In a tragic story of how our food system fails families, Madeline Drexler’s article “What She Ate Almost Killed Her” for Good Housekeeping paints the painful tale of one little girl’s battle with death, all because she ate a hamburger.
On June 30, 2002, ConAgra recalled 354,200 pounds of ground beef. On July 16, Kristi Thacker purchased a five-pound package of ConAgra ground beef, packaged under a store-brand name, from her local grocery store. Three days later ConAgra expanded its recall, but Kristi Thacker didn’t hear about the recall until early September, about a month after she cooked the contaminated meat and fed it to her family. On August 14, five-year-old Savana Thacker got sick. Within a week, she was hospitalized with kidney and liver failure, complications of HUS caused by E. coli toxins poisoning her young body.

“Usually, I take things as they roll,” Kristi says now. “But this time, I literally felt ill.” Her husband, Shelby, got mad. “He wanted to know why, where, how. Who could have done this to us?”

The answer: our government’s lack of mandatory recall, and a voluntary recall process shrouded in secrecy.

For one, recalls are voluntary: No federal agency can order a manufacturer to pull a contaminated food product from the market, with the exception of infant formula; it can only request that the item be removed.

More alarming, the process is shrouded in secrecy. You may hear the name of the manufacturer mentioned on a TV report or read about it in the paper. But unless your local market chooses to identify itself, you won’t learn that the store has sold potentially lethal meat. It is no surprise, then, that only a small percentage of recalled foods is ever accounted for. The rest may have already been consumed or disposed of by the retailer or restaurant. Or it may wait in freezers in private homes.

We’ve seen these tragic cases in children before. A year before Savana got sick, two-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk died from a strain of E. coli that matched that from a recalled batch of meat manufactured by Green Bay Dressed Beef (which does business under the name American Foods Group). When his mother tried to find out where the firm had distributed the meat, she was stonewalled by state health officials.

Last July, with no other way to get the information, her attorney, William Marler, filed a lawsuit against American Foods Group and against the grocery store where Barbara regularly bought ground beef. “It is ridiculous that a grieving family would have to jump through the number of hoops we’ve had to, to find out what made our son sick,” Barbara says. “They don’t understand that when something like this happens to your child, you need to know.”

Until our government changes its system, kids will continue to die from the dangerous dishes served to them at family meals, school lunches, fast food establishments. We’ve seen kids with HUS sickened and killed from E. coli contaminated hamburger, juice, milk, spinach. It’s everywhere, and until the government sets higher standards, requires regular inspections and makes recalls mandatory, eating will continue to be a dangerous game for the American family.