By Jeff Benedict, a best-selling author and journalist
Before I wrote Poisoned, my wife Lydia spent two years trying to convince me to do a book on the food industry. I resisted, saying guys like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser did that. I write nonfiction stories, usually ones built around legal disputes. I couldn’t see how to do a compelling legal story around food.
Then something happened. Lydia revolutionized the way our family eats. This did not happen gradually. One week she cleaned out our cupboards and refrigerator, getting rid of everything from brand-name cereal to frozen meat to staple products like butter, flour, and sugar. Even the salt and pepper went. Then she restocked our kitchen with organic foods. We also started growing directly to small local farms to purchase our meat, poultry, and dairy products.
We didn’t stop here, though. We converted our 20-acre property into an organic fruit and vegetable farm. For a guy who grew up in a beach community in Connecticut, this was culture shock. But our four children loved it because we added horses, guinea fowl and chickens. We now collect close to twenty farm fresh eggs per day. On top of that we plant, water, weed, harvest and can. Now when we say grace, we mean it.
Besides improving the way I look and feel, this lifestyle change dramatically altered the way I look at food. The transformation got me searching earnestly for a food-related book topic. That’s when I came across Bill Marler, a personal injury lawyer who has emerged as the country’s most influential advocate for food safety. Today, food safety is a serious public-health problem. The CDC estimates that food-borne disease causes about 48 million illnesses per year. Roughly one in six Americans get sick from bad food. Many of these cases are mild gastroenteritis, commonly referred to as the stomach bug. But too many food poisoning cases are more serious, resulting in approximately 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually. The fatalities are often children and the elderly.
At the same time, food recalls happen often enough nowadays that they we practically have a ho-hum attitude about them. That is, unless 32 people die from a listeria outbreak tied to cantaloupes toward the end of 2011. The year before that more than a half a billion eggs are recalled and over two thousand people become sick with salmonella poisoning. And one year before that, nine people died from a salmonella outbreak linked to a peanut-manufacturing plant, leading to the largest food recall in U.S. history.
Then there’s E. coli, a potentially deadly pathogen that is no longer contained to beef. E. coli outbreaks have now been linked to spinach, unpasteurized apple juice, peppers, bagged lettuce, sprouts, raw milk, cilantro, and cheese. In 2009 E. coli even found its way into raw cookie dough.
But none of this was known back in 1993 when scores of children began showing up in Seattle-area emergency rooms with severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. At that time, E. coli wasn’t a reportable disease in most states. The USDA didn’t test for it in meat. Most consumers had never heard the term. That all changed when public health officials in Seattle announced that E. coli-contaminated hamburgers sold by Jack in the Box restaurants was responsible for rash of children in Seattle hospitals.
Before the dust settled, the outbreak had spread throughout the West. Over seven hundred and fifty children were poisoned and four died. All three national news networks tracked the story, as did every major newspaper. The idea that a hamburger could be deadly was as a chilling wake-up call. Amidst this environment, Bill Marler was a fledgling personal injury lawyer in Seattle when his phone rang. The call came from a mother of one of the children swept up in the outbreak. Marler and his wife had just had their first child. When he went to Seattle Children’s Hospital and witnessed first-hand what E. coli can do to a child, his entire approach to law and food changed.
When I was still trying to figure out how to write a non-fiction narrative centered on food, I flew out to Seattle to meet Marler. He picked me up in his red Volkswagen convertible – license plate “ECOLI” – and took me to his home two days of face-to-face interviews. Before I knew it I was wrapped up in the throes of the Jack in the Box case. For the past two years I did over two hundred interviews with all the major players in that outbreak: the families whose children were swept up in the outbreak; the Jack in the Box executives who were at the helm at the time; the physicians and public health officials who figured out the source of the poison; and the lawyers for both sides in what became the first class-action case linked to an E. coli outbreak.
E. coli is a household term in our vocabulary. And the Jack in the Box case is one that virtually every American adult remembers. But few people realize how much that case changed the way Americans eat.