Lesson Plan

Influencing Public Policy: Food Safety


This 11-minute video shows students how confusion within the federal government, a lack of cooperation between regulatory agencies, and the power of single-issue interest groups can prevent the enactment of regulations and legislation that most citizens would deem beneficial. In a reexamination of a 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants that sickened 700 people and killed four children, the video demonstrates why that outbreak, and more recent outbreaks, haven’t led to effective regulation of the food supply. A case study in bureaucratic inertia, this video is useful for lessons on the complexities of the policy making process, and obstacles preventing the passage of regulations that would benefit most Americans.


  • How the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak of 1993 affected public attitudes toward food safety, triggering a regulatory response from the U.S. government.
  • How single-issue interest groups can successfully manipulate bureaucratic agencies and political processes to prevail over less focused and less well-organized grassroots efforts.
  • How bureaucratic confusion and a lack of inter-agency cooperation within the federal government can result in a failure to regulate industry.
  • Environment
  • Civics & Government
  • Science
  • U.S. History
  • AP Environmental Science
  • Bill Clinton
  • Civic Engagement
  • Domestic Policies
  • Public Health
  • 1990s America
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

In January 1993, one of the worst outbreaks of food poisoning in U.S. history provided a stark example of how human-made catastrophe can shape federal policy. The outbreak was linked to undercooked hamburger meat used by Jack in the Box franchise restaurants in Washington state, California, Idaho, and Nevada. Four children died and hundreds of people were hospitalized, many suffering lasting brain damage or kidney failure.

The culprit was a strain of bacteria called Escherichia coli 0157:H7, which lives in a cow’s intestines and is especially toxic to children and elderly adults. An investigation revealed that Jack in the Box employees had failed to cook hamburgers to 155 degrees, the temperature known to kill E.coli. Additionally, Washington state health officials determined that the beef used had been contaminated at a processing plant before it reached the restaurants. Compounding matters, the beef industry had paid little attention to preventing the spread of E. coli 0157:H7, under a long-held belief that proper cooking would remove bacteria in meat, and that cooking was not its responsibility.

But public outcry over the Jack in the Box outbreak became a call for better regulation. In 1994, Congress responded by declaring E. coli 0157:H7 an adulterant in ground beef. It instituted a procedure for testing for the pathogen and required that contaminated meat be taken off the market.

But while Congress eventually passed a law giving the FDA more tools to fight contamination by other bacteria like salmonella, the law still hasn’t been fully funded or implemented.

Essential Questions

  • What is E. coli? What caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993?
  • At the time of the original E. coli outbreak in 1993, what was the beef industry’s position on E. coli? Who was responsible for preventing E. coli outbreaks?
  • What caused an E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce in 2006? How was the outbreak related to a failure at inter-agency cooperation between the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) and the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.)?
  • What has the poultry industry’s position been toward salmonella?

Lesson Procedure

  • The video mentions the attitudes of the beef and poultry industries towards contaminants like E. coli and salmonella. Do you think most voters have the same attitudes on these questions as the lobbyists who represent these industries?
  • Why are there 15 different agencies with jurisdiction over food safety? What factors might explain why Congress hasn’t chosen to consolidate food safety regulation in a single agency?
  • What does the history of food safety since 1993 teach us about “iron triangles” or “issue networks”?
  • The U.S.D.A and F.D.A are part of the federal bureaucracy. People often like to complain about bureaucrats, but imagine if there were no U.S.D.A or F.D.A to police the food supply. What would that do to our food supply?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "E. Coli & Salmonella Outbreaks Changed Food Production, But How Safe Are We?"Retro Report
“Action and Dysfunction in the U.S. Food Safety Effort"Retro Report
Audio Interview: "America's Food Safety Problem"WNYC

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate the consequences of human-made and natural catastrophes on global trade, politics, and human migration.

Skill 1.D: Describe policies illustrated in different scenarios.

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com