A little over a year ago, 6-year-old Owen Carrignan of Millbury developed a bad stomachache after returning home from a sleepover. The healthy first-grader was soon hospitalized with severe diarrhea and failing kidneys. He died less than a week later from a food-borne bacteria.
State health officials recently closed the investigation, unable to identify the culprit food that caused Owen and another Worcester county resident — an unidentified woman in her 30s — to become seriously ill with the same strain of E. coli bacteria around the same time last year.
"We want answers, but there are no answers," said Michelle Carrignan, Owen’s mother. "I have a hard time food shopping because I keep thinking there could be something here that killed my son."
Foodborne illnesses, which also include food poisoning, sicken about one in six Americans every year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations, and an estimated 3,000 deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite improved techniques to help trace the sources of food contamination, current food safety regulations have not prevented dangerous contamination from happening in the first place.
But with the introduction of federal laws to regulate food safety, including rules on how produce is grown, harvested, and distributed throughout the country, officials hope they will be able to better prevent some tainted produce from getting to consumers. New regulations will also require food processing plant manufacturers to fix hazards on the assembly line that could contaminate pasta, baked goods, and other packaged foods.
"We know that we won’t get to a zero-risk food supply," said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. "But consumers have a right to expect that everything that can be done to prevent problems really will be done."