Bill Marler knows food poisoning.
In 1993, as a Seattle trial lawyer, he was hired to litigate against the fast-food restaurant chain Jack in the Box, whose E. coli-contaminated hamburgers had killed four children. Since then, he’s worked on nearly every major case of food-borne illness in the U.S., including the current salmonella-in-peanut-butter scandal.
Marler — who keeps a blog about food-safety issues — talked with Culinate recently about raw milk, locally grown food, and food-safety reform.
Thanks for agreeing to chat. I’m not going to be as hostile as some interviewers.
Just yesterday I was at a National Meat Association meeting to give a speech. And there were 400 people there. And they introduced me, and nobody clapped.
I walked up and stood there for a while without saying anything, so there was this kind of awkward silence. And then I said, “You may now clap.” And they clapped.
The reality is that most people don’t like lawyers, because usually when you’re dealing with a lawyer, there’s something . . . amiss, one way or another. But, you know, I’ve got a thick skin.
How did you get your start in food-safety litigation?
The 1993 Jack in the Box case was really the first major food-borne illness outbreak that got the public’s attention. There were four deaths, and there were about 50 kids who suffered hemolytic uremic syndrome, so it was a significant outbreak. I wound up representing a number of the very sick kids, and eventually was the lead counsel for the vast majority of the plaintiffs in the entire litigation.
Did you have experience with that kind of litigation before?
No, not at all. At the time, I’d been a lawyer for five years. I wound up getting the cases and just working really hard to understand the medicine. And when it ended, I thought I’d just go back to being a trial lawyer, representing, you know, victims of whatever.
It didn’t work out that way. The Odwalla case happened right after that, and then more and more food-borne illness cases. I kept getting referrals from other lawyers around the country.
In 1998, I started Marler Clark to specifically focus on food-borne illness litigation. In many respects, it’s been sort of unfortunate that it’s been quite successful.
How true. Is it my imagination, or has the pace of food-safety outbreaks been increasing over the past several years?
If you look at the Centers for Disease Control figures for outbreaks, you can see that they’ve stayed relatively stable, but at a very, very high level. So I’m not sure if we’re really seeing a lot more outbreaks per se, or if we’re just figuring them out more. We have a lot more technology to figure them out now.
Do you think the media is more fascinated by food-borne outbreaks these days?
Some of it is admittedly over the top. I was at the hearings last week with the peanut-butter fellow and the media chased him down the street, kinda like Britney Spears. So I certainly think that it can be overdone.
On the other hand, I think the media reflects how outraged the public feels about living in a First World country and having our food poison and kill us.
This peanut-butter case is a great example of the fact that our food supply has become so intertwined and so massive that one small bad operator — the Peanut Corporation of America, which makes a very small percentage of peanuts, peanut paste, and peanut product — has now caused the largest food-borne illness outbreak in a long time and the largest food recall in U.S. history.
I think that’s also another way to answer the question of whether we’re seeing more [outbreaks]. I think what we’re in part seeing is just more outbreaks tied to large production.
Do you think that the globalization and standardization of our food supply is inevitable? And do you think that these food-borne illness outbreaks will cause people to rethink the way we get our food?
I’m less concerned about globalization as it relates to food safety, primarily because in 15 years of doing food-poisoning cases, I can count on one hand the times a foreign-made product has poisoned us. U.S. corporations do a marvelous job of poisoning our own citizens.
But as our food supply goes global — as consumers want tomatoes all year round — the chain gets stretched farther and farther. And you continue to have potential problems like what happened at the Peanut Corporation of America, where one bad actor ruins the whole production chain.
Now, I and my family try to eat as locally and as regionally as possible, but it is certainly a pretty difficult thing to do. And with the population ever increasing, I have a really difficult time trying to figure out how we can all eat within 100 miles.
I wish I had a great answer, but I’m not positive that shortening the food chain and having everything grown locally is necessarily going to give you safer food. It could. It may be that the outbreaks wouldn’t be quite so large. But I just don’t know what the answer is.
In your list of food-safety challenges for 2009, you question the safety of local food. How big a food-safety threat do you think things like farmers’ markets pose?
My concern is that there’s a sense that somehow, if you’re able to look a farmer in the eye, that farmer’s products are magically not going to poison you. And that’s just not the case.
Now if you ask me, “Bill, how many times have you had a case where people have been poisoned by food at farmers’ markets?” the answer is, I’ve never had one. But just like everything else, the larger the demand is, the more likely it is that there are going to be more problems.
Clearly, it’s not a big problem. My concern is that we don’t [forget] that all food can make you sick, whether you know the farmer or not. That was really my point, not that I don’t like small local farmers.
I live on Bainbridge Island. We have an organic grocery store on the island. I drove by one day and there was a sign that said “Raw milk for sale.” I walked in and I said, “Hi, my name is Bill Marler, and you just don’t want to do that.”
You’re not in favor of raw milk?
Um, you know, I’m not. And it’s not because that’s what I had to drink when I was a kid, although that is what I had to drink when I was a kid. My parents were sort of wannabe back-to-nature people, so we did the whole hobby farm, trying to be self-sufficient.
We talk with people doing influential, important, or just plain unusual work in food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more
Good on everything