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When Food Sickens, He Heads for Courthouse

When Food Sickens, He Heads for Courthouse

Rotten apples are cerainly not safe to feed the public.

Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS _ No one really wants to meet Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer from Seattle, because those who do are likely A) critically sickened by contaminated food and in need of legal help, or B) responsible for selling the food.

Yet there seems to be no shortage of people who know Marler after several high-profile food illness outbreaks in recent years from spinach, tomatoes, frozen pizza, peanut butter, hamburger meat and, recently, Nestle Tollhouse cookie dough.

Marler rose to prominence during the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993. He maintains multiple food-related blogs while crisscrossing the country to speak about food safety. He’s supportive of federal legislation winding its way through Congress that would require more inspections of food plants and give more authority to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to order food recalls, among other things. Marler, who’s often quoted saying he wishes food companies would put him out of business, also says people must learn how to properly handle risky foods while companies must own up to the risks inherent in their products.

Marler’s reaction to the Nestle Tollhouse cookie dough outbreak: “It’s almost un-American.”

He sat down with the Star Tribune recently, just before addressing a group of Minneapolis lawyers on food safety.

Question: Isn’t food safer now than it was 20 years ago?

Answer: Sort of, and I don’t mean to sound like a lawyer. E. coli is a good example. If you look at 20 years ago, you weren’t counting it because nobody was counting it. Once they started counting it in 1993, it went, zoom! Campylobacter is becoming a huge problem, especially for the poultry industry. Now we have a lot of antibiotic-resistant salmonella we didn’t have 15 years ago.

The best we can say is we are holding our own against the numbers (of people sickened), but the types of bacteria coming at us are just much more virulent and nasty. We’re starting to see E. coli outbreaks where the levels are just horrific.

Q: Congress is looking at food safety. Can they fix it?

A: Not completely. The bill that’s coming out is adequate, but not what I would have written. I think it falls short on not having enough funding in there to actually accomplish what the bill is trying to accomplish. They’re missing transparency on the testing issues. Companies can hold the testing without giving it to state officials. In my view all tests should be out there in plain view.

I would take a much harder look at combining FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service), FDA, (into) sort of a single food safety agency. But that’s more of a long-term play. The other parts of the equation I think are missing are much more consumer awareness of the risks of food, of the types of foods that are risky. We don’t spend much money on educating people on how to properly handle risky foods.

Q: Why is it so hard to pinpoint the source of an outbreak?

A: It’s a problem of surveillance. And, the tomato outbreak is a good example, peanut butter is a good example. This Tollhouse is a good example. An outbreak can limp along for months, and most outbreaks, if you look at the epidemiological curve, usually the outbreak is almost over before the health department announces it. We miss so many. I think the statistic on salmonella is that for every one case, 38 are missed.