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College Discourse Over Food Safety, Courtesy of Bainbridge Lawyer

Bill Marler considers himself a “Coug — through and through.”

The Bainbridge Island resident earned three degrees at Washington State University, was the first student elected to the Pullman City Council and served on the WSU board of regents after making a worldwide name for himself battling E. coli outbreaks as a food safety lawyer.

So when his alma mater announced budget constraints would force it to cancel this year’s freshman reading program, which was to focus on a controversial food-related topic, Marler’s Cougar pride got the better of him — and his checkbook.

“They had already bought 4,000 copies of the book, so I’m just covering the rest,” he said.

The rest happens to be about $50,000.

But it’s worth it, Marler said, because the money revives WSU’s Common Reading program and puts copies of its 2009 selection — Michael Pollan’s biting critique of industrial agriculture, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” — into the hands of every freshman entering a university known for producing the best minds in agribusiness.

Along with the book comes a year’s worth of discussions and events, as well as a visit from the author in January. Marler is also bringing Pollan home with him for mid-January appearances on Bainbridge Island.

“The book has become for food what ‘Silent Spring’ was for DDT, and what ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was for global warming,” Marler said. “It’s helping people focus their attention on what’s happening to them, and how things need to change.”

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” pulls apart four meals, inspecting the ingredients’ social, political and environmental implications. The conclusion: people should eat food that is more a product of nature than industry.

A best-seller in 2006, the book was quickly adopted as a manifesto for the modern local food movement.

WSU’s selection of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” touched a nerve with some university leaders and key financial contributors — many of whom operate the kind of large-scale farming operations Pollan targets in the book.

The school stirred up even more controversy when it unceremoniously dropped the program in May.

A WSU English professor and Common Reading selection committee member asserted in a widely dispersed e-mail message that the program was canceled because of “political pressure” from a large farm owner and university regent who disliked the book’s characterization of industrial farming.

WSU President Elson Floyd dismissed the controversy as rumor-fueled, and stressed that the program was cut as part of a larger effort to shore up the university’s $54 million budget deficit.

Marler, who was a WSU regent from 1998 to 2004, was quick to come to WSU’s defense.

“To show that it was not political, I will pay to get Mr. Pollan to Pullman and find a place for him to speak,” he wrote in his blog,, in May. I have my checkbook ready.”

WSU’s prompt acceptance of the $50,000 offer proved to Marler that the university’s concerns were purely budgetary.

“It was not politically motivated, but it was handled badly,” he said. “They didn’t see this as the potential pie in the face it became.”

For Marler, bringing back the program was a way for WSU to save face and ensure that the book got a fair hearing on campus.

“I may not agree with all of (Pollan’s) ideas, but I think they need to be talked about,” he said.

The main thrust of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” — that large-scale food production and distribution are harming human and environmental health — fits with what Marler has learned though almost two decades of helping sick people sue corporations over tainted food.

Marler began specializing in food contamination cases in 1993 when he represented a seriously ill survivor of Jack in the Box’s headline-grabbing E. coli outbreak. The $15.7 million settlement set a Washington state personal injury settlement record and led to several other cases against the fast food chain.

In 1998, Marler pulled $12 million out of Odwalla on behalf of three children made ill from the company’s E. coli-tainted apple juice.

Marler now travels several days a month to speak to food industry and public health groups. In May, he addressed Britain’s House of Lords. This week, he’s slated to speak at a food safety conference in Beijing.

He still handles a full plate of cases. One of his current clients is a 4-year-old girl who suffered a stroke from contaminated cookie dough.

“Unfortunately, I’ve gotten busier,” he said, noting recent outbreaks linked to spinach, lettuce and peanut butter.

He agrees with Pollan that smaller is usually safer.

“In my 17 years of litigation, I’ve never sued a farmers market,” he said. “It’s always been big corporations operating in multiple states, poisoning multiple people. That’s not to say that no one has ever gotten poisoned at the Bainbridge farmers market, but it hasn’t been serious. There is a link between mass-produced food and mass-produced illness.”

Where Marler questions Pollan is on how small-scale farming and localized distribution can feed the world’s growing population.

“I grew up on a farm near Silverdale, so I’m very familiar with small farms and raising animals,” he said. “How do you translate that to where you’re feeding 9 billion people?”

Marler hopes a flood of other questions about the ills of agribusiness and limitations of the local food movement will begin flowing as thousands of fellow Cougs crack open “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” as classes get under way.

“It’s a book perfectly suited for (WSU) to grapple with,” he said. “I can’t think of a better place to talk about this, and start dealing with these issues in a big way.”

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