Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat
by Jeff Benedict
Reviewed by Lynne Terry
A healthy 6-year-old girl dies five days after staying home from school with a stomach ache. Her doctors are mystified, her parents devastated. Soon clusters of kids across the West turn up in emergency rooms with similar symptoms: fever, cramping, bloody diarrhea. In the end, hundreds fall ill and three more die.
Sound like script material for a Hollywood movie? Maybe, but it really happened and is recounted by Jeff Benedict in his book Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat.
Today, after successive outbreaks involving everything from sprouts in Germany to strawberries in Oregon, E. coli is a household term. But nearly two decades ago, only a few scientists knew much about the virulent strain -- E. coli O157:H7 -- that contaminated the Jack in the Box burgers in 1993.
The outbreak spurred tougher food safety regulations, changed the fast-food industry and thrust a Seattle attorney into the limelight as a food safety specialist. It's important stuff but could make for tedious reading, clogged with medical and legal terms. Instead, Benedict spins the tale as a thriller with a rich cast of characters and one key victim: Brianne Kiner, a 9-year-old who comes within a whisper of death but then miraculously survives, becoming a poster child for the ravages of E. coli poisoning.
Kiner's case is championed by Bill Marler, a bright and bold young lawyer in Seattle with a fire in his belly but also a hearth in his heart. The case of a lifetime, Marler turns it into a career. He gives up a secure position in a well-known law firm to join another that is steeped in debt. The historic Jack in the Box settlements, which Marler wrangles, hoist his firm solidly into the black and allow him to create his own firm specializing in food poisoning cases.
Benedict's fascination with the legal process, which provides the spine of the story, isn't surprising. He's a lawyer-turned-writer. But he's also attuned to subtlety in humanity, casting the would-be villains in a sympathetic light. Jack in the Box's president, Robert Nugent, is horrified when he discovers his burgers are poisoning children. His vice president of quality assurance, Ken Dunkley, dropped the ball on food safety but out of oversight, not greed. Washington state had raised the required cooking temperature for hamburger meat to 155 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bacteria, but Jack in the Box was still following the federal standard of 140 degrees, as were most fast-food outlets.
Although much more is known about food safety now than in 1993, the book speaks to our times. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that six more strains of E. coli will be banned from ground beef. That move follows pressure from Marler and represents a step forward in the fight for safe food, which is what Poisoned is all about.