How Eating Raw Cookie Dough Led to One Mom's Death, Son Recalls

Linda Rivera died four years after she ate the dough.

ByABC News
November 13, 2014, 6:26 PM

— -- His mother died an agonizing death, possibly because she ate a few bites of raw cookie dough years earlier.

Richard Simpson, of Las Vegas, recounted his mom's painful battle with E. coli today at an FDA hearing about stricter regulations on food production.

Linda Rivera died last summer, four years after she ate a few spoonfuls of prepackaged cookie dough that was later found to be contaminated with a dangerous strain of E. coli. First, her kidneys stopped functioning and she went into septic shock. Over the years, she became sicker as more organs failed and she was in and out of the hospital for operations.

"There were moments of hope -- and of despair," Simpson, 22, said today. "She fought very hard. We knew she didn't want to give up."

Rivera died in July 2013 from medical complications that appeared to stem from the E. coli she was infected with years earlier, her son said.

"Eventually, her body just couldn't take it," said Bill Marler, Rivera's friend and the attorney who handled her claim against Nestle, which manufactured the contaminated cookie dough in 2009.

"She was probably the most severely injured E. coli victim I have ever seen," he added. "She suffered brain injury. She had quite a large section of her large intestines removed. She suffered so many infections while hospitalized it was incredible. She was on a ventilator for several months in a coma. She was a very sick lady."

Linda Rivera contracted E. coli from raw cookie dough and died four years later.

Through it all, Rivera's family and Marler said, she remained strong.

"I remember the first time I met Linda, she was vomiting and retching and she was really sick, but she would apologize -- 'I am so sorry, please sit down, do you need anything to drink?'" Marler said. "That's just the way she was. She was just the most graceful, caring person you can ever meet."

Simpson, who recently got married, said he's fighting for stricter food regulations so another son doesn't have to testify about his mother's eventual death after she ate contaminated food.

"She wanted as much peace in this world as possible," he said of his mother. "I feel like I was put here in this position, for some reason, to help other people."

The panel was to discuss proposed changes to the FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act, including updates that could help prevent the spread of bacteria including E. coli.

Nestle recalled its pre-made Toll House cookie dough in 2009 after dozens of E. coli illnesses were reported.

Rivera's claim against the company was settled for an undisclosed amount, Marler said.

In a statement, Nestle said, "The fact that our product was implicated in Linda Rivera’s 2009 illness and tragic passing was obviously of grave concern to all of us at Nestle. Since then, we have implemented more stringent testing and inspection of raw materials and finished product to ensure the product meets our high quality standards. In addition, we have switched to using heat-treated flour to further enhance safety. We continue to emphasize that the cookie dough should be consumed only after baking and not eaten raw."

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, said Rivera's long battle with E. coli is rare, but pointed out that it's not the bacteria that ultimately killed her.

"She never really recovered completely from her initial illness, and then developed a series of medical complications," he said.

Simpson, who recently bought a house with his new wife, said he knows his mom would be proud of him if she were alive today.

"I know she's looking down and guiding me," he said. "Emotionally, she's here with me and I see signs everywhere. Like right now, I just saw a cup on a table that I have at my house that my mom had bought me two and a half years ago. That's the exact same cup my mom bought me. I see that all the time."

"I was always a mama's boy," he added.