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