CASPER — It took a month for authorities to realize contaminated spinach killed Polly Costello's mother.
Later, she learned the technology already existed to keep tainted foods from harming the public. Her mother's death had been preventable.
The realization inspired Costello and her husband, Ken, to become advocates for tougher food safety rules. The couple, who live part of the year in Centennial, began lobbying for better consumer protections. They enjoyed a victory last month when President Barack Obama signed into law a major overhaul of the nation's food safety rules.
"People have to stand up and say, 'This can't happen in our society,' " Ken Costello said.
In August 2006, Polly Costello's mother was an active, 81-year-old retired nurse. Then Ruby Trautz became ill with flu-like symptoms. She died five days later — the first person in the United States killed during an E. coli outbreak later traced to contaminated spinach.
On the day Trautz died, Ken Costello began experiencing stomach problems. At first, he assumed he was upset over his mother-in-law's death. When his health declined, he went to a doctor, who put him on antibiotics.
The medication didn't help. Then news broke of the spinach outbreak, which ultimately killed three people and sickened more than 200 others.
"That is when we started to put two and two together," he said.
Doctors tested his blood and confirmed he'd been sickened by E. coli. Polly Costello suspected the illness might have been caused by spinach she had purchased in Omaha, Neb., where the couple lives when not in Wyoming. Testing confirmed her fears.
Eventually, the spinach was traced to a processor in California. The leaves themselves were contaminated; washing them would not have done any good.
Trautz's death could have been avoided if the processor had followed voluntary procedures to ensure its products were safe, Polly Costello said. The technology to check for contamination had existed for years.
"It was all preventable," she said. "This shouldn't have happened."
Up to that point, the Costellos hadn't paid attention to the issue of food safety. But the couple decided they couldn't stand by while others suffered similar tragedies. They educated themselves, met with politicians and started giving media interviews. They wanted tougher rules to help regulators protect consumers.
The Costellos also reached out to other families who were touched by food-borne illness.
"We've actually met the survivors," Polly Costello said. "It is really sad what they will go through for the rest of their lives."
The Costellos insist they aren't for big government. But consumers don't have the ability to test their own foods for contamination, they say. Simply buying from smaller, local producers won't solve the problem.
"It wasn't a dirty factory that caused (the spinach outbreak)," said Ken Costello, who joined the board of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention in 2009. "It was something that could occur on anybody's farm. It could occur on an organic farm or a farm that produced 50 pounds of spinach a week."
Late last year, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which gives the Food and Drug Administration more power to regulate food producers. The Costellos believe the new law will protect consumers by giving the FDA the power to recall foods and conduct more inspections.
But they are quick to say the regulatory overhaul won't solve the problem altogether. More education on the dangers of food-borne illness also is needed.
"I think it is very important that whatever can be done is done to ensure that in all areas, whether they are large or small processors, that our food supply is safe," Polly Costello said.