Commentary

Saunders: Wake Forest girl fights to save others from foodborne illness

bsaunders@newsobserver.comFebruary 3, 2014 

Dana Dziadul, right, visited U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in Washington recently to help drum up more funding for the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Dana Dziadul of Wake Forest has been fighting since she was 3 years old, but don’t bother telling her mother.

Colette Dziadul already knows and serves as cornerman – cornerwoman? – to her combative daughter.

First, Dana, now 16, was fighting for her life after getting debilitatingly ill from bad cantaloupe she ate when she was 3.

Now, she’s fighting to ensure that other children don’t suffer the same fate that befell her – or a worse one.

It’s been nearly 13 years since her family went for Easter brunch at a beachside restaurant in Connecticut and Dana piled her plate high with cantaloupe. She fell ill the next day, and it took doctors years to figure out what was causing the severest of her recurring distress.

“Dana’s a fighter,” Colette told me last week, two days after her daughter and she returned from Washington, where they were trying to enlist legislators in their battle. She suffered foodborne blood poisoning that was undiagnosed for so long that it led to arthritis.

“She’s been an advocate for many, many years now for the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act,” Colette said.

That act, signed into law by President Barack Obama three years ago, aims to ensure that the U.S. food supply is safe, make sure that imported foods meet the same safety standards as domestically produced foods and gives the FDA new authority to recall foods. It is still unfunded – and thus pretty much useless – so Dana is fighting to persuade legislators to put some money into enforcing it.

There were no such enforced standards in place in 2001, when Dana ate that cantaloupe. The next day, Collete said, her daughter complained of a headache and stomachache, among other ailments, and was rushed to the hospital. Doctors didn’t know if she would make it; several people nationwide didn’t make it and the FDA warned of an outbreak of foodborne illnesses associated with cantaloupes across 14 states, including Connecticut, she said.

Funding the law

Although Dana first got ill at 3, she was 11 before doctors realized the agony she was experiencing wasn’t just “growing pains.” It was, they later discovered, reactive arthritis, which is characterized by debilitating pain in her legs and feet.

“She’s a child,” her mother said, “and when she speaks, she says ‘I got sick. I almost died, and food safety is very important. ... I can’t imagine my sister going through what I’ve gone through and living every day with the consequences from just eating a cantaloupe.’ 

That’s why Dana was in Washington last week, meeting with U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, the day after Obama’s State of the Union address. “Sen. Hagan has been a wonderful supporter of the bill, but the problem is that the funding is still a big issue.

“We met with representatives from Congressman (George) Holding’s office and Sen. (Richard) Burr’s office, but Sen. Hagan offers an opportunity for anybody from North Carolina to come and meet with her on Wednesday mornings. ... Dana told her this – reactive arthritis – is something she still lives with every day and it’s so important” that food safety receive funding.

“Sen. Hagan was very warm and held Dana’s hand. Hopefully, this will be the start of a great relationship between the two of them,” Collette said.

Despite her warmth and hand-holding, though, Hagan made no promises regarding money.

Inspecting before ingesting

Prior to hearing about Dana’s misfortune, “food safety” to me meant simply not eating anything that was discolored, moving or unidentifiable. You know that international “five-second” rule, the one that allows you to “safely” eat anything you drop if you pick it up within five seconds?

For me, it was more like 15 seconds, longer if no one was looking.

After reading about the ailments and complications that struck this innocent little girl who was eating a supposedly healthful piece of fruit, though, I’ve become more circumspect and now inspect what I eat. You should, too, if you trust what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says.

“The CDC says 3,000 people a year still die from the simple act of eating, and 128,000 are hospitalized every year from a foodborne illness,” Collete said.

Dana still suffers pain in her ankles and other joints that makes it impossible for her to participate in any sports except swimming and even makes it difficult for her to drive, her mother said.

Good thing she’s a fighter, right? She’s not just a fighter, though: she’s a writer, too.

“She just finished a children’s book called ‘Food Safety Superstar’ to help children understand how important it is to be safe with your food,” her mother said. The book is being illustrated by a classmate at Trinity Academy in Raleigh, where Dana is a sophomore, and will be released in September – National Food Safety Month – on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps legislators will buy her book. More importantly, perhaps they will buy into the idea that anything that seeks to protect our food deserves support.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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