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Meet Darin Detwiler: A Devastated Dad Who’s Found Passion and Purpose in Food Safety Work After Losing His Baby Boy to Foodborne Illness

 

Every day, Darin Detwiler presses on.

Despite carrying a constant, huge, heartbreaking, invisible load on his mind after food poisoning took his 16-month-old son away from him, Darin spends his days fighting to keep food safer for us all.

With over 20 years of food safety education and reform experience fueled by an unwavering, aching desire to halt foodborne disease, Darin is one of STOP Foodborne Illness’ most passionate partners. Our special Q & A with this true-blue food safety warrior follows. In it, you’ll read about Darin’s story and his outrage over the tragic course of events that killed his young son. You’ll also find out what he wants you to do to help stop foodborne illness.

Q: Take us back to how it all started for you and how food safety became your life’s calling.

A: After leaving the Navy in 1992, having served aboard a nuclear submarine during the Cold and Gulf Wars, I came back to Washington State from Hawaii with my then-wife, 9-year-old stepson, and toddler son, Riley.

Shortly after coming home, we heard news reports of a foodborne illness outbreak in the Seattle area, which referenced a little-known bacteria called E. coli O157:H7. Investigators tied the outbreak to beef in hamburger sold at Jack in the Box restaurants. So, we thought we only needed to avoid eating at that fast food chain or any restaurant in Seattle. And with Riley being just 16-months-old, we thought he was safe. After all, Riley wasn’t going to be eating any hamburger.

But, I soon became alarmed.

Even though the outbreak’s focal point was 90 miles south of where we lived, I picked Riley up from his daycare center one day and found a health department notice asking parents to watch for signs of foodborne illness in their children.

I wondered what the heck was going on.

As it turns out, health officials were concerned about a sick, 18-month-old boy at the daycare center.

That sick boy’s father — let’s call him John — was a shift supervisor at the local Jack in the Box. The boy’s mother — let’s call her Sue — was an assistant manager at the same restaurant. Sue regularly cooked burgers for herself and her son, which she would bring home after work. One night, after eating Jack in the Box hamburgers, Sue and her son became ill.

Sue suspected they had E. coli poisoning.

Immediately, Sue rushed her son to the hospital for testing. Back then, that meant a 48-hour wait time for results. The next morning she dropped her son off at daycare. But, Sue didn’t say a word to the staff about her son’s illness for fear he’d be sent home.

It wasn’t until the following day — after Sue once again dropped her son off at daycare and went to work — that daycare staff got concerned about Sue’s son, who was suffering with diarrhea.

This disturbs me to my core.

John and Sue left their son in a daycare center, interacting with many children, for two days before the lab returned their son’s test results for what could have been a life-threatening, communicable foodborne disease.

Unbelievable.

And, unfortunately, the results did, in fact, come back positive for the exact strain of E. coli O157:H7 identified in the Jack in the Box outbreak.

In short order, health officials warned all parents of children attending the daycare center that John and Sue’s son could’ve infected other children through direct, person-to-person contact or via contaminated surfaces/items.

This meant my Riley, too.

To say I was frightened is a gross understatement.

I had thought E. coli could only be contracted by someone eating contaminated food. So, the idea of it going from person-to-person was mind-blowing.

Then, my worst fears came true.

Late one evening, Riley began showing symptoms. He was not his normal, active toddler self and started to show bloody diarrhea. Early the next morning, he was in really bad shape, so we rushed him to the hospital.

We soon learned from Riley’s medical team that he was indeed one of 623 patients known to be sickened in the E. coli outbreak across Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada.

After spending several days in a smaller hospital, Riley was airlifted to Seattle’s Children’s Hospital. He went from being “under observation” to having IV and monitors to being transferred to the Pediatric ICU. As I tried to sit close and hold him on his bed, the look of fear in his eyes grew painfully deeper with every hour. Riley wanted to go home. He wanted comfort from his bottle, but he couldn’t have one. With only a few words at his disposal, he kept reaching for the hanging bag of IV fluids and saying “Ba Ba” for bottle. This was one of the last things I heard Riley say.

Through the night and into the morning, he fell in and out of consciousness.

The next day, doctors performed exploratory surgery and removed a large portion of his colon. Riley was then placed in a medically-induced coma. His eyes, coated with an ointment, remained closed. His little arms and legs arranged to serve as a bridge between his small body and the web of wires and towering machines surrounding his bed.

No longer could I hold my son.

Meanwhile, there was a flurry of local news coverage that led to brief national attention of the E. coli problem.

But soon the story began to fade.

Many in media and government treated E. coli as a local problem, not of concern to the rest of the country. Several reporters, as well as executives from the meat/restaurant industries and government officials, announced that the outbreak was “over.” They reassured the public that the number of people getting sick was decreasing and it was safe to eat hamburger again in the areas affected by the outbreak.

But, I knew otherwise.

Cases of children sickened from secondary or person-to-person infections were increasing rapidly.

Doctors predicted that a second wave of victims — mostly children — could well outnumber those who actually ate the tainted meat.

As I became more and more infuriated by the news, I kept vigil at my son’s bedside, watching helplessly as Riley’s condition worsened.

Every day seemed to come with worse news, more questions, and lower numbers on beeping and blinking monitors. Riley looked as if to be asleep. I thought to myself: Maybe he’ll open his eyes and turn his head to look at me. Maybe he’ll say something. Maybe he’ll even just cry.

It didn’t happen.

Things got even worse.

Riley’s body was now being ravaged by Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a kidney disease associated with the most severe E. coli cases where red blood cells are destroyed leading to kidney failure.

On February 20, 1993, only 23 days after he became ill, Riley’s brief time of 16 months with me came to an end: massive brain hemorrhaging and multiple organ failure brought on by his infection were the final blow.

Losing Riley was beyond devastating for me.

Before leaving the hospital, friends removed Riley’s car seat so that the long, defeated drive home might be just a touch less painful. The drive was silent as his mother and I made a heartbreaking trip home we had long assumed would be with our son. I had no idea what to do when I got there.

While planning Riley’s funeral, figuring out how to move on with a broken family, and contemplating what I’d do with my life after this tragedy, I looked at boxes of newspaper clippings, get-well letters from school children, and cards from strangers around the country. This was a collection I had once held on to for the purpose of explaining to my son someday, years from then, what he had lived through and survived.

But, as I stared at the futile archive, my questions about its purpose turned into questions about my own purpose.

What does a father do when he lives on while his son is buried?

My son’s life was not fulfilled. I wondered intently: How could I honor Riley’s life? I couldn’t sit idly by. I couldn’t live with myself knowing that, just as his illness could have been prevented, so, too, could other illnesses. I knew what I had to do. The seeds were then firmly planted for a new career and calling in food safety.

Q: How did your professional life in food safety begin and what are you doing now?

A: My food safety career started over 20 years ago with a big focus on desperately-needed reform.

It began in 1993 with some work at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). There, I was an advocate for the “Food Safe Handling Labels” federal mandate. This called for special handling instruction labels to be placed on all raw meat products (referred to as the most significant change in food safety in 100 years). At the request of the USDA, I also worked as a consultant for the USDA’s Pathogen Reduction Program.

This work, however, was not permanent, full-time, or even paying. I still had bills and a family to provide for. With what I’d learned through my USDA work, I returned to college and became a teacher.

In 1998, I began teaching high school history, math, science, and other courses. My food safety speaking, writing, advocacy, and other experiences over the previous five years slowly made their way into what I taught.
Then, in 2004, after earning national certification from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a Food Science Educator in 2003, the Secretary of Agriculture appointed me to two terms as a USDA regulatory policy advisor on the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (2004–2007). In this role, as a food safety education expert, I presented before legislators, industry, and national organizations. I also consulted with print/broadcast media. And my writing on food safety history was featured in numerous journals and trade publications. While I resented when readers would often comment that they’d never heard of E. coli or the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak, I felt a sense of gratification that Riley’s story might make an impact on someone else’s life.

After my USDA appointment ended in 2007, I returned my energies to the classroom, along with service as an advocate for food safety education. These two areas of focus seemed to merge as I took on teaching forensic science courses, which included epidemiology. Mine was, perhaps, the only high school science class in the nation where students cooked hamburger patties while measuring heat loss and monitoring food temperatures above, below, and within the “danger zone.” They also participated in simulated outbreak investigations. My students met with visiting lawyers, physicians, USDA officials, state and county health officials, and even an inspector from the Canadian Border. I took evidence of my students’ work to share with other teachers at national conferences. The response was so positive.

And, one day, while teaching in the spring of 2009, I was struck by this realization: Had Riley lived, he’d be the exact age of seniors in my science class. My work seemed to now carry such validation in my life.

Due to loss of funding, my school cancelled the forensic science program, and I moved on to teach history to talented and gifted students at the middle school level.

A large U.S. History unit on “Reform in America” took on a greater level of importance in 2013. Having aligned the area of study with reform in the food industry, I taught about Upton Sinclair and had my students read his novel The Jungle. They learned about foodborne pathogens, analyzed USDA data on meat recalls, and explored related laws and federal government responsibilities. I helped them question and understand the role of the consumer in food safety reform. Importantly and significantly, this year was also the 20th anniversary of the Jack in the Box outbreak. I worked with NPR on a piece about the safety of our meat and my students listened to me on the radio while I was in Washington, D.C. Then, the local news affiliates visited my classroom and filmed me teaching students about the outbreak. I believe this was a lesson they’ll never forget.

Through this process, however, I returned to feelings I had in 1993 when I looked at those newspaper clippings, cards, and letters.

Was this my purpose?

Would my role forevermore be teaching the history of E.coli outbreaks over and over again while not doing something about the fact that foodborne pathogen recalls, outbreaks, illnesses, and deaths are a regular feature in the nightly news?

So, after 15 years of classroom teaching, I left my job and moved to the East Coast to pursue my desire to work in some capacity to prevent others from suffering from foodborne illness.

Now, I write articles on the history of food safety reform and food security for industry journals, serve as a consultant for a food safety education company, and teach about the regulatory affairs of food at Northeastern University in Boston.

Q: Food is something everyone deals with every single day. In your view, what’s the most important way we can make food safety a larger focus in our culture?

A: My feeling is that it starts with parents.

We need to start kids off early in life with a strong food safety mindset.

If you’re a parent, I’d love to see you take your children grocery shopping with you. Explain why washing fruits and vegetables is important. Share with them why buying locally-grown food is safer. Talk to your kids about all the food safety basics, especially the importance of hand washing. Involve them in your cooking at home, explaining key points like cooking food to safe temperatures before eating. Involve your children in STOP’s advocacy work, helping them learn about the issues and how they can bring about more food safety progress.

Be sure to discuss the “WHY” behind food safety practices.

This is critical.

Sadly, food safety doesn’t receive much coverage in school or in the media or anywhere that would benefit our next generation of shoppers and food handlers and cooks. It’s up to us as parents to make it a priority.

Q: What is one thing in the food safety realm that really gets you fired up, and why does it strike a chord with you?

A: The poor training and follow-through as it relates to safe food handling by those who serve food.

In most cases where I’ve helped educate food handling workers, one thing that seriously boggles my mind is this:

Workers seem to have NO idea of what they’re doing wrong or why it’s wrong.

So, I ask them to stop and think for a moment:

~ Would you like to have YOUR sandwich made by someone who didn’t wash their hands after handling a germ-laden phone or dirty money?

~ Would YOU want to eat tortilla chips stored in an uncovered bucket in a filthy storage room next to a door open to the alley with garbage right outside?

~ Would YOU want to eat food prepared by a worker who’s eating food at the same time?

Regrettably, this is what I see happening all the time.

This is the reality of how food service handlers operate.

Although I work as hard and smart as I can to impart knowledge and inspire safe food handling behaviors everywhere I go, what I tend to experience is apathy and excuses.

It sort of makes me numb and, I’ll admit, I lose faith sometimes.

But, I will never give up.

In honor of Riley and the many precious people I’ve met who didn’t deserve the painful fate of suffering or dying from a foodborne illness, I will press on.

Q: What food safety trends do you see on the horizon?

A: Implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will bring with it many challenges in terms of funding for regulatory authority and industry responsibility.

With FSMA, the federal government aims to take a more proactive, preventative role in food safety. While the implications seem like a win for consumers, change and new regulations come with reasons for many in the food industry to question and even oppose FSMA. This is an industry which enjoyed almost no change in regulation between 1906 (after the release of Sinclair’s novel The Jungle) and the 1990s (after the Jack in the Box E.coli outbreak.)

We’re already seeing major hurdles that need to be overcome with respect to genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling and Country of Origin Labels (COOL). These challenges are similar to those against federal regulation — including legal battles — by industry. Unfortunately, a very high level of influence — to the degree of self-regulation and food industry’s hand in writing policies for the federal government’s use in regulating industry —favors industry profit over public safety.

Q: How would you like to see STOP’s readers be involved in food safety reform and education?

A: Take action.

By this, I mean:

~ Point out unhealthy, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions at restaurants and grocery stores.

~ Ask questions about what food retailers are doing to prevent recalls and outbreaks.

~ Watch and fight back against industry influence over our legislators.

As advocates, you and I must make our voices heard, share our stories, and let legislators know we demand more from them.

Please, please, please: Express your own personal outrage to legislators and decision-makers whose job it is to make sure your food is safe. This is what makes people stand up and take notice. It’s what STOP’s long list of food safety accomplishments was built on. And, be sure to stay tuned to STOP’s Legislative Action Center and other communications for details on specific actions you can take to hold legislators’ feet to the fire.

Reform and food safety progress is up to you and me and, I hope, millions of others who’ll make fighting for food safety a priority.

Q: Is there anything else you want to say to STOP readers?

A: Some say the Jack in the Box E.coli outbreak is the “9/11” of the meat industry.

Imagine if that were true.

Then, every week or so, terrorists would fly planes into tall buildings in major cities, causing large numbers of casualties and deaths in their wake. The government would take serious action to stop this. The media would focus great attention to this. Well, thankfully this is not what we see happening.

But wait!

Unlike the events of that day in New York and at the Pentagon, the “9/11” of the meat industry IS taking place on a regular basis.

The numbers of people who become ill and die each year since 1993 is staggering. I relive my son’s horrible death through these news reports week by week as I watch food recalls and outbreaks happen. And I know many other families bear the same soul-crushing hurt and pain that I do.

Please help.

Please be involved.

Please make food safety a top priority in your life.

Remember, not responding is a response.

Darin Detwiler is a graduate lecturer in Northeastern University’s Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries degree program. He is also a Doctoral student in Law and Policy at Northeastern University. His research includes the history of food safety legislation and public policy regarding pathogen reduction and inspection. If you’d like to reach out to Darin with a question or comment, he welcomes your email at d.detwiler@neu.edu.

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