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Jeff Benedict Discusses New Book on Jack In The Box’s 1993 E. coli Outbreak

Today Cattle Network published the latest from freelance writer Chuck Jolley, and it is definitely worth a read. Chuck recently chatted with author Jeff Benedict on his newest book that he has spent the last three years researching.  The book delves into the 1993 Jack In The Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, and how that single event shook up and altered the way foodborne illnesses and food safety are viewed today.

Their conversation covers many topics, from why Benedict decided to write about the 1993 outbreak in the first place ("That case is ideal for a book or a movie") to Bill Marler’s immeasurable effect on food safety in this country ("The bottom line is that if you take him out of the picture, the business of food safety would look terribly different today. And I do mean terribly. It’s rare that one person can cast such a huge shadow over an entire industry.").  Read their full exchange below: 

Q. You’re working on a book about the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak nearly 18 years ago. Why did you pick that event as your next subject? 
A. Actually, I initially set out to write a book about the Salmonella outbreak tied to the Peanut Corporation of America nearly two years ago. Nine people died in the outbreak. I interviewed surviving family members from that outbreak in Vermont, Minnesota and Oregon. I also met personally with Peanut Corporation CEO Stewart Parnell at his home and in his attorney’s law office in Roanoke, Virginia, shortly after he invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege and chose not to answer questions before Congress. Butin the end, that case didn’t have all the necessary elements for a book. 
 
Nonetheless, while researching that case I became familiar with Bill Marler. He represented numerous families in the peanut case. His name also surfaced in my research of other food poison outbreaks. Through discussions with him and other experts, I increasingly turned my attention to the Jack in the Box case. That case is ideal for a book or a movie. Plus, all the key players were willing to participate, including some of the Jack in the Box officials who were at the helm when the outbreak took place. 
Q. There were two key figures in that first major outbreak: Robert Nugent, Jack in the Box’s CEO and Dave Theno. Nugent became the scapegoat; Theno created E. coli 101 or ‘how to clean up the mess afterwards.’ In your book research, what have you found out about these two people? 
A. On top of numerous phone interviews and many email exchanges with both men, I travelled to San Diego and spent time with Bob Nugent and Dave Theno. I even met Theno in Texas and toured a meat packing plant that uses the safety procedures that he helped implement in the aftermath of the Jack in the Box outbreak. 
 
I don’t want to give too much away here. But suffice it to say that I was very impressed with Nugent’s candor and his genuine sorrow. People will be surprised by his contribution to the story. As for Theno, he’s a character that is impossible not to like. One of the best things Nugent did was hire Theno. I don’t think he could have gotten a better guy to revolutionize Jack in the Box’s food safety system. 
Q. You seem to be enamored of Bill Marler, a lawyer who built his business around food safety issues. He’s not one of the most popular people in the meat business. Talking to cattlemen, now, what has he accomplished in the food safety arena? 
A. First off, if everybody liked Bill Marler he probably wouldn’t be doing his job. No leader pleases everyone. Bill Marler has really emerged as a self-made authority on foodborne illness and food safety. He’s changed the way insurance carriers compensate foodborne illness victims, especially children. He has done the only independent testing of non-O157 E. coli (STEC’s) presence in meat. He has raised awareness to food safety risks and educated the public through outreach and non-profit work. I could go on. 
 
The bottom line is that if you take him out of the picture, the business of food safety would look terribly different today. And I do mean terribly. It’s rare that one person can cast such a huge shadow over an entire industry. As another highly respected lawyer told me, "Bill Marler is the #1 lawyer in his field. How often can you say that about someone?"
Q. The Senate might vote on the Food Safety Modernization Act right after the mid-term elections or whenever Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) decides to release it. Like most bills, it has strengths and weaknesses. What’s your opinion on the changes it might create – good and bad – if passed? 
A. I have not spent a lot of time focused on the bill except to know that the House passed a similar bill in July of 2009. I understand that both bills only focus on food regulated by the FDA not the FSIS. I think it is fairly clear that more oversight is necessary on food regulated by FDA. Being inspected once every 5-7 years simply does not make sense.
Q. There is an ongoing debate between some of the people in the meat business about the six E. coli STEC’s. The AMI says, “declaring non-O157 STECS to be adulterants will not enhance the food safety system, and we think that application of such a policy could consume resources that could be better spent elsewhere to achieve meaningful food safety progress." 
 
Marler self-funded a half million-dollar project aimed at demonstrating the prevalence of STEC’s in beef sold at retail to back up his petition to have them declared adulterants. With the limited resources available, what’s the best answer? 
A. There’s no question that the USDA should declare these non-0157 strains as adulterants. That simple step would be a catalyst for all labs to test for the presence of these strains in stool cultures submitted by physicians. There’s a simple way of seeing the wisdom in this approach. Prior to the Jack in the Box outbreak, E. coli 0157H7 was not considered an adulterant. As a result, doctors didn’t look for it and labs didn’t test for it. That all changed after four children died. The change in laws has prevented another large-scale outbreak tied to E. coli O157:H7. The mandated testing leads to early detection, which enables public health officials to notify the public before an outbreak gets out of control. This, to me, is a no-brainer. 
Q. Let’s point out that meat is not the leading source of foodborne illness. It’s a dubious honor that belongs to vegetables. Two of the most widely publicized outbreaks of the past few years were tied to peanuts and eggs. Yet many people still say, “In America, we have the safest food in the world.” Break it down for me; in your opinion, how safe is our food? 
A. Any time you have such grand scale mass production as we currently see with beef, pork, chicken, and eggs and so many other products, there are going to be problems.
 
The root cause of many of our food safety issues today is size. We have gotten so far away from consuming locally grown fruits and vegetables and locally raised meat and poultry. The food system has gotten so big and so complicated that most people have no idea where their food comes from, who produced it, or how it got from farm to fork. In fact, a lot of food today doesn’t come from farms. It comes from what I’ll call factories. The risks go down when you know who, when, where and how your food was produced.