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After nearly two decades of fighting an uphill battle to tighten food safety regulations, a group of Illinoisans may soon see some success.
The Food Safety Modernization Act has already passed the House of Representatives and is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate in the next few weeks. If it passes, it would drastically reform the Food and Drug Administration.
Sen. Dick Durbin said he believes he finally has bipartisan support.
"We have the safest food supply in the world but hardly a week or a month goes by there isn't some major contamination," Durbin said. "So now we're looking at food safety from the 21st century perspective."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that eating contaminated food kills at least 5,000 people in the United States every year, puts more than 300,000 patients in the hospital and costs the nation around $152 billion.
It was almost 18 years ago when Durbin, then a U.S. congressman, was given a handwritten letter from an Illinois mother who'd lost her son to an E. coli infection.
Nancy Donley described her son's death as brutal, bloody and agonizing.
"He had to go to the bathroom. He said he needed to make a bowel movement. And there was nothing in the bowl but blood. He was hemorrhaging blood. I knew then there was something very wrong here," she said.
In the space of four days, Alex Donley's kidneys failed, his lung collapsed, and he started having tremors and delusions. Doctors had to drill shunts into his brain because it had started swelling.
Alex later slipped into a coma and died. The E. coli toxins had so ravaged his 6-year-old body that when the family tried to donate his organs, they found there was nothing left. His entire body had been destroyed. Parts of his brain were liquefied.
Nancy Donley took the pain of her loss and mounted a campaign for stronger food safety laws, writing every member of the Illinois Congressional delegation.
Durbin said Donley's description of her son's final days put food safety on his radar from that point on.
"The thing that surprises people the most is that you say, 'Oh, incidentally, the government doesn't have the power to recall contaminated food,' and they'll say, 'Now wait a minute. You mean, even if it's dangerous?' And the answer is, 'Yes,'" Durbin explained.
The legislation would set tougher standards for the rapidly-growing amount of imported food and would track food from the farm to the table.
"We have to eat. Let's face it," says Donley. "Every time I hear of another person getting sick or dying, I know my work isn't finished."