How Burgers Went To, And Came Back From, The Brink

How Burgers Went To, And Came Back From, The Brink

We're definitely in the golden age of hamburgers now. Fast food chains are coining money, fast casual players like Five Guys are expanding at a frenetic pace, the once-humble burger has found a permanent home on high-end menus and, in Pat LaFrieda, we even have a celebrity purveyor of ground beef.

It's mind-boggling to think how far we've come since the Jack in the Box E. coli crisis in 1993. Many patrons, particularly parents of small children, were convinced then that eating a burger would result in sickness or death. Paging through Jeff Benedict's Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat (Mariner Publishing; $24.95), it's equally mind-boggling that Jack in the Box, the fourth-largest QSR burger chain at the time, is still around.

Benedict retraces the Jack in the Box crisis from the initial outbreak through the record-setting lawsuit settlements that ended it. We hear plenty from parents of some of the four children who died and from a few of the 500 or so people who became sick after eating an E.coli-tainted burger, but lived.

Readers will closely follow the steps taken by Jack in the Box c.e.o. Bob Nugent. He had to juggle doing the right thing for customers, keeping the publicly traded company in business through the worst food safety crisis and media barrage imaginable, and retooling the company's food safety and meat sourcing protocols on the fly so Jack In The Box could return to normalcy.

Jack in the Box was blindsided, of course, even though it nominally had the right people and procedures in place to ensure that nothing like an E. coli outbreak would ever happen. It exists today only because a new board member had insisted just one year prior to the outbreak that the company increase its excess liability insurance to $100 million.

Nominally, Jack in the Box got tripped up by failing to cook its hamburgers to an internal temperature of 155°. The larger problem was that standards were lax at upstream ground beef suppliers. Jack in the Box wound up paying the price.

If you want to learn what restaurants can do to avoid foodborne illness incidents and what to do if, God forbid, you find yourself embroiled in one, read this book. The hard-earned lessons on display here will make you thankful somebody else learned them for you.