My day on Capitol Hill

By Amanda Sands
Published: October 2010

At 6:30 AM on the morning of September 22, I was on a plane with my dad and sister headed to Washington DC. Around breakfast time, we were greeted by representatives from a Seattle-based law firm and we all walked up D Street to the Capitol Building.
After stopping for a quick photo, we went across the street to the Rayburn House Office Building.
We all filed through a long security line, but realizing we had about two hours to kill, my sister and I went down to the National Mall to take pictures and back’€it ended up being a very unexpected three mile excursion, roundtrip.
Back at Rayburn, we were stopped by an intimidating line of people dressed like ghosts and a peppy woman handing out pamphlets.
“Learn about the cruelty of egg farmers’€ she began, shoving a paper in my face.“Thanks, but we’re actually going to the hearing, I said. And we’re running very, very late, I wanted to add.
“Then you’ll need to have the information! she reasoned, still holding out the little booklet.
I sighed and took it. It was designed to look like an egg carton, but said “Eggs from Caged Hens¦100 percent Cruelty and “Keep the cruelty out of your refrigerator on it. There was a superimposed graphic of an imprisoned hen in the corner.
We proceeded through security for the second time and made our way to the right room. There must have been over a hundred people trying to squeeze into what was a disappointingly plain-looking room.
Members of the press lined every inch of the walls, and photographers were even sitting on the floor facing the witnesses’ table for a better view.
We snagged seats before it got too crowded.
To kickoff the congressional hearing, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI) gave opening statements reviewing details of the case. This consumer hazard was the thirteenth of its kind since 2007.
Two women who fell ill over the summer due to contaminated egg consumption sat up in the front row. Following all of the committee members’ short speeches, the two witnesses were asked to present their prepared statements.
Sarah Lewis, a 30-year-old mother of two, took the audience through her experience with salmonella upon being infected at her sister’s college graduation dinner.
“When I was admitted [to the hospital] the first time, I spent almost 12 hours in the ER because I was so sick they did not want to move me, she said.
“They thought I was going to need emergency bowel surgery because the CAT scan showed bowels that were so inflamed and sick.
Lewis was admitted to the hospital twice’€the first time she was discharged on the pretenses that she would “start the healing process and return to a normal life.
Two weeks later, she was admitted again and spent another five days on antibiotics, injected with intravenous hydration.
After leaving the hospital the second time, she developed a bacteria called C. difficile that caused additional “severe diarrhea and cramping. Lewis claimed that to this day, she suffers symptoms from the remnant illness.
“My sister and I look back at that night and say, ‘ËœWhat if our grandma or one of my daughters had eaten the tarts we received?’
She paused for effect. “They probably would have died.
The second witness, 77-year-old Carol Lobato, described her encounter with salmonella, which involved her consumption of “rattlesnake cake at a high-end restaurant in Morrison, Colorado.
“At first, I began to shake and experience chills, she said. “Then came the waves of vomiting and explosive diarrhea. My fever rose to 102 degrees.
Lobato also visited the hospital twice, sent home the first time after a few hours of tests and scans.
The second stay was longer’€five days’€and more serious due to her age the progression of the salmonella. “I almost certainly would have died without aggressive intervention.
The Committee did not select these women arbitrarily.
Sarah Lewis happens to be the daughter of the owner of a small butcher shop. During his time questioning the witnesses, Representative Stupak placed emphasis on Lewis’ family’s adherence to state and federal regulations regarding standards of any food-related establishment.
When Stupak directly asked the witness whether government regulation was “over-burdensome or “helpful in maintaining business, Lewis replied, “If we did not have regulations on our facility, there’s other butcher shops, and if they didn’t uphold to a certain standard, then the product¦is not going to be of a certain level.
And Lobato herself grew up on an Iowa farm and made itvery clear in her own statement: “We never had any problems on our farm because we kept things clean, took proper care of our chickens, and did things the right way.
Before long, five guilty-faced men, all owners of giant Iowa egg farms, rose from their seats and, bombarded by photographers, made their way to the witness stand.
Just as the first witness, Austin “Jack DeCoster introduced himself, two protestors rose from their seats in the crowd with a giant poster condemning unethical egg farms.
One of them rattled off a memorized speech about the evils of keeping caged hens and ended with a chorus of “All eggs kill! All eggs kill! as he was escorted out of the room by security.
Jack DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg, and his son, Peter DeCoster, Wright County Egg Chief Operating Officer, offered statements.
“We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick, Jack DeCoster began. We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs.
He continued with the story of his family’s egg business.
“We were big before we started adopting sophisticated procedures to be sure we met all of the government requirements, he said.
-“While we were big, but still acting like we were small, we got into trouble with government requirements several times.
Other witnesses included Orland Bethel, President of Hillandale Farms and Duane Mangskau, Production Manager of Hillandale Farms. Bethel invoked his fifth amendment right to remain silent; Mangskau gave a short statement, and offered words of comfort: “And even if the source of the Salmonella illness is never confirmed, where we have fallen short in Iowa we are committed to improving our operations.
Stupak heavily interrogated the DeCosters, leaving them to contemplate the fact that their farm’s violations “didn’t just [happen] overnight.
Finally, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a representative from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), presented his statement, explaining the regulations placed on all food producers in the Untied States and the measures the FDA has taken to control outbreaks of illnesses such as salmonella.
The members of the committee, starting with Stupak, questioned Sharfstein about FDA involvement in passing food regulations.
They targeted the FDA’s practices; Burgess noted that the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ought to “cross-communicate to prevent instances like the recent breakout from happening again.
“It’s unusual to have salmonella inside the egg, isn’t it? asked Burgess.
“Not at [Wright County Egg], I don’t think, replied a cheeky Dr. Sharfstein.
The hearing was brought to a cliff-hanger close at 3:30 PM.
Introduced in May 2009, the new bill (the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act), an amendment to the existing Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, is still being debated by the Senate.
Having gotten sick from Wright County eggs, I can only wonder how long it will be before the bill is passed.
But at the same time, I’m almost glad this all happened, because otherwise major egg producers would have gone longer without abiding by safety regulations.

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