacteria that can turn up in everything from meat to produce to processed food. Health officials never found the food that sickened him. Every year dozens of outbreaks in Oregon go unsolved and though epidemiologists crack many cases, hundreds of thousands of Oregonians are sickened and about 50 die.

Merkley, who’s tracking food safety in the Senate, wants that to change. He’s got his hopes focused on the Food Modernization and Safety Act, which has languished for months but could come up for a floor vote soon.

“No family should have to go through what the families here described,” Merkley said. “Most parents, me included, spend a lot of time worrying about how to keep their kids safe in a dangerous world. We shouldn’t have to also worry about how to protect our kids from the food on their plates.”

The bill would bolster the Food and Drug Administration, giving it recall authority and stepping up inspections. It would also work on setting up traceback systems to track food more quickly in an outbreak.