Even for a longtime attorney who has made a name for himself representing victims of food-borne illnesses, the recent fiasco involving tainted peanut butter has been eye-opening.
"I sort of thought you've seen everything, but this case has got so many twists to it now," said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney known nationally for his fights against corporations accused of sickening consumers.
Marler represented the Reinert family of Sauk Rapids, whose daughter contracted salmonella poisoning in 2007 after eating a pot pie. He recently began representing the family of Stephanie Smith of Cold Spring, who contracted E. coli after eating a hamburger.
Marler is also handling cases for 51 families affected by the recent salmonella outbreak, including the loved ones of a Brainerd nursing home resident who died after eating peanut butter. Marler was with the families last month when they testified before Congress.
Peanut Corp. of America, which has filed for bankruptcy, is being investigated on accusations it shipped contaminated products from its now-closed Blakely, Ga., plant. At the congressional hearing, the company's president, Stewart Parnell, refused to testify.
This case has garnered more public attention than most because of the accused egregious behavior of the corporation involved, Marler said, and because peanut butter is such a staple food.
The public doesn't understand why the federal government hasn't done a better job preventing such outbreaks, Marler said.
"People are frankly really frustrated ... with the lack of oversight in our food supply," he said.
Marler points to the Minnesota Department of Health as a model of how food-borne illness should be prevented and investigated. But other states like Texas and Florida don't follow the same standards, he said.
"We really need to invest in all states in our public health system so these outbreaks are figured out sooner rather than later," he said.
Marler also believes the federal government should require all food manufacturers to test their products for possible contamination and disclose the results. And he says facilities should be inspected more frequently.
"Congress has completely failed to keep pace with the need for inspection," Marler said