On an early winter day in 2013, about 30 minutes before the school bell would ring for lunch, a student in my history class raised her hand. We had just read two chapters from Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle as part of a unit on Reform in America. The students learned about how the book came to be and about the two Progressive Era reform laws, the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act that Congress passed and President Theodore Roosevelt signed within a year of the book’s publication. The student asked one of those questions that teachers hear quite often: “Why are we learning this?”
As I stood there and thought about the age and perspective of my students, I calculated that they were too young to know what had taken place exactly 20 years earlier. This was an opportunity for these students to connect with a story about how food safety affects us.
From a “third-person” point of view, I told them the story of a 16-month-old boy named Riley, who became infected with the E. coli bacteria after coming into contact with another toddler who had eaten a tainted hamburger from Jack in the Box during the 1993 E. coli outbreak that hit the Pacific Northwest.
Immediately after Riley developed symptoms, his parents took him to the hospital—they knew about the outbreak from TV and that two young children had already died because of it. The media was only just beginning to discuss how the pathogen can pass from person to person—not strictly from eating contaminated meat.
The looks on my students’ faces after hearing this information told me they knew little about this topic. I then went on to tell them that, unfortunately, Riley’s parents had to face their worst fears.
Two days after he was admitted to his local hospital, doctors airlifted Riley to the Children’s Hospital nearly 100 miles away in Seattle. Within 24 hours, they moved him to the pediatric ICU. They started him on dialysis the next day, and within another 24 hours, doctors performed surgery to remove more than half of his colon. The boy, who had hardly been able to walk and talk just a week earlier, now remained medically paralyzed and breathing on a respirator. His little body dwarfed by wires, tubes, and devices. Over the next few weeks, he developed renal failure, heart problems, and respiratory distress. On February 20, 1993, only 23 days after he became ill, Riley died from a massive brain hemorrhage and organ failure.
In concluding my discussion, I explained how Riley’s death, and the deaths of two other young children, became alarming statistics in the nearly 650 reported illnesses from what was classified as the largest E. coli outbreak in the U.S. Though we have witnessed changes in food safety policies and laws since the 1993 outbreak, people have still become sick from E. coli and other foodborne pathogens. And, yes, other young children have since died.
This was not my first experience talking about food safety in public schools. Only weeks after the Clinton administration and new Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy took office in 1993, the USDA initiated a public education program in response to the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. The USDA wanted to ensure the public understood not only how to handle raw meat and poultry products safely, but also how to properly cook them. Families at home, as well as cooks at restaurants, needed to be brought up to date with more accurate cooking temperatures.