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Food Safety Is On Everyone’s Plate

When I left Connecticut with my family four years ago, we settled into a rural Civil War-era farm in Virginia. I never intended to farm — I was just happy to find an affordable historic home with a few acres around it.

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But after settling in, we converted our place to an organic farm. It happened gradually. First it was a few vegetable gardens. Then some fruit trees. Eventually we added chickens, hens and horses.

Once I tasted the difference between the food we grew and the food we bought, I was sold on the idea that locally grown food is where it’s at. And it doesn’t get more local than your backyard.

The transformation in my own diet got me thinking about the American diet. I started paying attention to food poison outbreaks and food recalls, a topic my wife had been encouraging me to write about. I kept telling her that food was Michael Pollan’s turf, not mine.

Despite my reservations — most of my books are based on legal cases like the establishment of the Foxwoods casino — I began researching food poisoning. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in six Americans get sick from bad food. Many of these cases are mild gastroenteritis, better known as a stomach bug.

But too many food poisoning cases are serious, resulting in 125,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually. The fatalities are usually children and the elderly.

Last year more than half a billion eggs were recalled after nearly 2,000 people became sick with Salmonella poisoning. The year before that, tainted peanuts led to the recall of everything from breakfast cereals to peanut butter to energy bars.

In 2008, Connecticut health officials traced E. coli poisonings to raw milk from a dairy farm in Simsbury. The milk was sold at Whole Foods. The store has discontinued the sale of raw milk across the country. Nevertheless, Connecticut remains one of a handful of states that still permits the retail sale of raw milk.

No outbreak, however, compares to the food scare that swept the country in January 1993. President Bill Clinton had been in office just a few days when public health officials in Seattle traced an E. coli outbreak Jack in the Box hamburgers. At that time, most Americans had never heard the term E. coli. That changed overnight when over 750 children were poisoned and four died.

Most people remember that outbreak. But few know the remarkable back story and how dramatically it has shaped food safety policy in our country. One exception is the people who lived through it — parents whose children were swept up in the outbreak; the doctors who treated them; the executives at the helm of Jack in the Box during the tragedy.

The most compelling character in the bunch is Seattle attorney Bill Marler (who represented one of the children in the Connecticut case). In 1993, he was an unknown fledgling personal injury lawyer. He ended up representing hundreds of kids injured in that outbreak. One of them, 10-year-old Brianne Kiner, spent 40 days in a coma before a miraculous awakening. Her case made legal history.

Marler went on to represent thousands more children, and he evolved into the top food safety advocate in the U.S. No individual has done more to singlehandedly influence food safety policy over the past two decades. And no single event since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” has had more influence on the meat industry than the Jack in the Box outbreak. It’s referred to as the industry’s 9/11.

I used to be as guilty as the next guy when it came to apathy toward food. As long as it tasted good and didn’t cost too much, I was content.

Not anymore. Not after spending two years shadowing Bill Marler. Now I’m as passionate about food quality as I used to be about casino gambling.

What we don’t grow, I prefer to buy from local farms. When I eat out, I favor restaurants that source their foods from organic growers. There are a handful of food items that I now avoid entirely.

Memorial Day officially marks the start of barbecue season. It’s also the time of year when E. coli poisonings spike up. It’s worth knowing the origin of what’s on your fork.

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“Food Safety Is On Everybody’s Plate,” first appeared on May 22, 2011, in the Hartford Courant.  Jeff Benedict is the author of “Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat.”

Bill Marler is the publisher of Food Safety News.

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