‘Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food’ Explained: Why Is The Us Failing To Eradicate Salmonella?


The Netflix documentary Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food investigates the current situation of the food industry in the United States. For decades, consumers have been told that the food supply in the United States is the safest in the world, but is there any truth to the statement? Well, not really. With millions getting affected by foodborne diseases in the United States, it is evident that the safety regulators have failed the consumers over and over again. Director Stephanie Soechtig (best known for Under the Gun and Fed Up) dares to directly ask unsettling questions to the authorities, making the documentary impactful. 

How Did The U.S. Counter E. Coli In Hamburgers?

 Soechtig visits a supermarket with food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who has dedicated 30 years of his life to fighting cases on behalf of victims. Marler points out that most of the fresh vegetables and raw meat found in the market are contaminated. Romaine lettuce is infamous for being one of the most contaminated vegetables, and since it is not cooked, it poses all the more danger. Cut fruits are, of course, dangerous because consumers eat them directly from the box. To better understand the food safety situation, the documentary takes us back to 1993. People, in general, did not think much about the e-coli spread when the news first broke out. But gradually, the number of affected people in Washington kept on increasing as the disease started to spread more and more rapidly. Children were particularly at risk since the toxin released from E. coli O157 affected every organ of the body, ultimately leading to multiple organ failure and death. It was soon found that the undercooked hamburgers sold at ‘Jack in the Box’ were responsible for the outbreak. While bacteria found in stakes die when seared, in minced meat, the situation is complicated. Since minced meat consists of meat from different animals, the chances of the product being infected are higher.

Fresh out of law school, Bill Marler was deeply disturbed upon seeing the impact of the disease, especially after knowing how it could have all been easily avoided. Perfectly healthy individuals were falling ill simply because they decided to have a hamburger. From then on, Marler decided to fight for the victims. Darin Dewiler was devastated upon seeing his sixteen-month-old son, Riley, at the hospital as a result of a secondary E. coli infection. The doctors gave up when Riley developed hemolytic uremic syndrome. There was no chance of him recovering, and the parents decided to pull him off life support and hold him close to their hearts one last time. The Washington State Advisory notified the eateries to cook the meat they served at 155 degrees. But Jack in the Box knowingly ignored the requirement and continued to serve undercooked hamburgers. In a television interview, the President of ‘Jack in the Box,’ Robert Nugent, denied the rumor and implied that the company was complying with the law. The company was in jeopardy when Bill Marler found evidence that proved that they were not following the regulations. After going through the documents he had received from ‘Jack in the Box,’ he found out that an employee had notified the authorities about the customer complaints regarding undercooked hamburgers. The email exchange proved that the company had received the regulation and decided that they would continue to cook their meat at the temperature that they previously did.

To counter the problem at hand, Bill Clinton brought people capable of bringing change on board. Mike Taylor played an important role in altering the official policy of the USDA, which offered little to no solution to the problem. The onus of the entire situation fell upon the consumers and not on the regulatory board. Taylor decided that it was crucial to declare E. coli O157 an adulterant and that action would be taken in case raw ground beef was found to be contaminated in the marketplace. It was a quick action that helped in eradicating a disease that stemmed from hamburgers, but the same cannot be said about the other products that are still available in the market.

Why Is The Us Failing To Eradicate Salmonella?

In 2018, there was another E. coli outbreak, and this time it was the lettuce that infected the consumers. Even if the consumer bought organic lettuce, it could still be infected since it was not pathogen-free. Lettuce is exposed to animal waste on farms, and that is why it carries the bacteria. Lack of regulation of animal wastes is another leading cause of foodborne disease. Stephanie Soechtig interviews spokepersons from the USDA and FDA (the USDA is responsible for meat, poultry, egg products, and catfish, while the FDA is responsible for regulating the remaining 80% of the U.S. food system). Sandra Eskin, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, repeatedly mentioned that the USDA does not have the authority to look into the contamination of irrigation water. The discussion was limited to what was already known.

In 2009, salmonella started to spread widely as a result of infected peanuts. The Peanut Corporation of America supplied peanuts to various brands, and their lack of accountability resulted in the outbreak. According to former employee Kenneth Kendrick, there was a leak in the roof that brought in bird crap, and the plant had mice sprawling all around. When informed about the deteriorating condition of the plant, Stewart Parnell, the owner of Peanut Corporation of America, ordered Kendrick not to speak a word about it. Not only was Parnell aware of the plant condition, but he also knew that his product tested positive for salmonella. But instead of rejecting the lot, Parnell advised retesting over and over again unless it was negative. There came a point when there were no negative results, and that was when they started to forge the results. There was a large-scale recall of products when the disease started to spread. Stewart Parnell was brought down when the FDA teamed up with the Department of Justice. Ultimately, Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Parnell did not suffer from guilt; for him, it was just business and numbers, and even today, he continues to appeal.

In 2010, there was a massive egg recall after another salmonella outbreak. Jack DeCosta, a known name in the egg industry with over 50 years of experience, is infamous for running unclean farms. After years of running his business scot-free, he received a three-month prison term for it. Stephanie Soechtig also questions the senior vice president of Purdue, Bruce Stewart-Brown, about the safety measures taken by their company. Purdue is one of the four prominent names in the egg industry, and they granted the team of “Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food” access to their facility. While Purdue demonstrates the many safety measures they take to make sure that the eggs are not contaminated, the results of the tests conducted by the documentary team make one question the truth of it. One of the most important reasons for the continued spread of salmonella is said to be the lack of treatment of poultry at the farming level since USDA regulations begin only at the slaughter level. Upon testing five samples of store-bought chicken, the one that tested positive for salmonella was Purdue’s. When confronted about it, Brown stated that a single case cannot be used to make any deductive statement. So, the team went ahead and collected 150 samples for testing in a short span of time from different states.

By the end of Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food, the result was revealed, and the salmonella positivity rate for the overall sample was found to be 17%. And Purdue did not pass the test since 29% of its sample tested positive. The company maintains that it tries its best to make sure that its products are free from salmonella. Bill Marler called for a ban on 31 strains of salmonella in his petition to the USDA. After the petition was filed by Marler, the USDA banned salmonella in a few chicken products, though salmonella is allowed in most products. “Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food” puts forward the problem at hand in a thought-provoking way. The documentary binds together stories of personal losses and the entire argument around food safety in a concise manner.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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