Case Study #11: Jack in the Box E. Coli Crisis

On January 15, 1993, the Washington State Health Department alerted Robert Nugent, president of Jack in the Box, that the E. coli outbreak they had been informed of two days earlier, was at least partly attributed to hamburgers purchased at Jack in the Box restaurants (Sellnow and Ulmer, 1995). “Within a month, three children in the Seattle area, all under three, died of E. coli 0157:H7 poisoning – the strain linked to Jack in the Box” (p. 138).

One child had eaten at Jack in the Box, it was thought another was infected by a child who became ill after eating at Jack in the Box, and a cause for the third child’s infection was unknown. In total, 400 people were infected with the bacteria in Washington State, Idaho and Nevada. “As a result of this crisis, the Jack in the Box fast-food chain was not only in danger of losing sales, the company’s very existence was threatened by the crisis as well” (p. 138).

Primary Evidence

From the beginning of the crisis, Jack in the Box emphasized they were not solely responsible for the outbreak, pointing to the fact that customers not only ate at Jack in the Box, but other establishments as well. Although not accepting blame for the crisis, Jack in the Box tried to bolster their credibility by announcing in their first press release, January 18, 1993, they had taken measures to ensure all their menu items were prepared in accordance with an advisory issued by the Washington State Department of Health (Sellnow and Ulmer, 1995).

It wasn’t until January 21 that Jack in the Box took some responsibility for the crisis by announcing that the source of the problem was, in fact, contaminated meat. They explained they were reluctant to speculate before results from state tests came back which now indicated the problem was due to contaminated hamburger. Jack in the Box now pointed the finger at their meat supplier.

Robert Nugent also pointed the finger at the Washington Health Department and their apparent lack of passing out information in regards to new regulations, he also addressed corrective action the company was taking. His January 21, 1993 memo announced Jack in the Box would increase cooking times so the internal temperature of all hamburger products would exceed the new state regulations, check all grills to insure proper operating temperatures, and retrain all grill personnel on proper procedures.

Jack in the Box, on January 22, 1993, pledged “to do everything that is morally right for those individuals who had experienced illness after eating at Jack in the Box restaurants as well as their families” (Sellnow and Ulmer, 1995, p. 146). Jack in the Box dropped their criticism of the Washington State Health Department’s information distribution procedures February 12, 1993, and further emphasized their explanation of corrective measures (Sellnow and Ulmer, 1995).

Waiting a week to talk with the media is what really hurt the company’s reputation. “At the time I thought they were being unfair,” says Nugent. “It seemed to me they were more interested in placing blame than in really understanding what happened here” (p. 157). The story was prevalent for weeks, filled with accounts of organ damage and hospitalized kids. Foodmaker did not comment. “We had developed an attitude about PR that was something like, ‘Keep our mouth shut and if you want to talk with the press, have them call us,'” recalls Nugent (p. 157). Faced with negative publicity for a month, Robert Nugent replaced his public relations firm with President Jimmy Carter’s former press secretary, Joseph (Jody) Powell, who helped turn things around.

Secondary Evidence

Although officials at Foodmaker Inc., Jack in the Box’s parent company, claimed they first learned of the potential contamination on January 17, their initial response to destroy 20,000 pounds of potentially contaminated meat; to switch meat suppliers; to set up a toll-free number for complaints; and to raise cooking temperatures was seen as a positive move. (Soeder, 1993).

Not so positive though was the fact that they didn’t publicly accept responsibility for the food poisonings until the crisis was nearly a week old, and they partially blamed suppliers and state health officials. They also sought full recovery of losses and damages from their meat supplier, Vons. In response, the supplier issued this statement: “While we expected Foodmaker to sue its suppliers, we continue to be confident that Vons processing did not contaminate the meat. Health authorities have made it clear that proper cooking would have prevented this tragedy.” (Soeder, 1993).

According to Goff, (1999) “Foodmaker did the right things and did them swiftly…But when it came to communicating with the public, Nugent proved amazingly inept” (p. 157). Jack in the Box immediately suspended their hamburger sales, recalled meat from distributors, increased cooking times and temperatures, and pledged to pay all medical costs related to the disaster. Jack in the Box also hired a Dr. David Theno, a prominent food-safety consultant, to design an entirely new food-handling system (Goff, 1999).

Scholarly Journals

Jack in the Box, although still not taking responsibility for the crisis, was able to bolster their public image by emphasizing their willingness to alter the cooking procedures used in their restaurants and insisting their role in the crisis was speculative. (Sellnow and Ulmer, 1995). They emphasized the fact that they were taking actions to improve safeguards, while insisting that the crises was system-wide rather than specific to their organization. Although they insisted their products were not the source of many infections for which they were suspected, they offered to pay hospital bills of those who had eaten at their restaurants (Sellnow and Ulmer, 1995).

January 21, 1993, marked the day when Jack in the Box took some responsibility for the crisis. In a prepared statement by Robert Nugent, he addressed the contaminated meat and cooking temperatures, but also managed to shift the blame away from Jack in the Box. He explained that their investigation “traced the contaminated hamburger to a single supplier (Sellnow & Ulmer, 1995). “He also explained that the company had taken the ‘extraordinary step’ of replacing all hamburger patties in every restaurant in Washington and Idaho – despite the fact that health officials indicated this step was unnecessary” (p. 143).

Despite the fact Jack in the Box generated the argument of denial, the fact remained that their product had resulted in multiple deaths, and the public was still very skeptical. When Jack in the Box focused on external problems that contributed to the crisis, they tried to de-emphasize internal problems by focusing on the company’s history and their compliance with cooking regulations. “In fact, the history of our company’s compliance with those regulations is verified through numerous evaluations conducted by federal, state and local governments” (Ulmer & Sellnow, 2000, p. 151). In response to Jack in the Box’s failure to meet higher temperature guidelines imposed by the state, Nugent said the message had not reached his office. If Jack in the Box grills had been at the higher state standard, it is unlikely that the crisis would have occurred (Ulmer & Sellnow, 2000).


The Jack in the Box crisis falls under Coomb’s ‘accident’ category – “unintentional and happen during the course of normal organizational operations” (Coombs, 1995, p. 454). The crisis was devastating to Jack in the Box in the short-term. They had projected losses of between $20 and $30 million by March 24, 1993, resulting from the E. coli crisis. However, by the end of the year, they were able to slow their losses substantially.

Jack in the Box used several strategies to weather the E. coli storm. They began with a combination of avoidance and attachment strategies. When they issued their first press release explaining the source of the illness was unclear; and that some, but not all of the people being treated had eaten at their restaurant they employed two types of avoidance strategies – denial of intention and denial of volition. They also used an attachment strategy – bolstering – in the same press release when they announced the extra measures they were taking to ensure all food was cooked in accordance with a new state advisory that was issued.

They also employed scapegoating, a form of denial of volition (avoidance strategy) when they first took some responsibility for the crisis January 21, but blamed their meat supplier for the contaminated meat. They also used forgiveness strategies, more specifically remediation, when they announced they would pay all the medical bills for people who became ill during the E. coli crisis. Another forgiveness strategy, rectification, was used when Jack in the Box announced several corrective actions they were taking in regards to cooking temperatures.

Although Foodmaker, Jack in the Box’s parent company, continued to be in the news for years following the crisis – every time E. coli came up the whole Jack in the Box story would resurface – the company survived. By referring reporters to articles regarding Foodmaker’s food-safety innovations, the company regained credibility. In 1994, they instituted the fast-food industry’s first comprehensive food-safety program, the Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points system. Today, they are considered the leader in food safety in the fast-food industry (Liddle, 1997) and they are the country’s fifth-largest burger chain (Goff, 1999).


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