Professor tells the ‘dirty truth’ about food in Netflix documentary

Northeastern professor Darin Detwiler talks food safety and his family's tragedy in new Netflix documentary
Darin Detwiler, associate teaching professor, talks food safety and his family tragedy in new Netflix documentary. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In one of the many disturbing images in a new Netflix documentary on food safety, animal waste from a cattle feedlot ends up in a drainage canal providing water to large fields of romaine lettuce.

It’s no wonder leafy greens are a chronic source of E. coli infections, Northeastern professor and food safety expert Darin Detwiler says in “Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food.”

Unlike with meat for cooking, “there’s no kill step” in preparing lettuce, Detwiler says in the 1 hour, 22-minute documentary airing Aug. 2.

An image of the Poisoned documentary poster, which includes a basket of eggs, meat, apples, and peppers with yellow "caution tape" over it. The text on the poster reads, "Poisoned. The dirty truth about your food. Only on Netflix. Now playing."
“Poisoned,” a new Netflix documentary featuring Northeastern professor Darin Detwiler, airs Aug. 2. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Detwiler, a full-time associate teaching professor, says he hopes the documentary—whose trailer already has more than 1.6 million views—serves as a consumer call to food safety action on the part of regulators and food industry executives.

“Policy makers and executives keep saying that America has the safest food supply in the world. That’s ridiculous,” Detwiler says.

“Forty eight million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and some 3,000 die every year from food-borne pathogens,” he says.

His toddler was a statistic

Detwiler’s 17-month-old son Riley was a food poisoning fatality statistic in 1993, the victim of an E. coli outbreak in a Jack in the Box restaurant in Washington state.

The outbreak spread to three other states, sickening more than 700 people and killing three other children.

The cause of the outbreak was contaminated ground beef. 

But the dark-eyed, fair-haired Riley, whose photo Detwiler carries on a lanyard to food safety talks, had never eaten a hamburger. He contracted the illness through another child at daycare whose parents worked at a Jack-in-the-Box.

Riley’s death propelled Detwiler, formerly an engineer on a nuclear submarine in the Navy, to become a food safety advocate representing families affected by foodborne illness.

President Clinton called Detwiler from Air Force One, and Detwiler appeared in a televised town meeting with him and then on Good Morning America, where he took up the secretary of agriculture’s request to advocate for a requirement that raw meat be labeled with a warning to wash hands and cook the meat thoroughly.

Speaking for the vulnerable

Detwiler has spread the word about food safety to graduate students, food industry executives and regulators at the USDA and FDA. 

The Netflix film includes footage of him speaking on a stage in Dublin, Ireland.

Everyone can get sick from a foodborne pathogen but the most vulnerable are the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, those who are pregnant and the very young, Detwiler says.

“I’m often the only person at conferences that’s there to represent consumers and represent victims,” says Detwiler, who has written two recent textbooks on food safety policy.

He is featured in the beginning, end and throughout the Netflix documentary, along with other experts including food safety attorney Bill Marler.

“I look at this not so much the idea of representing my experience, my family, my son, but as an opportunity to make sure that all those other 3,000 families who lose a loved one each year see validation and an acknowledgement of their side of the story,” Detwiler says.

Red carpet treatment

Knowing of his advocacy, film producers in New York and Los Angeles reached out to Detwiler a few years ago to seek his input on the documentary based on the book, “Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat,” by Jeff Benedict.

Due to COVID-19, the filming took place in a house in Los Angeles, where Detwiler had recently moved and from which he conducts online graduate level Northeastern courses in corporate social responsibility and sustainable development.

“They literally had to rent a house with multiple bedrooms and have a COVID coordinator” to keep people safe, tested and distanced, Detwiler says. 

“They had this massive house. The living room was my filming location. They had bedrooms they turned into offices. They staggered the schedule so I came in and filmed one day, someone else filmed another day in another part of the house and another person came in another day and filmed in another part of the house.”

The documentary’s June 9 premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City was a live, red carpet event.

“We’re talking about an audience where maybe 20% of the audience at maximum was associated with the film. The rest were just people who got random tickets to go to a premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival,” Detwiler says.

“Most people are going to see this on their couch in their living room. But to see it in front of a live audience and to hear and feel the reaction was just an incredible and emotional experience.” “People say to me, ‘You must have had a lot of people coming up to you and shaking your hand,’” Detwiler says. “I’m like, ‘No, a lot of people are coming up to me and hugging me and crying.’”

Pathogens in veggies

One of the surprising facts in the documentary was the number of outbreaks caused by contaminated vegetables and fruit, including lettuce, spinach, onions and cantaloupe.

“I do hope we get to a point where we don’t continue to have cattle operations across the stream from romaine lettuce harvest areas,” Detwiler says.

But while food safety technologies demanded by consumers in the aftermath of the Jack in the Box deaths have led to far fewer E. coli deaths from raw meat, salmonella is still a problem in chicken meat sold in the U.S.

In Europe, where live chickens are tested for the pathogen before being slaughtered, salmonella rates are low. But unlike its European counterpart, the USDA has no authority to control chickens on farms, according to ProPublica

“I hope that there’s more demand from the consumer that comes out of this documentary, that the consumer will expect more,” Detwiler says.

“At the end of the day, did I make any money on this? No. Am I a different person because of this? No. Do I get my son back because of this? No,” Detwiler says.

“But at the end of the day, did I do yet a different thing in terms of being a father to my son? Yes. Did I continue on my mission in terms of trying to improve food safety for the nation? Absolutely, yes.”

Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at or contact her on Twitter @HibbertCynthia.