Investigative journalist Jeff Benedict finds inspiration in microscopic subject matter in Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. coli Outbreak that Changed the Way Americans Eat. Benedict, (Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage, 2009, etc.), relies on source material and interviews to craft a hard-boiled thriller in chronicling the biggest food-poisoning epidemic in American history, which began at Seattle franchise of the popular fast-food chain Jack in the Box and went on to kill four children and infect 700 people. It’s an essential read that likely will have you ordering your next burger well done.
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What made this a book? It’s not every day that someone who’s not a microbiologist decides to take up the subject of food borne illness.
I think there are a couple of things you look for when you’re trying to determine if something is worthy of 300 pages and expecting a consumer to spend $26 to purchase it. I am first and foremost a storyteller—are there characters involved in the story that are compelling and accessible? In this case, the answer was yes. And then there’s the fact that the case has such immense historical significance. It was the first wide-scale national outbreak of its kind, and I think as a result, it scared people so badly.
Today we have become accustomed to these outbreaks because they happen more, but they’re not on that scale, and back then that was a lead news item on ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news, night after night. It really captured America’s attention for weeks—big enough that the president of United States was making phone calls to families in Seattle who were victimized. It led to congressional hearings; it led to changes in national food policy. It’s the reason we have warning labels on all the meat and poultry we buy in the grocery store today. There’s so many things in our food system today that are directly linked to that outbreak, and those kind of things convinced me that I should do a book about it.
At what point did the writer in you take over for the investigative journalist?
It’s a book about a seminal case of food poisoning that shaped the way we look at food today. So from the beginning, I was looking for characters and storylines I could use to drive the narrative, because when readers pick up a book like Poisoned, I don’t want them to expect that they will get a microbiologist’s view of this, or [that] it’s a textbook about E. coli. It’s designed to be a legal medical thriller that teaches people about E. coli and food in the process. What I want is for the reader to pick this book up, and from the moment they read page one, they are completely wrapped up in the storyline. And that’s the way I wrote it.
Do you consider yourself a muckraker?
No—I don’t think there’s any muckraking here at all. The book has a bit of an edge to it, but I can’t see how anyone who’s in the book—particularly Jack in the Box—could read this and say that this is muckraking. What I try to do is spend time with all the players and understand their angle in the story. What is it like to be the CEO of Jack in the Box when you get the call that says your hamburgers are poisoning children? Or what if you are the mother who ends up in the emergency room? So it’s not about pounding on someone in a book—it’s more about helping a reader limb inside the mind, or the shoes of people caught up in the outbreak.
Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle as an overarching critique of capitalism—is there a subtle critique in your book of the food industry?
In the back of my mind, yes. I am not a fan of the fast food industry at all, and I have become very cynical towards the commercial food industry/factory farms with thousands of cattle and thousands of chickens where they produce a mass of food cheaply and they sell it cheap. I don’t think it’s healthy. Is that in the back of my mind? Sure. But if I wanted to really expose that I would have written a very different book. I’m not going to sit here and say that every writer doesn’t have some glossing that goes into his product. In my mind, that’s who I am. But I stick very closely to what the story is about, and my politics or personal views about food don’t really seep into this narrative. My opinion is not there at all.
What scares you the most about this industry?
It’s scale. It’s size. Food is such an intimate thing. It’s the thing we put in our bodies three times a day. We do it without any thought where it came from, who prepared it, who touched it, what was injected into it without our knowledge. So what you see in a story like this is how easy it is that something you take for granted [can] actually…be deadly.
There are other things in our culture that can be very deadly too—but the thing about food is, you don’t have any choice. You don’t have to smoke, you don’t have to drive drunk—but you have to eat. So you just trust that people you never see that are preparing your food are doing it right and doing it safely. But if they’re not, you won’t know until you get sick. And that’s the thing that was the most jarring to me, because like most Americans, I never really thought about it.