Jeff Benedict has written several best-selling books and numerous widely read articles in his career as an author and investigative journalist.
His new book, “Poisoned,” which goes on sale May 17, is one of his all-time favorites.
“Poisoned” chronicles the Jack in the Box E. coli and food poisoning outbreak in the early 1990s that killed four children and made 700 others sick. It also follows the story of lawyer William “Bill” Marler; the investigations and the political and legal battles that ensued; and, finally, the permanent changes made across the food industry.
Benedict said he was drawn to the story because of the compelling characters and story line.
“It was a seminal case for food poisoning in the United States, the biggest of its kind at the time. Those deaths were a huge spark to changes in federal and state food policy,” Benedict said. “It was so big and so tragic that it forced changes.”
The path that led Benedict to the story started with his wife, Lydia, who suggested for years that he write a book on the food industry.
At first he shrugged it off, but as Lydia converted the Benedict property into an organic garden with farm animals and transformed family eating habits, the writer began to change the way he looked at food.
Then he discovered the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that sickened and killed hamburger eaters from Seattle to San Diego in 1993. The deeper he dug, the more he felt the story needed to be told.
Two things about the case stood out to Benedict. First, Marler, the relentless and passionate lawyer who sued Jack in the Box on behalf of the poisoned children, was a compelling character with an enthralling story.
“He impressed me because he was a fledgling lawyer that was struggling to find his place. Then all the sudden this outbreak happened and he gets a call from this mother whose daughter is poisoned,” Benedict said.
“He didn’t know anything about E. coli or food poisoning, but he grew up fast in the middle of the outbreak. He let it get personal right away. Eighteen years later he is the No. 1 food-borne illness lawyer in the U.S."
Secondly, the story was obviously important. As a result of the outbreak, congressional hearings were held and the president of the United States got involved.
The project was both challenging and rewarding, Benedict said. The journalist conducted more than 250 on-the-record interviews and digested thousands of pages of documents in order to get the full story.
Part of getting the story meant earning the trust of parents who lost children, public health officials and medical personnel, the executives at Jack in the Box, and the attorneys. Benedict, as a parent of four, said the interviews with parents were among the hardest he has ever done.
“It’s hard to come up with a subtle way to ask a mother about the loss of a child from a poisoning outbreak, and these were incredibly tragic cases,” said Benedict, who spoke with two of the four mothers who lost children.
“There were tears shed in all of them.”
Then he had to organize everything into a compelling narrative, a process he described as “enormously challenging.” At one point he completed a rough draft only to go back and rewrite the first eight chapters. He also wanted to balance the perspectives of parents, public health officials, medical personnel, Jack in the Box and the attorneys.
“It was really more of an exercise in architecture and design, it was how do I set this up?” Benedict said. “I wanted to tell it so it wasn’t confusing. I didn’t want the reader to get lost in each chapter. That’s harder and takes more time than the actual writing.” Benedict hopes the book educates parents and is a catalyst for a change in eating habits.
“I hope a lot of moms and dads will think differently, or at least think more, about the whole proposition of what is on your kid’s fork. How did it get to your dinner table? Who handled it on the way? And where did it come from?” he said.
“When you start thinking about food that way, it’s amazing how differently you start to buy and eat. It only gets better when you do that.”
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