Published: October 4, 2011
By: Barry Estabrook
In August, we learned that salmonella in ground turkey had sickened more than 110 consumers and killed one. In September, news broke that listeria in cantaloupes had sickened more than 70 people and killed at least 15. What fatal food-borne outbreak should we expect in October?
Americans are being made ill by food with numbing frequency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the tally at 3,000 deaths annually.
Which is what makes Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat so timely. In the book, which was published earlier this year, author Jeff Benedict tells the story of the infamous 1993 outbreak, in which more than 750 customers of the Jack in the Box fast-food chain were sickened by E-coli-contaminated hamburgers. Four children died despite the best efforts of modern medicine. Dozens more survived but were left with permanent, debilitating injuries that would require lifelong care. The wave of publicity that surrounded the incident made consumers aware for the first time that there was something seriously wrong with the country's industrial food system.
Benedict is a masterly reporter and can create characters and spin plot as crisply as any novelist, making the science behind his gritty message easy to absorb. The value of Poisoned is that it brings to life the stories behind the headlines in a way no other food safety book has done. Grim statistics are one thing, but they are nothing compared to the suffering of the children and the anguish experienced by their helpless parents -- ordinary people whose only crime was to treat their kids to a restaurant burger, "the all-American meal." Who among us has not done that?
The book begins with Roni and Dick Rudolph, a San Diego couple whose six-year-old daughter, Lauren, developed bloody diarrhea on Christmas Eve in 1992 after experiencing a few days of mild stomach-flu-like symptoms. By the next morning, the girl was in intensive care, where she suffered a heart attack that compromised blood flow to her brain. Doctors put her into a medically-induced coma to reduce cerebral damage, to no avail. The damage was irreversible. Lauren would never again be able to breathe on her own. Roni and Dick made the decision to remove their daughter from life support. Lauren had gone from perfectly healthy to dead in six days. Her doctors had never seen anything like it.
Today, the symptoms of E. coli poisoning are well recognized, thanks to that Jack in the Box outbreak. With children dying, politicians convened hearings. Health agencies made E. coli a reportable disease. E. coli O157:H7 was officially listed as an adulterant by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning that food producers had to test for the bacteria and food containing it could not be sold unless precooked. Health departments established minimum cooking temperatures for restaurant meat. Warning labels were put on grocery-store packages of meat and poultry.
Many of these changes in food safety came about due to the untiring efforts of a crusading personal-injury lawyer in Seattle named William Marler, whose story, told in the style of a legal thriller, forms much of the book's narrative. (I wrote about Marler and his response to the recent Salmonella outbreak in ground turkey from Cargill here.) On behalf of dozens of clients, Marler sued Jack in the Box, winning record settlements. He went on to form the country's first law firm that specializes in food poisoning cases, including the current headline grabbers involving ground turkey and cantaloupe.
Working closely with doctors, public health officials, epidemiologists, food industry executives, and scientists, Marler has created what amounts to a privatized FDA. He also acts as the FDA's unofficial enforcer. Officials at the agency are loath to administer anything more than a hand slap, if that, to food executives who sicken and kill their customers; Marler has successfully sued them for more than a half-billion dollars.
Poisoned tells a two-decade old story that is more relevant today than ever.