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Letter From The Editor: Jack-in-the-Box at 20

Opinion

In the long history of food safety regulation of America’s meatpacking industry, the two events that rise above all others in shaping where we are today are the 1906 publication of “The Jungle” and  the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak. Each rocked the meatpacking industry to its core.

The author of “The Jungle,” fiction writer Upton Sinclair was disappointed, saying he aimed for America’s heart, but instead hit its stomach. Sinclair, a devoted Socialist, wrote “The Jungle” to help get the workers of the world to unite and all that, but did such an impressive job of depicting conditions inside Chicago’s meatpacking industry that Americans read it as a food safety exposé.

The ensuing public pressure led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Acts of 1906, the foundations for today’s food safety laws. The Meat Inspection Act brought federal inspectors and basic sanitary practices to the meat industry. It brought on the “poke and sniff” era, where men who, for the most part, knew meat were there to keep it clean and safe.

Fast-forward 87 years to Jack-in-the-Box, the fast food chain that 20 years ago served hamburgers contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, a pathogen USDA’s meat inspectors could not see, causing hundreds of illnesses and four deaths.  It sent America into a panic about hamburgers.

JITB at 20 is not an anniversary to celebrate, but it is a historic event to observe. In the coming weeks, Food Safety News will mark this important outbreak with a series of articles that in many cases will call upon our exclusive sources – those who know all the details about what happened.

In late 1992, customers at 73 JITB outlets in Idaho, California, Nevada and Washington State began getting sick from E. coli O157: H7 infections from hamburgers the fast food outlet had purchased from the Von Corporation. Five meat packers located in both the U.S. and Canada supplied it.

Before the outbreak, local health departments had warned JITB it was not cooking hamburgers to a high enough temperature to kill bacteria. At the time, nobody knew how O157 was best treated or how it might evolve into a potentially fatal kidney disease called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

Lauren Beth Rudolph, not yet 7 years old, was the first JITB victim to die from HUS on Dec. 28, 1992. Three more child deaths would follow, and it would be months before the last JITB victim left the hospital.

Because so many children were affected, JITB succeeded where Sinclair failed – it struck people in their hearts as well as their stomachs. We look forward to telling you much more about the outbreak and its lasting effect on food safety in the weeks ahead.

© Food Safety News
  • johnmunsell

    This article speaks about the “poke and sniff” protocol which was originally utilized by gov inspectors at meat plants.  JITB opened our eyes to the fact that bacteria such as E.coli & Salmonella are invisible, not seen by the naked eye.  Obviously, meat inspection required some changes. 

    After JITB, USDA/FSIS required all plants to implement the agency’s version of HACCP.  A major component of USDA-style HACCP is microbiological testing of meat, which will detect the presence of invisible bacteria. Great idea!   I submit to you that microbial testing, coupled with organoleptic inspection would provide a dynamic duo, with obvious benefits to public health.

    USDA/FSIS disagrees.  The agency prefers to ignore visible fecal contamination of carcasses on the kill floor.  Why?  Because the contamination is observed organoleptically, that is, with the eyes, which are allegedly inferior, archaic, and diametrically opposed to “science”.  Plus, FSIS defers to the slaughter plants’ HACCP Plans, which prove theoretically that the multiple hurdle pathogen intervention systems at the slaughter plants absolutely prevent the production of contaminated meat. 

    I’m looking forward to reading this series, which hopefully will address the issue of VISIBLE detection of pathogens, and how FSIS should respond when their line inspectors visually observe fecal presence.  It’s time to remove meat inspection from theory, and tackle the uncomfortable issue of the benefits of “poke & sniff”.

    Organoleptic inspection and science are not mutually exclusive. 

    FSIS disagrees.

    John Munsell

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/FVRPA6HIBK7TSRXRE5OKCHYGSU life-in-orange

      ….When “line speeds” are increased to the tune of three (3) times the current line speeds at USDA-FSIS regulated plants that they “the government” have recently approved, and company inspectors possess ”absolutely” no training in the Biological sciences, not to mention and including Microbiology and Pathology, how does USDA-FSIS believe that “they” are truely protecting the health of the American public (and the world with our poultry products) and Food Safety in general ? Do they not realize that this has been a major problem within slaughtering and packing plants ? Companies are only interested in their “bottom-line” ($$$) and to compete within the national / global arena with their products, not the safety of those products. Also, as one who has been trained, certified, and worked within three such poultry plants within the State of California, and has seen and delt with the very uneducated work force as well as an very uncaring company officials who oversee their operations, I can assure you all that things are going to get worse extremely a lot more sooner than later. This to me is like saying and trying to explain that….. if traffic speeds are increased within school zones, this will lessen the chances of someones child being hit and killed. Companies are not in any such manner going to send their employees to a one or two week training course to learn their $8.00 a hour job (California wages….not nationally) in detecting pathological deformities and other on-the-job challenges that trained USDA-FSIS inspectors have received from the government after being hired. Most (97%) company employees that I have worked with that are hard and decent working people by all means and measures that are simply trying to find work to support their families…..like native born Americans, are from all through out Latin America and have language barriers between them and native born American speakers of English. “THIS” is the first major problem companies are going to face that will be necessary to address, immediately, and second, is the major and daunting challenge to educated them within the arena of Veterinary Avian Biology / Pathology. Even the overwhelom majority of native born Americans don’t (and can’t….believe me) understand “Deep” Biology to perform this job. IPhones, Twitter, Facebook, Reality TV,and Social networking yes. Deep Biology NO. Good luck

  • CheatSheetsOnline

    Insightful to relate the Jack in the Box outbreak to the regulations stemming from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I find that an intriguing relationship that needs some further explanation. Thanks for bringing it up.