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May 7, 2012

If you live in the United States, you have a 1 in 6 chance of being poisoned this year—by something you eat.  Chances are it will just be a “stomach bug”, but “too many food poisoning cases are more serious, resulting in approximately 125,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually”.

In Poisoned, Jeff Benedict makes the case (and a pretty convincing one it is) that “no outbreak in the past twenty-five years compares to the food scare that swept the country in January 1993” when 750 children were poisoned and 4 killed by eating hamburgers at Jack In The Box.  Before then, “most Americans had never heard the term E. coli.  The CDC didn’t list it as a reportable desease.  Only four state health departments even tracked the pathogen.  Other than a few microbiologists and food scientists, virtually no one knew the organism existed in food.”

Benedict tells the story of the Jack In The Box case like the Sports Illustrated contributor that he is:  taut prose, tightly constructed chapters, vividly drawn characters, gripping life-or-death moments, shocking turns of events, epic and life-changing outcomes.

In arguing for its significance he points to upgraded state and federal health codes, industry-wide changes in meat-packing, shipping and restaurants—“even the warning labels that you see on all the meat and poultry sold in the supermarket today are a direct result of the Jack In The Box case”.

Bill Marler, the young plaintiff’s lawyer at the center of Poisoned, went on to create Marler Clark LLP—the first US law firm “dedicated to representing victims of food poisoning”.  Marler and his firm have become key players in setting food-safety policy throughout the country—partly through the expertise they’ve developed over the years, partly through the lawsuits they continue to bring (and win) against food companies that end up “poisoning their customers”.

The entire story is, in part, an argument against “tort reform” and in favor of a broad and vigorous role for plaintiffs’ attorneys and their ability to bring suit against corporations.  In the Jack In The Box case, not only did Marler and his colleagues win damages for those killed or permanently disabled from E. coli poisoning, they also forced corporate and governmental changes that improved food safety and prevented future death and disability for untold thousands.

It’s also an argument in favor of more vigorous and far-reaching food safety laws, regulation and enforcement at all levels of government (including the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act that Marler helped shape).

Finally, though Benedict doesn’t put it quite this way, food is a demand-driven industry.  And while corporations can to some extent create demand (through massive advertising, particularly directed at children), decisions by consumers to change what they eat can have far-reaching impacts.  Benedict points to the rise of grocery chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s—and to the growing natural and organic food sections at all supermarkets, including Wal-Mart(!), as a sign of the broader changes occurring in the “the way Americans eat”.


From → Books, Food, Politics


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