Saturday, May 25, 2013

A lot of pain, a little hope

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food poisoning, lawsuits

According to a CDC report from a year ago, summarized here, about 5,000 people die each year in the U.S. from food poisoning. Some 1,800 deaths are from Salmonella, Listeria and Toxoplasma, leaving 3,200 to "all other agents". About 90 of those "other" cases are from E. coli, usually the strain known as O157:H7. This strain of "coliform" bacteria is unusually scary. A victim doesn't get sick the same day, as is the case with Salmonella; it takes about 3 days. That is when the pain and bloody diarrhea begin. By then, the load of bacterial toxin in the body is ramping up massively. At that point, antibiotics cannot be used; they are simply deadly, because the bacteria release even more toxins as they die, and the patient is almost certain to die as a result. While the immune system fights the bacteria, organ after organ will fail or flounder. The official term is HUS, or hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which means that blood cells are shredded and the kidneys shut down.

O157:H7 killed four children in California and Washington state in 1993, all due to contaminated ground beef at some Jack in the Box restaurants. Another 600 were sickened, and many of them are suffering continued debilities. The restaurant chain settled a series of lawsuits for record amounts (for the time), but the most significant effect was a major change, not only in the way ground beef is cooked in restaurants, but in the ways cattle are slaughtered and processed, transported and distributed.

Looking back to those scary days, Jeff Benedict researched and interviewed and studied and has written Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat. The book is part documentary narrative, part docudrama. I found it remarkable that so many of the principals figures freely shared with Benedict as he worked through the great amount of material from newspaper accounts and court records, and also gave many hours to interviews. In an America for which the word "corporate" is most commonly associated with "greed", the company executives (particularly the JitB CEO Bob Nugent) and key lawyers acted in amazingly ethical fashion.

A quirk of the writing finally clued me in that Bill Marler was the "hero" of the book, with strong secondary "performances" by Roni Austin and Suzanne Kiner. Roni's daughter Lauren Rudolph was the first to die, and Suzanne's daughter Brianne nearly died, but recovered after weeks in a coma. The quirk? The trio are nearly always called by their first names, like single-name rock stars. Every other person mentioned in the book is nearly always called by last name. It irked me at first until I understood the author's purpose.

Mr. Benedict takes us blow-by-blow through an unflinching narrative of the tragedies and the legal and political wrangling that led to large damage awards for the hundreds of families of victims, and the record-setting awards to the Kiner family and those whose children died or were most severely affected with HUS, which often led to lifelong dialysis or kidney transplants. Even the more, he shows us the steps taken under the leadership of Dave Theno which have revamped the production and processing of ground beef, and are affecting the processing of other meats.

The legal cases made the career of Bill Marler and his associate Bruce Clark (you can find them here). I don't mind giving that plug, because if the book's portrayal is accurate, we have here a couple of lawyers who are quite different from the sharks one typically thinks of.

It is a shame that it takes a tragedy to motivate significant change. The top five hamburger chains, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Sonic, and Jack in the Box, procure and prepare beef patties differently than they did 20 years ago. Still, when I see that E. coli, of the O157:H7 strain and several similar ones, still kills 90 Americans yearly, I feel we have a ways to go.

The essentially American push for more, better, faster, cheaper (especially cheaper) is largely to blame. Cattle, whether prime beef or hamburger quality, are mostly raised in feed lots, where they eat corn rather than grass, and are kept crowded in dung-filled pens in which they must be heavily dosed with antibiotics to keep them from dying where they stand. The ideal way to raise cattle is on grass. I have had grass-fed beef, and it is significantly different (and better tasting!). The trouble is, that takes a lot more room, and we probably don't have enough room. Are we willing for our hamburger "fix" to be "treated" with a $15 burger (and that's just the one off the dollar menu)? Until we are, food poisoning can't be conquered.

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