Ordeal leaves family wary
Local couple troubled about food safety after kids' illness from snack
Cathleen F. Crowley,
Albany Times-Union Staff writer
Friday, July 13, 2007
The Scheels buy the best groceries for their 20-month-old triplets, Sydney, Cole and Michael. The toddlers rarely eat junk food. Organic, gourmet and fresh food are the staples of their diet.
"They eat better than us," said their mother, Elex Scheels.
That's why the Voorheesville family was shocked when they were swept into this spring's Veggie Booty salmonella outbreak.
Sydney and Cole were among 60 people nationwide and 15 in New York to suffer salmonella poisoning after eating the puffed rice and corn treats advertised as "gourmet" and "natural." Almost all of the victims were toddlers.
Veggie Booty and a sister product, Super Veggie Tings, suspected of being contaminated by seasoning imported from China. The products were recalled from store shelves on June 28. Two months earlier, Sydney and Cole had spiked fevers and suffered explosive diarrhea. Sydney was nearly hospitalized to treat her bloody bowel movements.
Now, when Elex and Patrick Scheels walk the health food aisles and organic section of their grocery store, they shop with skeptical eyes.
"What was so troubling about all of this is how out of your hands it is," said Patrick Scheels, who owns Capital Painting. "The ingredients could be from anywhere."
Overnight, the Scheels have become food safety advocates. They are considering joining a class-action lawsuit against the Veggie Booty manufacturer, and they want to see country-of-origin labels on food products. Elex Scheels, an associate director at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., plans to write Congress with their story.
"My goal at the end of the day is to do something to cause change," she said. "To make people change the way we are doing business with China and the other countries we are buying food from."
Reports of the tainted seasoning, pet food and seafood from China are fueling the campaign for country-of-origin labeling. Congress passed a law in 2002 requiring such labeling on agricultural products, but the meat and grocery industries successfully blocked the law from taking effect. The labels are required only on seafood.
The Scheels discovered Veggie Booty at a Trader Joe's outside the region, a grocery store known for its natural and organic food selections. Sydney and Cole love the treats.
The manufacturer, Robert's American Gourmet, is a family-owned company located on Long Island. Company founder Robert Ehrlich said he created the snacks as a healthy alternative for his own kids. Ehrlich told the Associated Press he suspected the contamination came from a seasoning manufactured in China that is used on Veggie Booty and Veggie Tings.
Ehrlich said Robert's American Gourmet bought the seasoning from Atlantic Quality Spice & Seasonings of Edison, N.J.
Atlantic Quality Spice & Seasonings said its suppliers say all its ingredients were salmonella-free. It has tested other products made with some of the same ingredients used to produce the seasoning, and the results have been negative for salmonella, said the company's president, Stan Gorski.
"We are confident none of the materials that went into other products were contaminated," Gorski said.
The particular strain of the bacteria, Salmonella Wandsworth, is a rare form that has never been associated with an outbreak in the United States.
The only previously documented outbreak of Wandsworth occurred in a Hong Kong hospital in the late 1970s, said Mark Sotir, an epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control who was involved in the Veggie Booty investigation.
Eight babies became ill in the Honk Kong incident and the source of the contamination was traced to a container where rectal thermometers were stored, Sotir said.
"We don't have a lot of information on it," he said about Wandsworth.
The unique fingerprint of the strain actually helped the epidemiologists. On average, five cases of Salmonella Wandsworth poisonings occur in the U.S. annually, but when public health officials saw the climbing number of cases this spring, they suspected a link.
"The outbreak showed us what's right about this country," said Dr. Laura Staff, the Albany pediatrician who treated Sydney and Cole.
Staff sent one of Sydney's dirty diapers to the state lab for testing, and during another visit, Sydney had a bout where "blood started shooting out of her rectum."
Tests came back positive for Salmonella Wandsworth. Cole picked it up a week later.
Brown-eyed Sydney withstood a 105.3 temperature and terrible bouts of diarrhea, much worse than her blue-eyed brother, Cole. Her parents bathed Sydney in ice water to keep her fever down and she lost 2.5 pounds from her 25-pound body.
"It was terrifying," Elex Scheels said.
Michael, whose curly hair and finicky eating habits separate him from his siblings, didn't get sick. But family's bulldog, Gus, caught the Salmonella.
The Scheels family fielded numerous calls from state health officials asking: Have you traveled to a foreign country recently? Have the children been around animals? What have the children eaten?
Then the CDC called and drilled down. What brand of chips did they eat? What flavor? Where did you buy them? The Scheels can't remember if they bought them in the Capital Region at Price Chopper or Hannaford.
Despite the family's devotion to organic and gourmet foods, there was nothing they could have done to prevent the poisoning, said Delia Hammock, nutrition director for the Good Housekeeping Research Institute.
"When it comes to food safety issues like food poisoning and food-borne illness, (organic and gourmet) don't make any difference," Hammock said. "You feel so vulnerable when something like this happens. It's like the bag of spinach. You can do everything right yourself, yet you can't protect you or your children against this."
Hammock, who oversees testing for the Good Housekeeping seal, has a history with Robert's American Gourmet. In 2002, she outed the company for inaccurate nutritional information on their Pirate's Booty snacks.
The nutrition label claimed the snack had 128 calories and 2.5 grams of fat, but an independent lab discovered the snack had 147 calories with a 8 grams of fat. Another lab found that Veggie Booty, which contains spinach and kale, had 10 grams of fat at the time, the same as a candy bar. The company recalled the snacks.
Be skeptical, Hammock advises.
"What does gourmet mean? Gourmet means nothing," she said. "It's more of a marketing term."
While food certified organic meets government guidelines prohibiting growth hormones, pesticides and antibiotics, the USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.
No extra measures are taken to kill bacteria, Hammock said.
Sydney and Cole are healthy again and the triplets are back to their routine of standing in their cribs and dancing to children's music before they to go to sleep. Gus is his old self, too.
Cathleen F. Crowley can be reached at 454-5348, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More on this outbreak: Veggie Booty Salmonella Outbreak