In late 1992, untold tons of E.coli strain O 157:H7 tainted hamburger patties made their way onto unsuspecting consumers' plates through an efficient fast-food distribution system created by Jack In The Box. More than 750 children became ill (some so sick that they lost kidney function and portions of their large intestine), and four died. The fallout included record personal injury settlements, a revamping of how food poisoning cases are reported and tracked, widespread recognition that the normally friendly gut bacterium E. coli can kill, a redesign of hamburger-handling and cooking strategies and more. In short, the tragedy changed the way Americans eat. But there's so much more to the story.
In his most recent and arguably most riveting book, Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E.coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat bestselling author Jeff Benedict weaves an intricate tale of human proportion that includes all the elements of a classic thriller. In this case, the villain is really the infectious agent itself, and extraordinary, yet everyday, people emerge as heroic characters who bravely soldier on as an infection ravages their bodies, or juggle self interest with a selfless desire to save the day, or at the very least to make it right. What's the harm in trying to save a huge corporation in the process?
When I first cracked the book, I was prepared to come away with a bad taste in my mouth for fast-food corporate leaders, personal injury lawyers and a food system that would seemingly rather throw spin and confusion at a problem than actually admit to it, embrace it and fix it. As I turned the pages, however, I found compelling characters on all sides of the issue who worked long and hard to help the victims and their families, save a business from going bankrupt and create a failsafe fast-food supply chain. Oh, there's plenty of drama along the way complete with heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching and anger-invoking scenes, but Benedict is a master at teasing the humanity out of even the most crusty of characters. Imagine a corporate bigwig weeping because, in his raw humanity, he is devastated to think that any child could die from eating tainted food. Imagine too, a hungry personal injury lawyer with a young daughter of his own who crosses the attorney-client line by getting personally wrapped up in the client's family. This is compelling stuff, folks.
Storyline and character analyses aside, Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E.coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat is a sad and sobering lesson that we have learned from, and that we still push to the limits in our continuing zealous quest for cheap food and excessive profit. Benedict's latest and greatest is a must read for anyone who eats, especially folks who regularly partake at the industrial food trough. The book also is an important hubris vaccination that should be required for food-industry and meat-packing lobbyists.
Look for Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E.coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat at your favorite bookstore today. Read it and you will never look at another plate of food in quite the same way.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.