Bill Marler

April 14, 2009

(continued from page 1)

My concern with raw milk is that people have this desire to go back to the 1940s and 1950s and live a simpler life, which is not such a bad idea in many respects. The problem is that the bacteria and viruses that exist now are way different than what existed then. E. coli 0157 and the shiga-toxin-producing E. coli that can kill us didn’t even exist until the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they’re changing all the time.

So when people say, “I used to drink raw milk all the time when I was a kid,” well, the raw milk you were drinking as a kid 40 years ago had way different risks than the raw milk that you potentially drink today.

And I look at it from the perspective of representing children who have had raw milk and their parents thought that they were giving their kids a healthful product that had been sort of sold to them as a product that could kill bacteria, not contain bacteria. And these kids have had pretty severe hemolytic uremic syndrome.

So my perspective on it is, there’s no real convincing evidence that raw milk is so much better for you that it’s worth the risk of feeding it to your children.

How has your line of work affected your own food choices?
It probably has impacted less what I eat and more what my kids eat. My children, who are now 16, 13, and 9, have never had a hamburger. Never. And we’re very, very careful about things like sprouts and raw products, although we try very hard to get local vegetables and local fruits and wash them thoroughly.

I probably think too much about the foods we eat, primarily because outbreaks happen so often. I think I’ve just had too much experience with the negative side of food.

Who do you think has the biggest responsibility in preventing food-borne illness outbreaks: industry, government, or consumers?
When I was at the meat meeting, repeatedly people would say, “If only people would cook the meat.” And of course, my response to that was, “If only you didn’t put cow shit in it, people wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

I’ve also been very, very disappointed in government for the last dozen years. For many years, you couldn’t get a hearing. Now you can get hearings, but they never seem to do anything. Government needs to fund regulators sufficiently for them to help prevent outbreaks. But Congress and the bureaucrats seem more intent on having a great press conference and saying that they’re going to make a new food-safety agency or something. And then they don’t do anything, and a year later, another outbreak happens, and they say the same thing over and over and over again.

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But I also think consumers tend to be way too passive. Passive not only in their knowledge of food safety and food risks, but also in holding corporations and politicians accountable for making our food supply safer.

Ultimately I believe it’s the consumer’s responsibility. But obviously it’s a shared responsibility. I’ve seen great corporations that do a marvelous job of not poisoning their customers. I seldom get to spend much time with them because I’m never suing them.

What would you like to see the new administration enact as the top policy changes for food safety?
The first thing I would do is increase our ability to surveil pathogen outbreaks. Look at the peanut-butter case; it really started in late August or early September, but it wasn’t figured out or announced until after the first of the year.

In many of these outbreaks, anywhere between 20 and 40 times the number of people who are counted actually do get sick. If we were doing more rigorous surveillance at ERs and pediatrician offices and primary-care providers, if local and state health authorities were gathering that information in a timely way and getting that information to the CDC, you’d basically be taking an outbreak that starts in August and figuring it out in September or October at the latest. You’d figure out the outbreak sooner, you’d figure out who the producer was sooner, and you’d save people.

And figuring out outbreaks sooner means that you’re more likely to be able to pinpoint a particular supplier sooner, so you don’t have the problem like you had last year with salmonella in produce: “It’s tomatoes — oh, never mind, it’s peppers!” And the tomato industry loses hundreds of millions of dollars. Putting an infrastructure in place for reporting outbreaks would be a good thing.

My other major move on food safety would be to have all food manufacturers have some sort of hazard-analysis, critical-control type plan. And they should do environmental and end-product testing. Everyone should be required to do it. And all the test results should be completely transparent, so the government doesn’t have to ask for them and the companies that are having repeated problems can be helped.

That, however, would require more funding for the FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service. It’s not going to be an easy thing. But hey, there’s money floating around.

Stimulus money?
Yeah! Come on, stimulate food safety!

Miriam Wolf writes about books and food for various publications. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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1. by JudithK on Apr 14, 2009 at 10:34 AM PDT

Thank you for your thoughtful interview.
I have a couple of questions, if you don’t mind.
What’s your take on HR875, the Food Safety Modernizaton Bill? Do you think it puts a crippling burden on small farmers? importers?

There was a recent editorial in the NYTimes about free range pigs not being safe. The blog world seems to think that he was a paid shill for the industrial pork industry. What’s your take? Link here:

2. by Bill Marler on Apr 14, 2009 at 2:29 PM PDT

875 - and the other various bills floating around. I have been to DC and have talked to the people pushing this legislation - there are not tools of the Ag/Industrial complex. However, small farmers, organic folks and the local/sustainable people need to engage to make sure these bills do what they are intended to do - bring BIG Business into compliance. On the Free Range Pigs - I think that that is a preliminary study. I am looking into who funded it. “Follow the money.”

3. by Hank Sawtelle on Apr 14, 2009 at 8:18 PM PDT

What an interesting interview. Litigation surely is the fastest way to come up to speed in a complicated scientific area. I loved the response to the meat people “if only you didn’t out cow shit in the meat . . . " and I hope that was really said!

Perhaps kids shouldn’t have raw milk today, but going back the 40s and 50s in other ways wouldn’t be so terrible. STEC and MRSA probably came from the modern industrial meat system, and who knows what new bugs are that will be generated if demand for their products stays strong.

I don’t think there is a widely-held belief that looking the farmer in the eye makes the food “magically” harmless, but understanding the chain and where the food comes from is an improvement. If consumers want to accept responsibility for their food choices, arms-length transactions with the farmer is a much fairer starting point than a shrink-wrapped generic package at the mega-mart. And most of the widespread/deadly problems today seem to come from somewhere in the industrial food system. The things that cause deadly food-borne illness outbreaks don’t seem to be happening in the operations of small grower-retailers. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t learn from the outbreaks and apply those lessons in the future.

Safe food handling in the kitchen was one of the most valuable things I learned in culinary school; I wonder if every home cook became ServSafe certified what that would do to the incidence of food borne illness . . .

4. by anonymous on Apr 14, 2009 at 10:13 PM PDT

Wow, wonderful interview. Thank you. I am a farmer and I do agree that there is a widely-held belief that if you know the farmer the food is safe. I hear it every market. And when someone buys something from me and then proceeds to pop it in their child’s mouth I usually say, “you should probably wash that first.”

It is funny, usually their first response is about ag-chemicals and I always have to explain that no, there is nothing on the produce but it was hand-picked. And although we teach and reteach about proper handwashing and good field sanitation practices, one never can be sure.

I would say 9 times out of 10 the person just shrugs, feeds the child the piece of produce and exclaims, “but it’s natural and I know you are a good farmer.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is only a big industrial farm problem. I think all food producers should be concerned with food safety. One can get sick from produce from a 15 acre farm as easily as from a 300 acre farm. I think anyone who thinks differently is kidding themselves.

5. by Hank Sawtelle on Apr 15, 2009 at 7:39 AM PDT

Anon, you’re right, all food producers and consumers need to be concerned about food safety. If 9 out of 10 consumers (in your survey) choose ignorance, I don’t know what can be done about that.

I still think the controls are easier and more effective in a shorter local loop than for people in Alabama buying produce from China. There’s more ways for stuff to go wrong (to use the HACCP logic alluded to by Marler). Understanding it’s not a perfect world, I’d rather buy from Polyface Farm than No-face Farm when I can. I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but the way things are currently going is not doing it.

6. by anonymous on Apr 15, 2009 at 1:24 PM PDT

I agree, I don’t think I was arguing anything different in my previous comment. No doubt traceback is (or should be) much easier with local products.

7. by JudithK on Apr 15, 2009 at 3:21 PM PDT

Ciao all.
My concern with 875 is that it uses the same paint brush for the small farmer as it does for the large ag business. It also has a very thinly veiled political agenda. Just read the opening statement where they vow to protect us from imports. Food safety is one issue, protectionism is quite another.

Hank, I appreciate and believe in the sentiment that you express regarding arms length purchases, but I’m afraid at the end of the day that it is a sentiment, not a quantifiable fact. When talking about feeding people on a large scale, small farms and markets could not physically meet the demand, so while I like to go to the farmers market, its not always an option for the masses, so we still need to look at long range, mass sustainable solutions for feeding people. No one ever said it would be easy.
Great discussion on a very nuanced topic.

8. by Hank Sawtelle on Apr 15, 2009 at 4:24 PM PDT

@JudithK - for sure no one gets all their food at farmers’ markets. But why couldn’t long-range mass sustainable solutions include shorter distribution chains?

9. by JudithK on Apr 16, 2009 at 8:30 AM PDT

Great question Hank. I don’t know why we couldn’t have shorter distribution chains, it’s worthy of serious thought. Off the top of my head I think the problem would be with staple products that are optimally produced in one growing area but used all over the country.
Want to collaborate on exploring this?

10. by JeanE23 on Apr 17, 2009 at 12:12 PM PDT

Great interview, thanks. I just take issue with one sentence in answer to who has the biggest responsibility for preventing outbreaks: “Ultimately I believe it’s the consumer’s responsibility.” I don’t see how this can be when companies routinely keep information from consumers, government oversight is lax, and even highly regarded research can be questioned. The tomato/pepper issue mentioned is a good example. The consumer can only respond to what is made public, and we are often responding to knee-jerk conclusions. And with the peanut outbreak - was there any consumer safe food handling procedure that would have prevented the first victims? I’m all for taking personal responsibility, but, ultimately, I have to rely on the experts to supply me (through the media) with good, and complete, information.

11. by Liz Crain on Apr 17, 2009 at 5:49 PM PDT

GREAT interview! And Hank, I completely agree with what you’re saying. It’s definitely not an end-all-be-all but shaking the hand that feeds you has wide reaching benefits.

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