The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat.
By Jeff Benedict.
As the New York Times said in 2011:
If little mental woodpeckers of guilt begin to hammer away every time you reach for a John Grisham novel (shouldn’t you be reading something factual and relevant to current events?), your perfect beach book has arrived. With “Poisoned,” Jeff Benedict manages to deliver the full literary experience of a medico-legal thriller in a work of nonfiction that, fortuitously enough, could not be more relevant to recent headlines.
Mr. Benedict’s subject is one of the first outbreaks of E. coli-related diarrhea to sicken and kill innocent diners. Last month’s outbreak in Germany was traced to salad vegetables, probably bean sprouts, but back in the winter of 1993 it was Jack in the Box hamburger meat that catapulted this new threat into the public eye and left enduring repercussions in the worlds of medicine, law and food services.
At the end of 1992, Jack in the Box was the fifth-largest fast-food chain in the country, courting the market with the Monster Burger and its soon-to-be-immensely-regretted slogan, “So good it’s scary.” The first sign of trouble was a desperately ill girl in San Diego (this was Lauren Rudolph, who died in late December 1992, and in whose memory a pivotal 1996 California food safety act is named). Then dozens of children were sickened in Washington State, and the hamburger connection slowly became clear.
Over a period of a few weeks, more than 700 cases scattered across four Western states; four children died gruesomely, with bleeding intestines and kidney failure. But Mr. Benedict, a lawyer turned journalist, pays relatively little attention to the story’s medical complexities; his focus is the gruesome and complicated legal tangle that ensued.
Nowadays we are all too familiar with the practices of giant processing plants, but back in those innocent times it was all new and appalling — the poorly regulated slaughterhouses, the batching of meat for grinding, the wide distribution of product, which maximized the spread of any contaminant.
Meanwhile, it turned out that Jack in the Box corporate cooking policies left some patties so noticeably underdone that at least one restaurant manager had complained. Further, almost a year earlier the State of Washington had mandated a cooking temperature for burgers higher than the usual federal standard, a regulation that people at Jack in the Box had apparently never heard of. Or had they? The situation quickly became a lawyer’s dream come true.
Enter a legal David and his Goliath. Bill Marler (our hero) was a financially struggling young lawyer who, through a series of happenstances, came to represent Seattle’s most damaged victim. This girl was given up for dead in the intensive care unit (“her appearance reminded him of a mummy, shriveled, brittle, haunting”), only to survive with significant disabilities. Through a series of ingenious tactical maneuvers, Mr. Marler then became the lawyer for other local cases, as well as for a large class-action suit.
His opponent was Bob Piper, an established Seattle lawyer retained by Jack in the Box. A stout, hard-drinking man who sported pictures of nude women on his suspenders, Mr. Piper was known to be devastatingly effective in court.
Also involved were a large crowd of other men in suits, including the hapless chief executive of Jack in the Box and the company’s beleaguered food safety experts, all of whom managed in interviews to be simultaneously contrite and defensive, while paying intermittent lip service to thousands of employees financially dependent on the company’s staying afloat.
By the time it was all over, Mr. Marler had won $15.6 million for his young client, setting a record for the largest personal-injury award in state history, and wheels were set in motion to clean up the nation’s ground beef. (In 1996, Taco Bell suffered its own outbreak, but the culprit turned out to be lettuce.)
Mr. Benedict delivers the story in a staccato, you-are-there fashion that unfortunately mimics much of the cardboard characterization and leaden dialogue often found in this genre’s fiction. It must be said, as well, that his medical fact-checking was remarkably cursory (for example, people need emergency appendectomies not because the appendix has “failed” but because it has begun to rupture). But even somewhat muted and undercut, this story is completely gripping, reminding us how far from the hospital the ripples of epidemic disease can spread.
There is only one supremely colorful character in the story that Mr. Benedict overlooks, and that is E. coli itself. This prokaryotic Zelig is generally such an unremarkable, utterly inoffensive germ that billions live comfortably in the intestines of every single human being. But some strains manage to imitate other virulent germs well enough to become killers, using a virtuoso range of mechanisms. The O157:H7 strain that caused the Jack in the Box fiasco is the best known of these, but new ones, like O104:H4 in Europe last month, continue to appear.
In the years since the Jack in the Box outbreak, Bill Marler has become one of the country’s leading legal authorities on food safety. He drives a red Volkswagen, Mr. Benedict notes in an afterword, with “ECOLI” on the plates. In a sense, the bacteria thus honored are not dissimilar figures: Consider them nonentities at your peril, for actually they are major players, canny and infinitely resourceful.