Just as Washington, D.C. is abuzz with a debate on agriculture appropriations — a bill in the House that would fund key food safety programs on the federal level — members of Congress and key administration officials received some summer reading: “Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. coli Outbreak that Changed the Way Americans Eat.”
By Friday, key politicos on Capitol Hill and in the White House will receive a copy of the newly released book — over 600 copies provided courtesy of food safety attorney Bill Marler, the managing partner of Marler Clark, publisher of Food Safety News.
Marler, a central figure in the book, was a fierce advocate for the recently enacted FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. He hopes the books will spur lawmakers to fund the new law.
The book, by best-selling author Jeff Benedict, tells the story of the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, one of the most significant foodborne illness epidemics in American history. Marler represented many of the victims of the outbreak and has since dedicated his law practice to foodborne illness litigation in similar cases.
“Just read the first chapter of this book and tell me you don’t believe food safety is an important issue,” said Marler in a news release. “The truth is that we’ve come a long way since 1993, but there is still progress to be made and far too much politicking involved in food issues.”
Benedict agrees. He says the book was one of the most difficult he’s ever written.
“The story truly invoked a paradigm shift in myself and my family,” he said. “Politically speaking, it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you sit on, you can’t help but become affected by this story.”
Marler also provided copies of books to the President and First Lady, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Undersecretary Elisabeth Hagen, and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor.
The books are not as intended as gifts and are ultimately to be donated to public libraries.
“The people who oversee food safety in business and government should be the first ones to pick up a copy of ‘Poisoned,’ ” said Marler. “It can be easy to grow detached from the issues you work on day to day. I think this book serves as a stark reminder to food safety leaders that they don’t work for numbers and statistics – they work for people who elected them and buy the food they produce.”
The effort comes in the midst of the E. coli outbreak in Germany that has become the most deadly on record, sickening more than 3,300 and killing 37 to date. The E. coli strain involved, O104:H4, is different than the infamous O157:H7 strain that has plagued the U.S. But O157:H7 is the only disease-causing E. coli currently regulated by U.S. food safety agencies.
“I’ve petitioned the USDA to regulate non-O157 E. coli, but my calls to action seem to be stalled in the Office of Management and Budget,” added Marler. “The situation in Germany is a warning sign complete with flashing lights and sirens. If we’d like to avoid this kind of crisis in the future here I suggest the government take swift action.”