For most Americans, the “Jack in the Box” brand brings to mind images of a guy in a gray flannel suit attached to an oversized, cartoonish head — the superstar of a super-successful TV ad campaign.
In the Pacific Northwest, however, the name also conjures up grim memories of an outbreak of foodborne illness that sickened hundreds of consumers, killed four children and jolted a nation’s confidence in its food supply.
Now, Virginia journalist Jeff Benedict recounts the events surrounding that 1993 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in his latest book, “Poisoned” (Mariner Publishing, $25.) A generation after the fact, Benedict revisits the key players — the families, the doctors, the Jack in the Box executives and the lawyers – and weaves their personal stories into a compelling, movie-like story that unfolds day-by-day, practically hour-by-hour.
Today, foodborne illness has become a recurring issue on the national stage, revived periodically by outbreaks traced to tainted cheese or luncheon meats or spinach or peanuts. Bacteria such as E. coli o157:H7 and Salmonella have been added to the popular lexicon of current events. Congress has passed new legislation designed to promote food safety.
Twenty years ago, none of this was true. Few Americans had ever heard of E. coli, and even most family doctors had never heard of this virulent strain that causes bloody diarrhea and, occasionally, organ failure and death.
Benedict revisits some of those families whose children died, or lingered near death, for nothing more complicated than eating an undercooked fast-food hamburger.
His central character is Bill Marler, the lawyer who has been representing victims of foodborne illness for 20 years and who is the publisher of this site. But Marler shares the spotlight with fellow protagonists — especially nine-year-old Brianne Kiner, who became the poster child for the outbreak, and eventually Marler’s client.
Another writer might have cast Jack in the Box executives as the bad guys. But, as he researched those events, Benedict decided that company president Robert Nugent and others emerge as symphathetic characters, even fellow heroes, who quickly took responsibility for the outbreak and reached out to the victims.
“The villain of this story was not a person, but a germ,” Benedict says. “With the benefit of hindsight, I did not assume that Jack in the Box was the bad guy, because I couldn’t imagine why any business or person would knowingly allow its custumers to get horribly sick.”
E. coli o157:H7 was not entirely new to science. Some scientists believe the pathogen has been around for decades, perhaps centuries. It had been identified as the cause of an outbreak in southern Oregon a decade before Jack in the Box.
The difference in 1993 was that epidemiologists had learned how to use a relatively new technology — pulsed field gel electrophoresis, or PFGE — to identify the genetic code of a bacterium. For the first time in history, health investigators were able to establish with virtual certainty that these people were poisoned by a specific food.
That fundamentally changed the epidemiology of foodborne illness. Before Jack in the Box, outbreaks were mostly local problems linked to undercooked chicken or potato salad at a church potluck. Now, thanks to PFGE and other technological advances, outbreaks are regional or national and can be traced reliably to sources thousands of miles away.
But Benedict had other reasons for deciding to tell the Jack in the Box story. He had been drawn initially to the 2009 peanut outbreak, which was eventually traced to a processing plant near his home in Virginia.
“The peanut outbreak had no conclusion, which is a problem for a writer,” Benedict explains. “But then I flew out to Seattle to interview Marler, and I realized the real story was Jack in the Box.”
He was right. For anybody interested in foodborne illness, Jack in the Box changed everything. Benedict’s story begins to tell us why.
(Writer Ross Anderson is a longtime friend and collaborator with Bill Marler, who is the publisher of Food Safety News and a major figure in Benedict’s book.)
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