POISONED: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat.
NOW A NETFLIX DOCUMENTARY
In the winter of 1993, the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak catapulted the dangers of foodborne illness into the public eye and left enduring repercussions in the worlds of medicine, law and food policy. 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.
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. 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.)
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. Just over 20 years after Bill penned an Op-ed for the Denver Post in which he challenged the USDA/FSIS and the Beef Industry to “Put me out of Business,” E. coli cases linked to ground beef have nearly, but not completely, disappeared. As Bill tells it, “I could count on a significant E. coli outbreak and recall occurring like clockwork nearly every Spring or Summer. When 2003 came, there were no outbreaks, and other than the tragic uptick in 2007 that impacted Stephanie Smith, E. coli cases linked to ground beef are no longer a part of the work we do anymore. The industry to its credit did its job and met my challenge.”
Since the 2018 E. coli outbreak linked to Romaine lettuce from Yuma, E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and hepatitis A outbreaks linked fresh fruits and vegetables now take up the bulk of Bill’s attention. Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreaks have now replaced ground beef as the staple of the Marler Clark practice.
In 2019 Bill launched a petition to ban Salmonella from chicken, much like E. coli was banned from ground beef. Thus far the USDA/FSIS has resisted, but it has banned Salmonella from certain chicken products. As Bill says, “a win is a win, even if a small one.”
The COVID-19 Pandemic may have slowed Bill’s world-wide travel schedule, but it barely impacted reported foodborne outbreaks and the litigation that surrounds them. Salmonella-tainted onions in 2020 and 2021 sickened thousands in the United States and Canada. Salmonella-laced ground turkey sickened dozens, organic yogurt nearly caused the death of three children with E. coli-mediated HUS in 2021. Hepatitis A outbreaks linked to ill workers in multiple restaurants (Bill has for decades urged the restaurant industry to offer hepatitis A vaccines to employees) in New Jersey and Virginia sickened nearly 100, causing five deaths and three liver transplants. In 2022, a Salmonella outbreak hit peanut butter, again, and Listeria in ice cream raising its deadly head.
2022 has also put social media and “influencers” from Instagram and TikTok on the same footing as CDC epidemiologists. Public health officials seemed completely oblivious to hundreds of people suffering with acute liver failure after consuming an organic, vegan home-delivered food produced by a company backed by the power of Serena Williams and Gwyneth Paltrow. Bill now represents 361 of the customers in a Federal Court lawsuit that stretches from New York City to the mountains of Peru.
The pandemic years has turned Bill into nearly a “virtual” lawyer. Instead of crisscrossing the world to appear in Court or to give a speech on “why it is a bad idea to poison your customers,” Bill will login to his custom-built studio from his Bainbridge Island satellite office. The pandemic has also ushered in other changes at Marler Clark, with three of the four founding partners retiring. Bruce Clark, Denis Stearns and Andy Weisbecker have opted for a bit slower pace out of Bill’s wake.
Bill when asked when he might retire as well, quickly responds, “I still have much too do. I still love helping people and trying to do my part to make sure there are fewer Bri’s in the future than in the past or the present.”