By: Thomas Siebertz
I received my copy of Poisoned on Friday and was finished with the 300-page novel by Sunday night. I just could not put it down. The book, which reads like a movie, tells the story of the 1992 Jack-in-the-Box E. Coli outbreak that left 4 dead and hundreds of others sick. It’s a riveting first hand account of the outbreak, investigation and legal proceedings that resulted. The author takes you behind the scenes with interviews with victims, public health officials and company executives who were all a part of the disaster. No detail is spared and you experience it from many different angles.
The story begins with the initial days of the outbreak and follows attorney Bill Marler as he fights one of the largest fast food chains the nation to bring justice to the victims who have succumbed to food poisoning from eating under cooked hamburgers tainted with E. Coli 0157:H7. His main client is a young girl who sadly gets very ill from eating at one of the restaurants. Many of the other victims were also children. Marler, who leads the charge against Jack-in-the-Box, has genuine compassion for the victims, which is apparent throughout the novel.
No one should ever get sick from eating food. This outbreak was a huge wake-up call to the food industry. Because of what happened, food safety measures were revolutionized. HACCP, a risk based food safety system designed to prevent these types of hazards from getting into the food supply was instituted. If only these systems were in place before, lives could have been saved. The book also describes insanitary conditions in slaughter facilities and lack of proper microbial testing for ground beef.
Though much has changed over the years, people still take food safety for granted. Before I started studying food science, I worked in several different food service establishments. The places I worked at had taught basic food safety principles, like rotating supply, checking temperatures, cross contamination and using sanitizers to clean, etc. But it wasn’t until I took food microbiology that I really understood how critical these things were. You don’t expect to get sick from simply eating food and it isn’t apparent when a food product is loaded with pathogens.
When I got into quality assurance at a food company it truly opened my eyes to how massive and complex our food system is. It is mind-boggling that thousands of pounds of food can be produced in a day, food that goes out all over the world to families and children. It is an incredible responsibility to make sure that food is safe and wholesome. In Poisoned, Jack-in-the-Box, who served the tainted hamburgers, is held directly accountable for not adequately ensuring their products were safe. The restaurant chain essentially neglected to follow public health laws that required cooking the hamburgers to proper temperatures. Improper cook temperatures mixed with ground meat from insanitary slaughterhouses served to children resulted in disaster.
The book was a very interesting, edge-of-your-seat read but also invoked deep sadness. The author describes in detail how the children were affected. I have two young daughters, and like many parents, could not bear to see my children sick and dying from any illness, let alone one which stemmed from trying to provide nourishment. As a food science student, you study food safety and microbiology and hope to never have to deal with foodborne illness. It all seems harmless in a lab where you can control the conditions. But with thousands of people still getting sick every year, it is a very real problem. Reading Poisoned expresses the real-life horror of foodborne illness. I’ve always heard about the famous “Jack-in-the-Box outbreak,” but thanks to Benedict’s book, I feel like I have a better understanding of what happened. I highly recommend this book as the story telling is superb and the plot will keep you engaged to the end.