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Father of Bellingham's E. coli victim continues push for food safety

Darin Detwiler

Sometimes, when he was a teacher, Darin Detwiler would look at his students and realize they were the same age as his son Riley, if Riley were still alive.

Riley was just 17 months old when he lost his life 21 years ago. He was one of four youngsters in the Northwest who died from an E. coli outbreak linked to contaminated, undercooked meat at Jack in the Box restaurants.

Detwiler said seeing his students, alive and healthy, reminded him of the importance of trying to be a good teacher, and of weaving the subject of food safety into his classroom content.

"There's a reason why I am alive and my son is not," he said. "If I'm going to justify why I'm alive, maybe it's to continue to be of service and to make a difference in this world. It helps me to go to bed at night."

Detwiler and his wife, Vicki, were living in Bellingham when news of the E. coli outbreak went public in mid-January 1993. At the time, they were parents to two boys, Joshua, 9, and Riley.

As a precaution, they stayed away from Jack in the Box, but Riley became sick after being exposed to an infected child in day care.

Riley soon showed signs of illness and was flown to a Seattle hospital in serious condition on Feb. 2. Despite major surgery and intensive care, he died 18 days later.

Nearly 500 people were infected by eating the contaminated hamburger meat in Washington and three other Western states. Hundreds of people became sick, including the four children who died.

One expert called the outbreak the "Pearl Harbor for the food game." Others have likened it to the food industry's "9/11."

Grief-stricken, the Detwilers became national advocates for food safety, working to publicize the danger of E. coli and to reduce the risk of eating unsafe meat.

Detwiler had lost his job shortly before Riley became sick. After his son died, he returned to school, earning degrees in history and education at Western Washington University, and became an award-winning teacher for 15 years, teaching at Bellevue College and at public schools in Kirkland and Redmond.

"I thought that teaching would be a good way for me to make an impact on society," he said.

Detwiler, 46, remained active on food safety, too. He served on a national advisory panel on meat and poultry inspections, helped the federal government develop "safe-handling" labels for meat products, and became a certified food safety educator.

Over time he became discouraged by public education's emphasis on standardized tests and by what he considers low pay for teachers.

So he moved to the East Coast to earn a doctorate in law and policy, with an emphasis on food policy, at Northeastern University in Boston. He plans to finish by mid-2016, about the time a new federal law -- the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011 -- kicks into gear.

The law is intended to bring a new, preventative focus to food safety. The law requires food facilities to develop and follow plans to improve safety, sets safety standards for fruits and vegetables, requires more frequent inspections, and gives the government the power to issue mandatory recalls, suspend violators, and improve the tracking of foods to prevent or stop outbreaks.

"There's zero trace back," Detwiler said. "There should be the ability to trace the animal back to the farm, through the processing system and the slaughter system, and then to the products."

He said the law marks a major advance for food safety, but battles over details and funding remain, even as foodborne diseases -- most of them preventable -- killed at least 80 people in the U.S. and sent 4,200 to the hospital last year.

"I thought things like this don't happen, that things would work out," Detwiler recalled thinking when his son died. "I didn't think I'd have to be concerned about those things in 2014."


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