Remembering the Days When Fast-Food Burgers Could Be Deadly

The newest ‘Retro Report’ looks back at the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak.
May 11, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

A trip to the drive-through could kill your kid.

It may sound like hyperbole, but in 1993 that was a real fear—one expressed by David Acheson, a food-safety expert and former Food and Drug Administration employee, in a new video. An E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box killed four and sickened more than 700 that year, leaving many with lasting injuries to their kidneys or brain. The incident, which turned the then-little-known bacteria found in the digestive tract of some cattle into a food-safety phantom, is the subject of the latest Retro Report video, released Monday by The New York Times.

As Acheson says in the video, the outbreak changed the way consumers looked at food safety and led to an overhaul of the industry. Because although Jack in the Box wasn’t cooking its hamburgers to a high-enough temperature to kill the bacteria, the bacteria was already present when the chain bought the meat—and no one was really looking for it. USDA inspectors were only poking and smelling carcasses, the way they had inspected meat for a century, and not testing for bacteria.

“We were focusing on what we could see, what we could feel, what we could smell,” said William James, a former USDA employee. But you can’t smell E. coli contamination. Congress later passed a law that set a zero-tolerance standard for E. coli in ground beef, officially declaring it an adulterant.

Although the Jack in the Box outbreak changed the way beef is processed, inspected, and regulated, numerous dangerous, even deadly food-safety incidents have followed. We’ve feared E. coli in burgers and spinach, salmonella in turkey and chicken, listeria in cantaloupe and ice cream, and many more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people are sickened by food-borne illnesses every year. While some standards have changed, a massive food-safety law passed by Congress in 2009 remains unfunded. Unlike E. coli, salmonella bacteria has not been declared an adulterant in poultry products.

Why? Acheson sums up the situation in simple terms: “The food-safety system is dysfunctional.”