Shortstack: Poisoned

Shortstack: Poisoned

Dear Jeff Benedict, author of Poisoned,

You broke my heart.

After reading the first seven pages of your book, I was in tears, one hand covering my mouth, my heart racing as I learned the appalling story of six-year-old Lauren Rudolph, who succumbed to death just one week after consuming a dangerous, bacteria-filled hamburger. I was absolutely sucked in to your retelling of the outrageous, deadly E. Coli outbreak of the early ‘90s — a massive eruption of the most virulent strain of the bacteria that sickened over 600 people, killed four children, and nearly annihilated the Jack in the Box fast-food chain. Your simple but eloquent writing style kept me intrigued page after page, and as a result, Poisoned, with its revealing and heartbreaking stories of the victims of foodborne illnesses, took over my life for an entire week.

You managed to do something that many seasoned journalists and non-fiction writers fail to do: you connect the painful life experiences of real people to the reader, replace the jargon of science and law with straightforward explanations, provide near-omniscient perspective on something huge and frightening and tragic, and most impressive of all, weave these elements together seamlessly and objectively. It’s evident that your research was thorough and sensitive. Brought to tears and filled with a fiery curiosity about what would happen with each victim, I found myself  disgusted by the meat-processing conditions, the manipulative lawyers, and the conflicted executives. You could easily have taken the lazy route and patched together documents and interviews, but that would have been a tacky and insensitive portrayal of shitstorms like this. But you didn’t, and I can’t thank you enough for setting the bar as high as you have.

With the recent increase in media coverage of foodborne illnesses and cases of negligent produce and meat purveyors (E. Coli in sprouts, meat, lettuce, and even drinking water now? What the hell?), your book has opened my eyes even wider to the realities and dangers of careless factories, apathetic government agencies, and callous law firms. But admirably, you never forgot the heroic individuals that fought tooth and nail for change. It’s a classic case of something happening somewhere else, to someone else. But instead of making a momentary impression, this story and its impact ripped my heartstrings right out. These people became my friends, my children, my parents. I didn’t have to try to imagine what their experiences were like; you showed them so acutely that it made me sick to don their sorrow and shame and thrilled to celebrate their miracles. I did my own research just because the book inspired me to, and I’ll probably never be able to eat a burger again without first narrowing my eyes at it skeptically.

Poisoned is a touching, informative, and important read for anyone from the pickiest of eaters to the most adventurous of foodies. It has the potential to actually change the food trade for the better and maybe, save someone’s life. Thank you for being a voice for those who can no longer speak and a critic of those who refuse to.


Arwen Petty