E. Coli Outbreaks Changed Food Production, But How Safe Are We?

A 1993 E. coli outbreak linked Jack in the Box hamburgers sickened 700 people and acted as a wake up call about the dangers of food-borne illness. Decades later, how far have we really come in terms of food safety?

In early 1993, the Washington State health department warned that a bacterium most Americans had never heard of, E. coli O157:H7, was making dozens of people sick—and spreading rapidly. The likely culprit: undercooked hamburgers from the Jack in the Box fast-food chain. Ultimately, more than 700 people fell ill and four children died during what proved to be one of the most significant food poisoning outbreaks in U.S. history.

The “Jack in the Box” outbreak was a wake-up call about the dangers in the food supply, the first time that many Americans realized that eating dinner could be deadly. It led to major changes in industry practices and government oversight of the food supply. But, more than 20 years later, how safe is the food supply?

Related: Action and Dysfunction in the U.S. Food-Safety Effort by Clyde Haberman

For teachers
  • Producer: Scott Michels
  • Producer: Drew Magratten
  • Editor: Sandrine Isambert

For Educators


This 11-minute video shows students how confusion within the federal government, a lack of cooperation between regulatory agencies, and the power of single-issue interest groups can prevent the enactment of regulations and legislation that most citizens would deem beneficial. In a reexamination of a 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants that sickened 700 people and killed four children, the video demonstrates why that outbreak, and more recent outbreaks, haven’t led to effective regulation of the food supply. A case study in bureaucratic inertia, this video is useful for lessons on the complexities of the policy making process, and obstacles preventing the passage of regulations that would benefit most Americans.

Background reading

In January 1993, one of the worst outbreaks of food poisoning in U.S. history provided a stark example of how human-made catastrophe can shape federal policy. The outbreak was linked to undercooked hamburger meat used by Jack in the Box franchise restaurants in Washington state, California, Idaho, and Nevada. Four children died and hundreds of people were hospitalized, many suffering lasting brain damage or kidney failure.

The culprit was a strain of bacteria called Escherichia coli 0157:H7, which lives in a cow’s intestines and is especially toxic to children and elderly adults. An investigation revealed that Jack in the Box employees had failed to cook hamburgers to 155 degrees, the temperature known to kill E.coli. Additionally, Washington state health officials determined that the beef used had been contaminated at a processing plant before it reached the restaurants. Compounding matters, the beef industry had paid little attention to preventing the spread of E. coli 0157:H7, under a long-held belief that proper cooking would remove bacteria in meat, and that cooking was not its responsibility.

But public outcry over the Jack in the Box outbreak became a call for better regulation. In 1994, Congress responded by declaring E. coli 0157:H7 an adulterant in ground beef. It instituted a procedure for testing for the pathogen and required that contaminated meat be taken off the market.

But while Congress eventually passed a law giving the FDA more tools to fight contamination by other bacteria like salmonella, the law still hasn’t been fully funded or implemented.

Lesson Plan 1: Influencing Public Policy: Food Safety

Students will learn how human-made catastrophes can help to shape federal policy on food safety.

  • How the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak of 1993 affected public attitudes toward food safety, triggering a regulatory response from the U.S. government.
  • How single-issue interest groups can successfully manipulate bureaucratic agencies and political processes to prevail over less focused and less well-organized grassroots efforts.
  • How bureaucratic confusion and a lack of inter-agency cooperation within the federal government can result in a failure to regulate industry.
Essential questions
  • What is E. coli? What caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993?
  • At the time of the original E. coli outbreak in 1993, what was the beef industry’s position on E. coli? Who was responsible for preventing E. coli outbreaks?
  • What caused an E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce in 2006? How was the outbreak related to a failure at inter-agency cooperation between the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) and the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.)?
  • What has the poultry industry’s position been toward salmonella?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Geo.12.9-12. Evaluate the consequences of human-made and natural catastrophes on global trade, politics, and human migration.
  • AP Government and Politics
    • Topic 5.7: Groups Influencing Policy OutcomesSkill 1.D: Describe policies illustrated in different scenarios.
  • AP Environmental Science
    • Unit 5: Land & Water Use