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'Something has to change': Parents speak out after 2-year-old's E. coli-linked death

It all started with a romaine salad.

Kristen and Brad Bell felt a little sick after eating the salad last October.

Their two-year-old son soon started to show more severe symptoms. Cooper Bell was vomiting. He developed diarrhea. Then his mother noticed the blood in his diaper.

"I had no idea [what] was happening," Kristen Bell told CTV News from her home in Stirling, Ont.

"I thought 'This is not normal.'"

An emergency room doctor thought Cooper might have contracted a bacterial infection. The family's pediatrician agreed, saying the Bells should keep their son hydrated and bring him back in the morning.

Soon after the Bells returned home, they noticed some worrying changes in Cooper's behavior.

"He wasn't responding to me the same as he was earlier. It wasn't long after that, that he had a seizure in Brad's arms," Kristen Bell said.

Seeing their son shaking uncontrollably with his eyes closed, the Bells called an ambulance. He spent a few hours in hospital in nearby Belleville, Ont., and was then airlifted to the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.

Doctors at CHEO diagnosed Cooper with kidney failure brought on by E. coli. He suffered cardiac arrest and died. The Bells believe it was the romaine lettuce that made Cooper sick, although they were unable to send the lettuce for testing to confirm their belief because it had been thrown out.

There were 29 illnesses and 10 hospitalizations reported across Canada during last fall's E. coli outbreak, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. It was one of three outbreaks in North America over the past year all of which were linked to romaine lettuce.

Keith Warriner, a food safety expert and professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, said in an interview that the food industry has long been slow to improve its testing practices something that could improve overall food safety, but would mean extra costs for their operations.

"The industry itself has known for many years what it needs to do, but it's just been reluctant to do it," he said.

The Bells agree. They're sharing their story of grief with the hope it will help hospital workers and other parents better understand the danger of E. coli, but also because they want to see changes at the food production level.

"E. coli shouldn't be in our food," Brad Bell said.

"The way that we're growing food is dangerous, and something has to change."

The recent outbreaks appear to have shaken consumers' confidence in the safety of romaine and other leafy greens, which seems to have in turn pushed the industry to see E. coli as a higher priority.

Warriner singled out one recent "big move" by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is now recommending that growers ensure all water they use to treat their crops is protected from potential contamination.

"The industry's moving in the right direction," he said.

"I always say it's a shame that people have to suffer like this in order for them to do that, when they knew 10 years ago that they could have done it then."

The Bells are backing up their concerns with actions by starting a farm in Cooper's memory. In Brad's words, they plan to grow "as much healthy food as we can for the people around us" by using hydroponics a technique that allows them to ensure the safety of their crops because they are grown in water, with fewer chemicals and fertilizers than traditional methods utilize.

The family has launched an online fundraising campaign to raise $100,000 they can put toward starting up the farm.