"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?

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

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.

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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.

Q: Do you think the current system and laws work? We've seen deaths and illnesses from peanut butter, spinach, meat, and so on over the last few years – has anything really changed since the Jack In The Box outbreak?

A: It's easy to overgeneralize when tackling this question. The bottom line is that our food system is too industrial. We've gotten so far away from eating locally grown food that most people have no idea where the food is coming from (and many don't necessarily care). Clearly, our system has many problems. It's better than it was in 1993, and the JIB case has had some positive impact. But there's a long way to go.

Q: Has writing the book changed the way that you and your family eat?

A: Absolutely. But I must say that we made significant change to the way we eat before I started the book. Those changes had a big influence on why I set out to write the book. I got interested in this topic because my wife had been doing so much research on our food system. And one weekend we cleaned out every food item in our house, right down to the salt and pepper. As we changed to growing our own produce and turning to local farms for our meats and dairy products, I got more and more interested in food poison outbreaks. But as a result of working on the Jack in the Box case for two years and shadowing Bill Marler and a number of food scientists and microbiologists who specialize in foodborne illness, I have become incredibly vigilant in avoiding certain foods and restaurants.

Q: How did you gain the cooperation of Jack In The Box for the book? I would imagine the last thing they want is for people to be reminded of this outbreak.

A: In all my books I work very, very hard to gain the trust of the people I write about. In the case of Jack in the Box I developed a relationship of trust with Dave Theno, which led to a relationship of trust with Bob Nugent. They were really the two critical decision-makers at the company during and after the outbreak.

Q: I knew from years of news accounts that 6-year-old Lauren Rudolph died from the e. coli outbreak, but reading the details of her hospital stay brought tears to my eyes. Tell me how you gathered those details, and how you decided to tell the story.

A: Again, so much of what I do is predicated on building relationships of trust. I worked very closely with Lauren's mother Roni. She took a genuine liking to my two daughters, ages 5 and 8. And I took a genuine liking to Roni. She's a woman with an iron constitution. In our inteviews it wasn't uncommon for both of us to cry.

Seattle writer Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com

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