Im­port­ing ill­ness: A fam­ily’s bout with sal­mo­nella in snack

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Steve Hirsch

VOORHEESVILLE, N.Y. — Cole and Syd­ney Scheels rep­re­sent the hu­man face of grow­ing U.S. con­cern over the safety of food im­ported from China.

The two young chil­dren, two of three triplets, re­cently be­came se­ri­ously ill with sal­mo­nella poi­son­ing at­trib­uted to snack food con­tain­ing tainted Chi­nese in­gre­di­ents.

Their par­ents, Pa­trick and Elex Scheels, say they are still an­gry about their chil­dren’s ill­ness, which oc­curred de­spite their ef­forts to mon­i­tor the kinds of food they eat.

“It was ter­ri­fy­ing and hor­ri­ble,” Mrs. Scheels said, re­call­ing that her daugh­ter lost 2 1/2 pounds dur­ing her ill­ness, a sig­nif­i­cant loss for a 24pound child.

The ill­ness was linked to Veg­gie Booty, a snack food man­u­fac­tured and sold by Robert’s Amer­i­can Gourmet Food of Sea Cliff, N.Y.

Mr. and Mrs. Scheels are su­ing the com­pany, which re­called the prod­uct in June. The com­pany de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

The safety of Chi­nese food and other im­ports has come un­der height­ened scru­tiny in re­cent months be­cause of prob­lems traced to Chi­nese prod­ucts, in­clud­ing pet deaths caused by tainted pet food, tooth­paste that con­tained a poi­sonous chem­i­cal used in an­tifreeze, and mis­la­beled “monk­fish” that might have been puffer fish con­tain­ing the toxin tetrodotoxin.

Pres­i­dent Bush last month set up a Cabi­net-level work­ing group to rec­om­mend ways to en­sure the safety of im­ported food.

For the Scheels fam­ily, the cri­sis be­gan in April when their daugh­ter Syd­ney and her brother Cole, both of whom turned 2 last month, be­came se­ri­ously ill af­ter eat­ing the prod­uct, a puffed rice and corn snack food whose in­gre­di­ents in­clude spinach, kale, cab­bage and broc­coli, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s Web site.

Syd­ney was sick for 14 days with symp­toms in­clud­ing se­vere di­ar­rhea and a fever that sur­passed 105 de­grees, Mrs. Scheels said.

Dr. Laura E. Staff, a physi­cian who treated Syd­ney and Cole at her nearby of­fice in Albany, sent fe­cal cul­tures for lab test­ing and dis­cov­ered that Syd­ney had sal­mo­nella. The dis­ease was iden­ti­fied as the Wandsworth strain cited by the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion when it warned con­sumers not to eat Veg­gie Booty in June.

Syd­ney tested pos­i­tive for 3 1/2 months, mean­ing she could not play with other young chil­dren or visit her great-grand­par­ents.

Robert’s Amer­i­can Gourmet Food re­called Veg­gie Booty be­cause of pos­si­ble sal­mo­nella con­tam­i­na­tion in June. The Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion later con­firmed that the sal­mo­nella strain found in Veg­gie Booty was re­spon­si­ble for a 19-state out­break of the dis­ease be­tween March and June.

The food com­pany said July 12 that the con­tam­i­nated in­gre­di­ent in the snack food was thought to be sourced from China, al­though it is not known whether the in­gre­di­ent was con­tam­i­nated be­fore or af­ter it en­tered the United States.

Dr. Staff said the fact that the chil­dren had the Wandsworth strain of sal­mo­nella linked to Veg­gie Booty in­di­cated they caught the dis­ease from the snack in­stead of an­other source, such as un­der­cooked eggs.

Mrs. Scheels said she and her hus­band Pa­trick were “fu­ri­ous” when she found out how her chil­dren be­came ill.

She said they buy “high-end” food for their chil­dren, in­clud­ing or­ganic foods, eggs from free-range hens and chicken raised with­out hor­mone sup­ple­ments. “We thought, ‘ we spend more money so that some­thing like this wouldn’t hap­pen,’ ” she said.

Dr. Staff said that Syd­ney was “very sick” when she came in, but also said it is not pos­si­ble to com­pletely avoid sal­mo­nella poi­son­ing.

“The ques­tion is, can you ever make sure your foods are per­fectly 100 per­cent safe?”

“You just can’t,” Dr. Staff said.

China or­dered a crack­down on seafood ex­porters as part of ef­forts to defuse widen­ing trade fric­tion over tainted con­sumer goods, more than a month af­ter the U.S. started ban­ning Chi­nese seafood on safety con­cerns.

The FDA placed a hold in June on all farm-raised shrimp, cat­fish, basa, dace and eel from China un­til the ship­ments are shown to be free of residue from drugs that aren’t ap­proved in the U.S.

Lo­cal in­spec­tion agen­cies must scru­ti­nize and val­i­date the ac­cred­i­ta­tion of seafood ex­porters to the U.S., while au­thor­i­ties must toughen health cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and mon­i­tor­ing pro­cesses, China’s Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and Ac­cred­i­ta­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion said on its Web site.

Mea­sures taken by China alone will not re­move tainted seafood from the mar­ket, said Steve Dick­in­son, a part­ner at law firm Har­ris Moure PLC in Shang­hai. The onus is also on U.S. im­porters to make sure they pur­chase seafood from rep­utable Chi­nese com­pa­nies, he said.

“I don’t think this is a gov­ern­ment is­sue,”Mr. Dick­in­son said.

The size and scope of China’s fish farm­ing makes it dif­fi­cult for the gov­ern­ment alone to stop un­safe seafood from leav­ing the coun­try, he said.

“My clients tell me this whole is­sue has largely been politi­cized,” Mr. Dick­in­son said. It’s un­fair to cast China’s seafood in­dus­try in a neg­a­tive light when the prob­lems were caused by sev­eral small and in­ef­fi­cient pro­duc­ers, he said.

This ar­ti­cle was based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

Jeff Fo­ley / Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Times

Sick­ened: Two of the Scheels triplets be­came ill from tainted Chi­nese im­ports. Michael (right) was un­af­fected, but Syd­ney (cen­ter) and Cole got sal­mo­nella poi­son­ing.

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