Staunton native, Mary Baldwin grad publishes startling book on foodborne diseases

January 1, 1998

Improper food handling and processing have placed Americans in the grip of a foodborne disease epidemic that annually kills 9,000 people and sickens another 81 million.

That is the assertion of a new book by Mary Baldwin University graduate and noted author Nicols Fox. “Spoiled: The Dangerous Truth About a Food Chain Gone Haywire,” is published by HarperCollins and has received national attention for its claim that America has lost control of its food supply – thereby creating a terrifying scenario for sickness and death.

Ms. Fox, who was born in Staunton and graduated from Mary Baldwin in 1964, is an investigative journalist whose work has appeared in such publications as the Economist, Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Journalism Review, Columbia Journalism Review and Art in America.

Her book was featured in a recent “48 Hours” segment, and the dramatic rights have been optioned. Robin Cook, author of “Coma,” is working on the screen play. In addition, she airs between three and eight radio programs a week on the subject of foodborne disease.

Penguin Publishing will release a paperback edition of her book in May.

Ms. Fox spent several years researching E. coli contamination in America, and in her book has drawn from scientific and medical journals and more than 100 interviews with epidemiologists, physicians, food scientists, USDA and FDA officials, farmers, distributors and consumer victims.

“The dangerous truth is that, in the last 25 years, we have lost control of our food supply,” said Ms. Fox. “In the past, the connection between the cow in the pasture and the burger on the bun was simple and direct. Now it is a tangled and messy chain of factory farming and processing, high-tech packaging, mass distribution, and importing and exporting.”

Each of these, she said, creates a niche for an “opportunistic pathogen” and an “emerging foodborne disease.”

In addition, she said, the vegetables we eat travel a circuitous route from faraway farms to salad bars, and along the way confront a series of hazards that could prove fatal to humans. Also, change in lifestyles – from frequent travel to a growing taste for the exotic – coupled with new ways of buying, cooking and consuming food, expose people to a host of new and sometimes deadly microbial invaders.

Ms. Fox is currently working on a companion volume to “Spoiled: The Dangerous Truth About a Food Chain Gone Haywire.” She said the new book, which she has titled “It Was Probably Something You Ate,” is a practical guide to avoiding and surviving foodborne disease.