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"Poisoned" author Jeff Benedict examines the current state of food safety in the US

Nearly 20 years after a fatal e. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants, is our food system any safer?

By Rebekah Denn / May 13, 2011

Although America's food system is better today than it was in 1993, says author Jeff Benedict, "there's a long way to go."


It's been nearly 20 years since an e. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants killed four children and sickened hundreds more. Jeff Benedict does an impressive job in his new book, Poisoned, of bringing those statistics to life. First, he takes readers along on the unbearably sad last week of 6-year-old Lauren Rudolph’s life, after she had eaten the tainted restaurant meat.

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Before doctors disconnected Lauren’s ventilator, Benedict wrote, her mother Roni painted the child’s toenails pink, granting one of her last wishes. “While she waited for the polish to dry, Roni held Lauren and sang a lullaby she had sung to her as a baby: “Mama’s baby. Mama’s baby. Mama’s baby. Mama’s baby girl.”

Then Benedict moves on to the legal battle over the deaths, with a movie-like focus on the young attorney who represents one of the children. That lawyer, Bill Marler, breaks all the usual rules – viewing the child’s injuries, for instance, “more through the eyes of a parent than a lawyer.” But his unconventional approach proved successful and laid the groundwork for his current status as one of the country’s leading and most impassioned food safety lawyers.

The book isn’t perfect. However, these days we’re become oddly accustomed to news stories about deaths and illness linked to tainted food, from salmonella in peanut butter to e. coli in spinach to listeria in cheese. Benedict does a dramatic public service by showing us what happened behind the scenes just 19 years ago. He answered questions from me via email:

Q: Why write this story now, nearly 20 years after the Jack In The Box e. coli outbreak?

A: In selecting book topics, I'm always drawn to the unknown stories behind major events that everyone knows about. The Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak is far and away the most infamous food poison outbreak in contemporary history. It's hard to find someone who hasn't heard about it. But hardly anyone knows the incredibly compelling story behind it. And that story is no less relevant today than it was 20 years ago.

Q: How did you come to focus on the personal story of the attorney in the case, Bill Marler?

A: Bill Marler is the dominant, influential advocate in the food safety space today… without Bill Marler in the picture, the precedent-setting case would have turned out very differently. He was the driving force in that litigation. That, along with the fact that he's such an unusual lawyer in every sense of the word is what compelled me to drill down into his backstory.


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