Lauren Beth Rudolph died on December 28, 1992 in her mother’s arms due to complications of an E. coli O157:H7 infection – Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. She was only 6 years, 10 months, and 10 days old when she died. Her death, the deaths of three other children, and the sicknesses of 600 others, were eventually linked to E. coli O157:H7 tainted hamburger produced by Von’s and served at Jack in the Box restaurants on the West Coast during late 1992 and January 1993. Roni Rudolph, Lauren’s mom, I have known for 17 years.
Dave Theno became head of Jack in the Box’s food safety shortly after the outbreak. I too have known Dave for 17 years. However, I only learned recently a significant fact about Dave – one that made me admire him even more – one that I think, not only that all leaders in corporate food safety should emulate, but one that both Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius should pay attention too.
Dave and I shared the stage at the Nation Meat Association annual convention a few months ago. The NMA is an association representing meat processors, suppliers, and exporters. Dave, spoke just before I did and was rightly lauded as someone who takes food safety to heart. However, it was his story about Lauren Rudolph and his relationship with Roni that struck me. Dave told the quiet audience about Lauren’s death. Dave also told us that the death of Lauren and his friendship with Roni had changed him. He told us all that he had carried a picture of Lauren in his brief case everyday since he had taken the job at Jack in the Box. He told us that every time he needed to make a food safety decision – who to pick as a supplier, what certain specifications should be – he took out Lauren’s picture and asked, “What would Lauren want me to do?”
I thought how powerful that image was. The thought of a senior executive holding the picture of a dead child seeking guidance to avoid the next possible illness or death is stunning, but completely appropriate. I wonder if Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius do anything similar when they do their work on President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group? If they do not, perhaps they should?
Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius right now there are hundreds of families struggling right now due to illnesses and death related to food that you oversee that has been tainted with E. coli O157:H7.
A few months ago, I spent time with a family in South Carolina whose 4 year old ate cookie dough and suffered months of hospitalizations, weeks of dialysis and seizures. She faces a lifetime of complications. And, there is a woman in Nevada who is still hospitalized, who has lost a portion of her large intestine, was on dialysis until a few days ago. She faces months if not years of rehabilitation. Both ate cookie dough that was watch over by Secretary Sebelius’s FDA.
I recently sat across the kitchen table with a family who lost their only daughter because she died from an E. coli O157:H7 infection from meat inspected by Secretary Vilsack’s USDA/FSIS. I then visited families in a Cleveland hospital whose children are struggling in their battle against Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome – again E. coli O157:H7 tainted hamburger is to blame.
Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius you should be like Dave Theno. Run your departments like Dave ran food safety at Jack in the Box. Go meet these families. Sit across their kitchen tables. Go to their child’s hospital room and see more tubes and wires than you can count. Understand what these people have lived though. Take their stories into your heart. It is hard, very hard, but it will give you a real reason to do your jobs.