E. Coli Outbreaks Changed Food Production, But How Safe Are We?Watch the video See the video and lesson plan
TEXT ON SCREEN: January 28, 1993
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 1-28-93):
TOM BROKAW: A fast food nightmare may be getting worse.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1-28-93):
NEWS REPORT: Hundreds of hospitalizations have been traced to contaminated hamburgers.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2-1-93):
NEWS REPORT: Two children have died and dozens are hospitalized.
NARRATION: It was one of the worst food poisoning outbreaks in US history. Contaminated meat at Jack in the Box restaurants killed four children… and alerted the country to the hidden dangers in our food.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-14-02):
PROTESTER: What do we want?!
GROUP OF PROTESTERS: Clean meat!
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 8-25-97):
NEWS REPORT: Recalls of contaminated food in this country have increased fivefold.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1-4-13):
NEWS REPORT: Tainted spinach.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-24-94):
NEWS REPORT: Contaminated cantaloupe.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 8-25-97):
NEWS REPORT: Unpasteurized apple juice.
NARRATION: More than 20 years later, tens of millions of Americans still get food poisoning each year.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 7-5-10):
WOMAN: Just a couple bites, that’s all it took.
NARRATION: And some say progress hasn’t been fast enough.
DR. DAVID ACHESON (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, 2000-2002; FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION 2002-2009): We need, I hate to say it, but bodies in the street before we get it.
NARRATION: It was January 1993 and as Bill Clinton was taking office, an unfolding public health crisis was hitting the news.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1-23-93):
NEWS REPORT: Health officials on the West Coast are bracing for more reports of food poisoning linked to suspect hamburger meat used by the Jack in the Box fast food chain.
BILL MARLER (FOOD SAFETY ATTORNEY): At first it was 25, within a few more days it was 100, then 150 then 200.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1-22-93):
TOM BROKAW: Food poisoning…
BILL MARLER: It really was like the top of the news every night on every station.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2-1-93):
NEWS REPORT: Many of the critically ill victims are children…
NARRATION: The children had been infected with a little-known and dangerous strain of bacteria called E. coli O157, which lives in a cow’s intestines. Bill Marler would represent many of them in lawsuits against Jack in the Box.
BILL MARLER: One little girl her liver had failed. Her kidneys had failed. She’d been in a coma. I just remember thinking to myself, oh, my God, you know, a hamburger?
NARRATION: As the news spread, some, like Darin Detwiler, decided to avoid hamburgers.
DARIN DETWILER: My family just put some thought in terms of, “Well, okay, let’s not eat hamburger. Let’s definitely not eat at Jack in the Box.”
NARRATION: But Darin’s son Riley was infected anyway … by another child at his daycare who ate at the restaurant.
DARIN DETWILER: We took him to the local hospital and he was seen and he was tested and he got worse and worse and worse. They put him in our arms. I was holding out for him to take a breath and, and I never, never felt that.
NARRATION: Riley died after three weeks in the hospital, and Detwiler went on to become a food safety advocate. Three other children also died in the outbreak.
BILL MARLER: The public was shocked by ultimately what we found out.
NARRATION: Jack in the Box didn’t cook its hamburgers to a high enough temperature to kill E. coli, in violation of Washington State rules. But the beef was contaminated before it even reached the restaurant.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2-1-93):
NEWS REPORT: Health officials suspect the original source of contamination was at the slaughterhouse.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2-5-93):
NEWS REPORT: Beef carcasses can become contaminated with dangerous bacteria: falling off the production line into blood or feces on the floor.
NARRATION: Inside slaughterhouses, USDA inspectors were using the same techniques they’d used for nearly a century to check carcasses.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 8-25-97):
NEWS REPORT: The Agriculture Department relies mainly on the poking and sniffing by inspectors.
WILLIAM JAMES (USDA 1983-2011, FOOD SAFETY CONSULTANT): We were focused on what we could see, what we could feel, what we could smell. Unhappily, bacteria cannot be detected by any of those methods.
BILL MARLER: Nobody was paying attention to E. coli O157. The beef industry thought of bacteria as just a normal part of meat and that it’s the consumer’s responsibility to cook it.
ARCHIVAL (CSPAN, CONGRESSIONAL TESTIMONY, 2-5-93):
JAMES MARSDEN (AMERICAN MEAT INSTITUTE): The only point of prevention currently documented, proven and available in the food chain is the cooking process.
NARRATION: Over the objections of the beef industry, the USDA for the first time set a zero tolerance policy for E. coli O157 in raw ground beef … by declaring it an “adulterant.”
BILL MARLER: It means that you cannot sell the product if it’s contaminated. And if it is contaminated, you have to pull it off the market. That made it like sawdust in sausages – it can’t be there.
NARRATION: The USDA would now test for E. coli O157 and beef suppliers would be responsible for getting rid of it. And Jack in the Box?
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-17-97):
NEWS REPORT: The company created the most intricate inspection and testing system in the industry.
NARRATION: It became a leader in reducing contamination. Dr. David Acheson was in charge of food safety at the FDA, and now advises food companies.
DAVID ACHESON: Jack in the Box was a wakeup call to many, including the regulators. You go in for a hamburger with the kids and you could die. It changed consumers’ perceptions andit absolutely changed the behaviors of the industry.
NARRATION: E. coli cases in beef eventually started to decline. But by 2006…
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 9-16-06):
KATIE COURIC: That case of E. coli is spreading rapidly…
DAVID ACHESON: What we started to learn was that this bug was showing up at other places. People still got sick. So where’s it coming from?
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 9-15-06):
LISA STARK: All across the country, grocery stores are pulling bags of spinach off the shelf, as the government races to try to pinpoint the source of the deadly contamination.
NARRATION: Investigators eventually traced the E. coli to pigs and cow droppings on a ranch in California near where the spinach was grown.
DAVID ACHESON: The growers did not understand the risks. It can run into the water supply. It can be carried on birds. It can be carried on equipment. It can be picked up by other animals. The leaves get harvested, processed, put in a bag, and wind up in a consumer’s-consumer’s dinner table.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 9-18-06):
CHARLIE GIBSON: This case is calling into question how the entire food supply is monitored.
DAVID ACHESON: The FDA virtually never inspects farms. There were no requirements in terms of controlling this type of a risk on a farm back in 2006.
NARRATION: And that was part of the problem. Acheson says the lessons USDA learned after Jack in the Box weren’t fully appreciated by the agency that regulates produce, the FDA. In fact, there are 15 different agencies responsible for monitoring the food supply… with some confusing overlap.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 2-13-07):
NEWS REPORT: Congress has been warned again and again that the food safety system was an organizational mess.
NARRATION: It took several more years and several more outbreaks, in everything from cheese to cookie dough, to get E. coli O157 more under control. And while Congress eventually passed a law giving the FDA more tools to fight bacteria, four years later the law still hasn’t been fully funded or implemented.
DAVID ACHESON: The food safety system is dysfunctional. It’s slow to react to science. It’s slow to react to change. We need rules and regulations in place that are going to prevent the problems, not just react to them.
NARRATION: Today, food companies still have much of the responsibility for food safety. Case in point: salmonella in poultry.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, THIS MORNING 10-11-13):
NEWS REPORT: Salmonella has become a leading cause of food poisoning.
NARRATION: Unlike E. coli, the more dangerous strains of Salmonella – like Salmonella Heidelberg – have never been declared adulterants. So, while the USDA can apply pressure, the decision to recall foods is largely left with the companies during an outbreak.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, THE TODAY SHOW, 10-9-13):
NEWS REPORT: Foster Farms has not recalled any chicken. The poultry company says its products are safe to eat if properly handled and fully cooked.
NARRATION: After the government linked Foster Farms to an outbreak, it took nearly a year of USDA investigation before the company recalled any of its chicken. More than 600 people were sickened. Foster Farms declined an on-camera interview. Marler – now a top food safety lawyer – settled a lawsuit against the company.
BILL MARLER: There’s a sense, “if it’s not an adulterant, why do we need to recall it?” Even though there are people stacking up like cordwood, being sick.
NARRATION: The USDA says court rulings make it unlikely that salmonella, which is more common and typically less dangerous than E. coli, could ever be declared an adulterant. But Marler says the agency isn’t learning from its own history.
BILL MARLER: There hasn’t been the kind of attack on salmonella that there really could have been and that worked in my view really well with E. coli 0157 in meat.
MICHAEL ROBACH (VP, FOR FOOD SAFETY, CARGILL): The thinking within the poultry industry was that some level of Salmonella is acceptable. As long as the product was properly handled, and properly cooked, there wouldn’t be a problem.
NARRATION: But following industry practices didn’t protect Cargill in 2011, says its head of food safety.
MICHAEL ROBACH: Everything was produced under inspection. And our programs were all running according to plan. We saw periodic spikes in Salmonella. We should have read something into that. But at the time, we didn’t.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 8-3-11):
DIANE SAWYER: We have late word tonight of the latest nationwide salmonella outbreak.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 8-4-11):
SCOTT PELLEY: It’s made 78 people sick and one person died.
MICHAEL ROBACH: Unfortunately, it’s only when this really kind of hits you in the face, do you realize, hey, we have a problem here.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 8-4-11):
SCOTT PELLEY: Cargill foods has launched one of the largest meat recalls in US history.
NARRATION: Cargill believes the outbreak may have been exacerbated by an unusually high concentration of Salmonella. But concentration is not something anyone is required to measure.
MICHAEL ROBACH: It could be one cell in a sample, it could be a thousand cells in a sample. They don’t differentiate. One cell is not going to make somebody sick. A thousand cells might make somebody sick.
NARRATION: Robach says the company has since revamped its testing and now measures concentration. After their outbreak, Foster Farms hired Acheson to consult on its new safety program, and the USDA has added new procedures that it says will result in thousands of fewer cases of salmonella each year.
DAVID ACHESON: Regulators, Congress, make change from a regulatory perspective when there’s enough noise. It historically has been a catastrophe that has driven that change. The industry likewise responds to catastrophes.
NARRATION: Bill Marler says a crisis-by-crisis response isn’t enough to prevent the next outbreak.
BILL MARLER: You look back on when change has happened, and it’s always after a disaster. It would be great to figure out a way to make those changes before that even happened.