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The History of Stop Foodborne Illness

In 1992, most of us had never heard of E. coli, let alone the devastation it was capable of unleashing.  The 1993 west coast E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated fast food, which resulted in the deaths of four children and hundreds more sickened, was a watershed moment.  This event put the spotlight on food safety – making front page news – catalyzing a long-overdue conversation and examination of food safety standards and practices in the United States.  This was the impetus for the birth of Safe Tables Our Priority or STOP, which was rebranded to Stop Foodborne Illness in 2011.

We wanted answers. We wanted to know the truth.

Why hadn’t we heard about this before it was too late?

With the spotlight of the media  and the publication of victim’s profiles, families and individuals were able to coalesce; they found support and a place to voice their frustrations and  fears. Together, as STOP, they could prevent an event like this from happening again.

These were not microbiologists, doctors, or pathologists — but mothers and fathers, siblings, friends, and families compelled by love, confusion and anger.   They knew they had to raise their voices so that America would hear.

Incorporated as a not-for-profit in California in 1994, STOP began as a grassroots effort. The U.S. government and non-governmental organizations were not addressing this public safety issue and STOP stepped in to fill the void. The founders knew that increasing awareness about foodborne pathogens had to be a guiding principle.

Initially, STOP learned that there is not a singular government agency – there are many – that oversee food safety in the U.S. We also identified the lack of effective communication at all levels of governmental hierarchy – federal, state and local. It was clear that we weren’t the only organization seeking answers. As STOP became more knowledgeable of how food becomes contaminated, the weaknesses of the system and the complexity of the challenge of preventing foodborne illness became very apparent.

President Clinton announces new regulations that modernize the nation's meat and inspection system for the first time in 90 years. (July 1996)

Learning that the United States government — our government — had known about emerging foodborne pathogens but lacked a comprehensive plan to combat them was disheartening. It was identified that as early as 1982, scientists and pathologists had been quietly warning the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Congress, and the media that a failure to inspect meat and poultry for bacteria would lead to a food safety disaster.

Time was of the essence and although there was significant resistance at every turn, STOP knew it held the truth.

STOP added its strong voice to the Safe Food Coalition, a group of consumer, public health and labor organizations which has advocated for improvements to the food safety system, particularly with respect to meat and poultry, since 1986. Industry held power, influence, and money. Victims’ families and survivors held onto lives that had been irreparably altered by foodborne illness. Families continued to tell their stories through the advocacy of STOP and its coalition partners.

STOP’s voices became a clarion call for change and eventually STOP was invited to participate in policy making. After countless hours spent educating the USDA and the meat industry about the devastation caused by E. coli, STOP became a key element in facilitating the first meat and poultry reforms since 1906. In 1996, STOP founders Roni and Nancy, were invited to witness this historic overhaul being signed into law by President Clinton.

For the first time, the faces of foodborne illness superseded the statistics.

As a result of STOP’s work and the countless volunteer hours of advocates, Stop Foodborne Illness has been at the forefront of numerous historical achievements that make food safer for everyone. After the meat and poultry reforms in 1996, STOP was on hand to see mandatory consumer health warning labels for unpasteurized juices (1997), passage of the Lauren Rudolph Food Safety Act in California (1998), microbial testing & zero tolerance for pathogens in school lunch meat (1999), and mandatory pasteurization for all bulk juices (2001).

STOP’s member constituents’ ongoing dedication is the foundation of its success. Initially, many seek out STOP for assistance.  When they learn more about STOP, they become involved by learning about issues and sharing their stories on our website.  Their stories are also shared through print and online media and by speaking to government, industry, and consumer stakeholders. Their grief has not gone unnoticed.

In 2010, after holding a rally in Washington, DC, in front of the Department of Agriculture building, asking them to declare non-O157 E. coli bacteria as adulterants, we were invited to meet later that year with the Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA for the same reason.

Then, in January 2011, due in large part to the tireless efforts of the constituents of STOP and our coalition partners, President Barack Obama signed H.R. 2751 The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law. The FDA now possesses mandatory recall authority, and must inspect facilities more frequently.

In 2012, the USDA agreed and confirmed that non-O157 E. coli  (O26, O103, O45, O111, O121, O145) would be considered adulterants to our meat supply.

But food safety and the world around us is not static.  Our work continues…