Book review: Poisoned
June 12, 2011
News of the deadliest E. coli outbreak on record broke in Germany on May 24, 2011, when health officials confirmed the first death attributed to a pathogen identified as E coli O104:H4. By June 4, the World Health Organization reported the outbreak had sickened more than 2,000 and killed 19. I read the initial news item with more than a passing interest. Only two days earlier, I finished reading Jeff Benedict’s Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak that Changed the Way Americans Eat (Inspire Books, May 16, 2011, 336 pages, hardback back ISBN 978-0983347804).
Before reading Benedict’s latest piece of investigative reporting, I might have considered the German incident as another case of food poisoning. However, after reading the account of a 1993 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 750 and killed four, I knew it could become deadly serious. To put it in perspective consider this comparison from Poisoned: If 1,000 are sickened with salmonella, one person might die, probably an elderly individual with a compromised immune system. If 100 are sickened with E. coli, five or 10 may die.
I suspected the Germans were in for a rocky ride.
Benedict’s portrayal of those involved in the case of tainted hamburger traced to Jack in the Box restaurants is compelling, captivating and cautionary. As horrifying as the account is, Benedict tells it with compassion and class. So often lacking in what passes for news writing today, Benedict covers the story from every angle without passing judgment; he does it while presenting the humanness of those involved. From young patients to their parents, fry cooks to restaurant executives, physicians and scientists to the lawyers representing both sides, the reader rides shotgun in the fast-paced thriller that could pass for fiction. Only it’s not.
The worst E. coli poisoning goes beyond producing fever and stomach cramps. About 10 percent of those who come in contact with a virulent form of the pathogen go on to experience hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). In the worst instances, it destroys the intestines resulting in bloody diarrhea and infection, acute kidney damage, liver damage, heart attack, stroke, brain damage, coma and paralysis. Those who survive face a lifetime of medical and physical complications.
Through the cast of real-life characters, Benedict distills what could be a confusing discussion of microbiology, epidemiology, pathology, nephrology, politics and legal-speak into a page-turner about what has been called the meat industry’s 9/11. Ironically, Benedict initially planned to write about a salmonella poisoning linked to peanut butter. That’s important: the book is about food safety. It’s not anti-beef.
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More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through foods. E coli, in its many strains, can be innocuous or lethal. Prior to 1993, the food industry was largely naive to the latter, except for a handful of isolated occurrences. Food items were routinely consumed raw or served rare. Scientists began studying the bacterium, proving the importance of cooking ground beef to a pathogen-killing minimum of 155 degrees. They also linked it to other foods including fresh produce and raw milk.
Despite the loss of life and challenges that survivors – most of them children – endure, positive changes came out of the horror. The issue of food safety was raised in the public’s consciousness; it continues to evolve in the lab and in the courtroom. A scientist hired by Jack in the Box developed a ground-breaking safety procedure checklist that is now standard throughout the industry.
Meanwhile, European health agencies have yet to confirm the source of the pathogen that has filled hospitals to overflowing. Brief news reports fail to portray the magnitude of the crisis. For an understanding of what is going on behind the scenes in Germany, read Poisoned.