REDMOND, Wash. - Even when teaching history to 7th graders at Redmond Middle School, Darin Detwiler finds a way to address the power of consumers to demand reforms. His passion is the food industry.
Detwiler asks students if they’ve ever heard of E. coli bacteria and dozens of hands shoot up.
"It's incredible, that so many of you have heard of E. coli because 20 years ago no one had heard of E. Coli, even I hadn’t heard of E. Coli,” Detwiler told his class.
Detwiler was a 25-year-old parent in Bellingham when the E. coli epidemic hit in 1993. People were getting sick from eating undercooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box. Detwiler didn't worry about his toddler son, Riley, because Riley was too young to eat hamburger. Then a warning came home from the daycare center.
"We saw a flyer from the Whatcom County Health Department, talking about, look for these symptoms and here’s what you do if you see these symptoms and we saw those symptoms that night," Detwiler said.
Riley had bloody diarrhea and flu like symptoms. His parents later learned that he had been infected with E. coli by another child at the daycare center - a child whose parents worked at Jack in the Box. The Detwilers took Riley to a hospital in Bellingham, but within days he was so sick he was transferred to Seattle Children’s Hospital. Riley continued to decline. A large section of his intestines had to be removed.
“His kidneys were shutting down, all of his organs were shutting down slowly,” said Darin Detwiler.
Detwiler didn’t know then that hundreds of people were fighting the same battle. But Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler remembers it well.
"It was a war zone. They were flying in dialysis machines from Minnesota because so many kids were on dialysis. There were kids sharing dialysis machines,” Marler said.
Marler led a class action suit against Jack in the Box, representing more than 100 victims. Darin Detwiler led a parents’ crusade, testifying before Congress and advising the FDA on food safety reforms. .
Changes were made. In 1994, the USDA declared E. coli an adulterant, which meant anytime it showed up in meat, the product was recalled. Scientists began DNA testing of E. coli and the results were put into a national database so that outbreaks could be quickly tracked. E. coli O157:H7, the strain that sickened Riley, became a reportable disease, which meant health departments were alerted whenever someone got sick. The USDA mandated that hamburgers be cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees at fast food restaurants in order to kill the bacterium if it was present.
Sadly all of those reforms came too late for Riley Detwiler. Four weeks after being admitted to the hospital, on February 18, 1993, Riley died. He was 16 months old.
Darin Detwiler remembers holding his dead son in his arms for an hour before accepting what had happened. And he made a promise.
"I told him it was not fair that I am alive and he is not. And I told him that his death was not going to be for nothing and I told him, I don't want some other family to learn about E. coli on their child's death bed,” Detwiler said.
Detwiler promised his dead son that he would be a tireless advocate for food safety and consumer reforms. It’s a promise he’s still keeping 20 years later. He plans to move to Washington, D.C. next year to continue his fight to improve food safety in America.