Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Poisoned: The True Story of the E. coli Outbreak that Changed the Way Americans Eat

The recent outbreak of serious E. coli illness in Europe has now claimed 48 lives, and E. coli 0104:H4 is now reported to have turned up as well in Bordeaux, France.  Food Safety News, the online national newspaper devoted to food safety and food policy issues, keeps on top of the European epidemic as well as reporting on U.S. outbreaks such as FDA's recent warning not to eat Evergreen Sprouts.

Food Safety News, now recognized as a premier source of food safety reporting, was created by Marler Clark, as the brain child of the firm's founder, Bill Marler.  Marler's presence in the food safety arena is impossible to miss.  He has represented victims in almost all of the serious food borne illness outbreaks in the U.S.;  he was a tireless advocate for the Food Safety Modernization Act (with his memorable "Put a Lawyer Out of Business" campaign);  he is frequently interviewed in national media outlets; and, he is all over the internet on blogs, twitter feeds, and on facebook.

The recently released book, Poisoned: The True Story of the E. coli Outbreak that Changed the Way Americans Eat, by Jeff Benedict tells the story of the first major E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in the U.S., the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak, and how a struggling young lawyer, Bill Marler, began his career in food safety litigation.  It is also the story of a nations lost innocence, as food borne illness is recognized as a serious threat and not just a passing stomach ache.

The New York Times published a review of Poisoned this week, A Timely E. Coli Story, Spun as a Legal Thriller by Dr. Abigail Zuger.
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. . . . 
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. But 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.
Poisoned, however is about more than the legal tangle. It is a story about the people in the middle of that tangle.  While Bill Marler is the central character, the personal struggle of nine-year old Brianne Kiner and her family is a primary focus.  Brianne was "given up for dead in the intensive care unit, only to survive with significant disabilities." Moreover, the personal stories of the Jack in the Box executives are highlighted.  And, the story would not be complete without the colorful defense attorney, Bob Piper, "a stout, hard-drinking man who sported pictures of nude women on his suspenders" and an attorney "known to be devastatingly effective in court."

In some ways, Poisoned is an odd combination.  It is good summer read -  easy, quick reading with suspense and personal drama, a far cry from the law books we pour over during the academic year.  But, on the other hand, it is deliberately unsettling and thought provoking, particularly if you read Food Safety News and follow Bill Marler's career.  I am not so sure that the outbreak really "changed the way Americans eat" as much as we would like to think it did.


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