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Thursday, October 9, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Spreading word about food safety

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Four steps to food safety


Clean — Wash hands and surfaces often.

Separate — Don't cross contaminate.

Cook — Cook to proper temperatures.

Chill — Refrigerate promptly.

More info: www.fsis.usda.gov

Since losing their 17-month-old son to E. coli after an outbreak in Western Washington 10 years ago, Darin Detwiler and his wife have toured the nation, educating people on the dangers of improperly prepared and handled food.

They appeared on talk shows. They testified before Congress. They spoke at schools. Their goal: to make E. coli a household name, thus making parents aware of its potentially deadly grasp.

"We had never heard of E. coli until our son was on his deathbed," Detwiler said. "We wanted to make sure no one else went through that."

Three children died and more than 600 people statewide fell ill during the 1993 E. coli outbreak that was linked to improperly cooked hamburgers at Jack In The Box restaurants. Detwiler's son, Riley, never ate a hamburger. He contracted the bacteria from another child at his day-care facility and died less than a month later at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center in Seattle.

The USDA has recently embarked on a national campaign to educate the public about food safety. The traveling vehicle, called the USDA Food Safety Mobile, rolled yesterday into the Kirkland high school where Detwiler now teaches.

Detwiler was working as a nuclear engineer for the Navy when his son died. He went through a series of jobs while speaking across the country before realizing his calling for education.

"Something like this happens to you and you change your objectives," he said.

Detwiler earned an education degree from Western Washington University and now teaches math, science and history at BEST High School in Kirkland. He commutes 90 minutes from Island County to get to the school every day, which he has done for three years. He also teaches part time at Bellevue Community College.

Some of the 175 students at BEST have children of their own. Since young children have still-developing immune systems, they are more likely to be severely affected by food-borne illness.

Through his connections with the USDA, Detwiler coordinated the daylong event, which brought speakers from county, state and federal food and health agencies into the classrooms.

The school is the only one in the state to be visited by the USDA Food Safety Mobile. Since leaving Washington, D.C., in April, the vehicle has made stops in 28 states and traveled 18,000 miles promoting food safety.

"We're trying to focus on consumer public awareness," said Tim Leonard, the driver of the 35-foot recreational-style vehicle.

The slogan 'We can fight bac!' — meaning bacteria — is emblazoned on the vehicle's side, along with animated pictures of smiling refrigerators, soaps, cutting boards and thermometers. The decals are a playful way to catch the public's attention and prevent the tragedy that can come from not preparing or handling food properly.

Maria Gonzalez: 206-464-2449 or mgonzalez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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