book cover of Poisoned

When hamburgers became deadly

Marisa Rodriguez

For those of us old enough to remember, the fast-food chain Jack in the Box is still linked to an E. coli outbreak in the early 1990s that struck Seattle-area restaurants. At the time, it seemed impossible that eating a hamburger could put a child’s life in danger. Now we know better.

Jeff Benedict’s “Poisoned” walks the reader through the outbreak as it occurred — first noticed by Dr. Phil Tarr, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Seattle Children’s. He was one of the first in his field to link the symptoms of children showing up in the ER with hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS) to E. coli. (Coincidentally, Dr. Tarr trained as a resident at the UW School of Medicine.)

After 57 cases of HUS were reported in three days, Dr. Tarr contacted the Washington state epidemiologist with reports of an E. coli outbreak. Together, they pinpointed the source to Jack in the Box hamburgers.

“Poisoned” is a behind-the- scenes account of the actions that Jack in the Box corporate leadership took in response to the outbreak and the legal wrangling of Seattle-based law firms representing the class action suit for children who fell ill (or died) of E. coli. The story is also threaded through with the heroic account of Bill Marler, an unorthodox Seattle attorney who worked closely with the children and their families to ensure justice was served, while at the same time championing the need for national food safety measures.

Jack in the Box is an unexpected hero in the story, deserving credit for its handling of the outbreak. Benedict presents Bob Nugent, then president of Jack in the Box, as a conscientious leader intent on doing the right thing. The company owned up to its financial responsibility to the children, but more importantly, Nugent took the opportunity to impose the strongest food safety standards to minimize and prevent future outbreaks.

We can thank Tarr, Marler and Nugent for leading a wholesale change in the country’s handling of E. coli cases. Jack in the Box’s initiatives changed the way food is processed and cooked at all fast food restaurants in the United States. Tarr and Marler also made sure E. coli was added to the CDC’s list of infectious diseases so it became a reportable disease among all state health departments.