Our food-safety system falls short


Suing food suppliers and restaurants whose products make people seriously ill is Bill Marler's business -- and business is good.

It's so good that shortly before the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was discovered, Seattle-based Marler Clark LLC took its 18 staff members and their spouses on a weeklong, company-paid trip to Hawaii.

Now a large segment of the U.S. food industry is reeling, while Marler is gearing up for another busy year -- 100 Hepatitis A victims from a Pittsburgh restaurant, nearly that many salmonella patients in Chicago, etc.

Marler says the mad cow mess "has just made it so clear that our food-safety system is failing not just the consumer, but also the business of food production in the U.S."

The system needs to catch up to the latest technology, and stop catering to the short-term self-interest of the meat industry, says Marler. Improvements would be less costly than the current situation of international embargo and domestic suspicion, which "is going to be a huge disaster for the industry."

For starters, he says, meat producers and regulatory agencies need to sharply improve tracking of exactly where every product goes -- something taken for granted at Dell Computer or FedEx.

"If you had bought a book at Amazon.com three days ago, you could log on and find out where it is and when it will land on your doorstep," says Marler.

By contrast, five or six days after publicly disclosing the discovery of mad cow disease in a slaughtered dairy cow near Yakima, authorities were still expanding their list of the states where its meat might have gone.

Big retailers now generally know which customer bought which meat on which day, thanks to "club cards" and other data-collection systems, says Marler, who uses those databases in his litigation. But, he says, federal safety agencies don't plumb those databases when there's an outbreak of e.coli, for instance. That's why recalls of food items only bring in about 5 percent of the faulty product.

"There's no question that we could, economically, do product tracing from the farm to at least the last retail shop," he says.

In addition to improved tracking, Marler says the U.S could easily test all "downer" cows -- the quarter-million animals annually that are too sick or injured to walk to the slaughterhouse. Studies show that downer cows are more likely to harbor e.coli and such, even if that's not their main problem, he says.

Their meat should be excluded from the pipeline that feeds humans and other animals destined for human consumption, urges Marler: "You eliminate certain risks and you make the product safer."

"It's unconscionable," he says, that meat from the small percent of downer cows now tested moves through the system even before testing is complete.

Finally, says Marler, the U.S. should merge the food-safety units of the Department of Agriculture and the FDA. As is, he says, the Ag Department is conflicted by its dual roles of promoting ag products here and abroad, while simultaneously policing the safety of the meat industry. Marler says regulators don't even have the power to order a meat recall -- technically, the recalls are voluntary.

Legislation known as Kevin's Law -- named for Kevin Kowalcyk, a 2-year-old who died of food poisoning and was represented by Marler --would strengthen federal scrutiny of meat producers, but it's been fended off by the industry.

"Maybe," says Marler, "this will be the straw that broke the camel's back, that finally pushes everyone over the edge, and they finally start doing scientifically-based product testing, tracking the product from farm to table, and put the heat on enforcement."

Those changes, he adds, "would, over time, put me out of business. And that's really not a bad thing. I've sat in one too many ICUs, been to one too many funerals for 2-year-olds, not to realize it."

RAMI GRUNBAUM is editor of the Business Journal. Reach him at rgrunbaum@bizjournals.com.