Twenty years ago, 623 people in the western U.S. fell ill with a little-known bacteria called E. coli O157:H7. Ultimately, four children would die from their infections; many others suffered long-term medical complications. The bug was later traced to undercooked hamburger served at Jack in the Box restaurants. This outbreak thrust foodborne illness onto the national stage as a real and present threat, sparking a sea change in the way Americans and the government treat this issue. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak, Food Safety News has produced a series of retrospective stories chronicling the outbreak itself and how food safety in America has changed since that time. This profile of Riley Detwiler is the first in the series.
When Darin and Vicki Detwiler first heard news reports of an E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants, they wanted to make sure their 9-year-old son Josh steered clear of burgers – or anything else – from the fast food chain. This was January 1993, and the family was living in Bellingham, Wash., where Jack in the Box had one location.
The Detwilers figured they were in the clear. Like most Americans, they were hearing the name “E. coli” for the first time, but the outbreak’s focal point was 90 miles south in Seattle. And either way, Josh knew not to eat from Jack in the Box and at 16 months of age, their toddler, Riley, was too young to eat hamburger.
Darin was alarmed, then, when he showed up to Riley’s daycare one afternoon in January to find a notice from the county health department. Parents were being asked to watch their children for signs of E. coli infection.
An 18-month-old boy at the daycare had just tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, the Jack in the Box outbreak strain. There was a chance he could have infected other children through direct contact or by contaminating the daycare environment with bacteria, health officials explained.
“We had just learned about E. coli, so the idea of it going from person to person was mind-blowing,” Darin Detwiler told Food Safety News, now 20 years since the event.
Not long after that, Riley began showing signs of E. coli infection. By the next day, his diarrhea had gotten so bad that his parents rushed him to the hospital.
Riley was now one of 623 patients known to be sickened in the outbreak across Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada. Of those ill, 602 lived in the state of Washington.
The boy who infected Riley had spent two days in the daycare before a clinical laboratory could return the positive test results for E. coli. His mother suspected he had E. coli, but did not tell the daycare for fear that he would be sent home, Darin said.
When the test results finally came in positive for E. coli, county health officials could not reach the child’s parents in the middle of the workday.
As it turned out, both parents worked at Jack in the Box, where they regularly fed their son hamburgers. Darin and Vicki were blindsided.
But while the boy who ate the tainted hamburgers recovered, Riley’s condition worsened. He was suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome, a kidney disease associated with the most severe E. coli cases.
The Detwilers felt helpless. No other children at the daycare fell ill – how did it happen to Riley?
After spending several days hospitalized in Bellingham, Riley was airlifted to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where doctors performed exploratory surgery and removed a large portion of his intestines. They then placed him in a medically induced coma.
“After his surgery, his little boy body was dwarfed by the wires and tubes and all the monitoring equipment on and around his hospital bed,” Darin said.
The Detwilers were a young couple. Darin, 24 years old at the time, was a former nuclear engineer on a Navy submarine. He had been out of the military only a year and had just lost his job – along with the family’s health insurance – two days before Riley’s symptoms first developed.
Darin and Vicki had spent weeks at Riley’s bedside day and night. Only on the night of February 11 did they step out briefly in order to describe their ordeal to President Bill Clinton during a nationally televised “town meeting.” Riley’s illness had begun the weekend following the President’s inauguration.
On the broadcast, the couple appeared via satellite to urge the President to act quickly on health reform and improve the nation’s meat inspection system.
But there seemed to be increasingly little that could be done for Riley. As the days progressed, doctors determined that he had lost so much of his lung capacity that his brain was not receiving enough oxygen.
Riley died from respiratory failure brought on by his infection on February 20, 1993. At 17 months old, he became the third of the four children who would ultimately die in the outbreak. He had never eaten hamburger in his life.
“It totally fractured the family. It fractured my identity,” Darin said. “It also fractured the idea that – it might sound naïve – that if I served my country and was a good person, everything would be OK.”
President Clinton called the Detwilers to personally express his condolences. The family received cards from strangers all over the country.
In the midst of their anguish, however, the Detwilers now felt they had a mission: Make sure this never happened to anyone else.
Making E. coli ‘a household name’
In the grief-riddled weeks following Riley’s death, the Detwilers saw a TV interview with the parents of a child who died from E. coli in a small, under-reported outbreak seven years earlier. Darin and Vicki were irreconcilably frustrated: Why had this family not done more to speak out? Why were they not on TV seven years ago?
The Detwilers vowed to share their story with anyone who would listen. They went on the radio. They appeared on CNN, The Phil Donahue Show and Good Morning America – twice – among others.
They met with Vice President Al Gore, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and numerous Congress members to lobby for increased meat inspections and tighter oversight on food safety.
“I had the choice of letting my son’s death serve a purpose or not,” Darin said. “My military service reflected my sense of duty – my son deserved no less.”
In October 1994, the USDA, spurred by the national shock from the Jack in the Box outbreak, took the unprecedented step of declaring E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in ground beef. For the first time, a bacterium was considered just as unacceptable as a harmful chemical or foreign object.
Jack in the Box paid Riley’s medical bills, along with those of every other victim. Regardless, Darin needed to return to work “almost right away” to keep up with bills. Because they could not receive punitive damages for Riley’s death in Washington State, the Detwilers’ legal settlement from Jack in the Box covered little more than medical, funeral and legal expenses. Food safety attorney and Food Safety News publisher Bill Marler represented more than one hundred victims in the outbreak, but he did not represent the Detwilers.
In the years that followed, Darin used the G.I. bill to go through college, eventually earning a teaching degree from Western Washington University. Vicki gave birth to two more sons: William in 1994 and Lucas in 1996.
Throughout it all, the Detwilers continued their advocacy. Vicki spoke before consumer advocacy groups. Darin wrote articles for various publications, including “Tragedy Was Not Enough,” for the New York Times, which described the family’s dead-end meetings with television executives interested in turning Riley’s story into a made-for-TV movie. (That article is reprinted by the Philadelphia Inquirer under a different title.)
The Detwilers’ most important work, Darin said, was their effort to help introduce federal requirements for safe handling labels on raw and not-ready-to-eat meats.
From 2004 to 2007, Darin served two terms on the USDA’s National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection, appointed by former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. There, his voice as a teacher and an advocate played a role in developing regulatory policy on food safety.
“We overlook the power of the people. You don’t have to be an elected official or someone famous to bring about change,” Darin said. “I’ve talked to legislators, testified before congress, worked with the USDA, talked to presidents and vice presidents, walked the halls of congress on multiple occasions. We’ve done everything we can to give witness or testify so that nobody down the road could ever say, ‘I wish the parents of the child who died – Riley Detwiler’s parents – didn’t just disappear and avoid making sure it never happened again.’”
Passing on the lesson
Darin and Vicki have undertaken the bulk of their advocacy efforts while Darin worked as a high school and community college teacher. It’s in the classroom where he has pioneered another aspect of his advocacy: food safety education.
First, as a science and math teacher, Darin used his background knowledge in foodborne illness to develop food safety labs for his science classes. His students would cook hamburger patties, for example, and use temperature probes to see how fast the patties dropped into the ‘danger zone’ below 140 degrees F.
He would present these labs at conferences for science teachers and the meat industry alike. He’s published articles in the national journal “The Science Teacher” on integrating food safety material into science education.
Today, Darin works as a history teacher and heads the social studies department at Redmond Middle School in Redmond, Wash. His 7th- and 8th-grade students undertake a unit on reform in America in which they study labor and consumer reform issues, including a look at food safety regulation over the last century.
Darin’s students read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.” They learn about the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak and the Detwilers’ connection, and they analyze E. coli data from the USDA and the Washington State Department of Health.
“As a teacher, I learned that children place value on lessons that have an impact on their life and that clarify the world they thought they knew,” Darin said. “I don’t force facts upon them. Instead, I create opportunities for them to question and evaluate, then I support their learning with my experiences.”
After 23 years of marriage, Darin and Vicki recently began the process of divorce. The burden of Riley’s death has long placed a great weight on the family, Darin said, and the personal expenses of two decades spent traveling around the country advocating for food safety took their own toll financially and emotionally.
20 years later, there’s still nothing that could fill the void left by Riley’s death, Darin said. Riley’s story serves as a constant reminder of Darin’s mission as a teacher.
“I was at a point when the kids I was teaching in school would have been Riley’s age when I wondered ‘What’s my motivation for teaching?’” Darin said. “Perhaps it’s the side of me that feels guilty that Riley didn’t have a choice, an option, a vote, and he’s not on this earth anymore. I feel guilty that I outlived my son and maybe I better make the fact that I’m still here count for something — being a teacher who helps someone understand the world better, who helps others have a life the quality I wanted my son to have.”
Photo of Riley Detwiler courtesy of the Detwiler family.© Food Safety News