Before Jack-in-the-Box introduced its quirky ball-headed mascot, its marketing strategy pivoted on one slogan: “And make it snappy, Jack!” If America wanted fast food, Jack was determined to deliver it faster than anyone else.
But then, in 1993, 500 people were sickened from eating Jack’s under-cooked hamburgers. Three children died, horribly ravaged from the inside out. The deadly E.coli virus caught Jack asleep at the grill and startled the public who, post Cold War and pre-9/11, had become comfortably numb.
Bainbridge Island resident Bill Marler remembers the outbreak well. After graduating from WSU, Marler was a third-year associate at the Seattle law firm of Keller Rohrbach. While the drama dominated the national media, Marler received a call from the mother of one of the afflicted children. A high-stakes legal battle ensued, wrought with cinematic-worthy drama.
The landmark $15 million settlement Marler won in a class action suit against the fast food chain propelled him into the spotlight. These days, Marler is considered the nation’s leading food safety lawyer.
“Honestly, in the last 18 years I must have heard 50 times ‘Wow, that’s a really interesting story. Somebody ought to write a book about that.’ But no one ever stayed around to do it,” said Marler from the Seattle office of his firm Marler Clark.
But in 2009, Marler received a call from investigative journalist Jeff Benedict, who was researching material for his next book about food safety.
“I’d never heard of him,” Benedict said on the phone from his organic farm in West Virginia.
Benedict was on the hunt for a good story, and was zeroing in on more recent outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli, terms now common among the culture. Just about every major case led back to Marler-Clark as the representing firm for the victims. Benedict flew to Seattle and met with Marler at his Bainbridge Island home. In his conversation with Marler, Benedict asked him how he’d developed such a specific niche. Marler gave Benedict the backstory on the Jack in the Box case, and Benedict, who had previously written several other David-meets-Goliath legal page-turners, was “hooked.”
“It had historical significance, had a strong beginning, middle and end,” Benedict said. “And, it had compelling characters. Here was this fledgling, frustrated, no-name lawyer who in the end becomes the most sought after laywer, to the king of the heap. There are few people who you could identify as being No. 1 in his field.”
Benedict describes Marler’s rise from a lawyer with a conscious, living in a one-bedroom cabin near Suquamish to championing kids against large corporations, which afforded him the ability to pay cash for a waterfront home on Bainbridge.
Benedict and Marler will both appear at Eagle Harbor Book Co. May 20 for a reading from Benedict’s new book, “Poisoned” The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat.”
Slow food nation
“It’s the hardest book I’ve ever written,” Benedict said. Juggling multiple storylines, creating portraits of the larger-than-life cast, and translating technical medical information provided a formidable challenge. Benedict’s writing gets out of the way, putting the reader in the thick of things. The book chronicles events, supported by newspaper clippings, depositions, photos, evidence of Benedict’s own training as a lawyer.
“I love reading legal documents,” he said. “It’s like treasure hunting.”
It was not Benedict’s idea to do a book about food safety. His wife Lydia was a proponent of the “slow food” movement, which ironically had gained momentum following the Jack in the Box case. Up to that point, the public hadn’t really thought about where all those beef patties were coming from. The E. coli outbreak demonstrated how vulnerable the modern American food system had become.
In Benedict’s mind, books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” had already covered the topic.
“But those books are not stories. I write stories,” Benedict said.
It’s a topic with which Marler is quite familiar. In fact, Marler pulled strings to get Pollan to read at Eagle Harbor Book Co. when “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was published. And, just last week, Marler spoke at the Future of Food conference in Washington, D.C., at the bequest of Schlosser.
“I think he brings me in as the reality check,” Marler said.
“I absolutely believe that how we produce food should be sustainable and regionalized, not using the least common denominator,” Marler said. “Our food system is based on direct oil input from pesticides and fertilizers and the corn-based society really needs to change.”
But just as you start thinking he’s channeling Pollan, Marler changes it up.
Marler’s May 7 blog about the Future of Foods Conference called for more attention to food safety at all levels, even among the small organic farms that are burgeoning in the U.S.
“…Was it because there is a belief in ‘foodie’ or ‘foodiest’ communities that if food is local, sustainable, organic and non-GMO it is by definition safe?” he wrote.
With eyes wide open
Marler grew up on a farm in Silverdale and while still in high school he had a traffic ticket dismissed by studying the codes and representing himself in court. In 2002, he went after ConAgra, the food conglomerate that dominates the middle aisles of American supermarkets.
The man appears fearless.
“And that may be why I don’t have many friends,” he said.
Having worked closely over the last two decades with those who have been traumatically affected by food poisoning, Marler’s allegiance is to food safety regardless of who’s producing it.
When Odwalla’s E. coli-contaminated apple juice sickened 65 people, including 2-year-old Michael Beverly, Marler took them to task as well.
“Odwalla is a perfect example,” Marler said. “These guys were into producing healthy juice, giving money to the right people, but then they went public. They started watching stock prices; they expanded; they hired consultants. They stopped paying attention and they made mistakes — because they wanted to make more money.”
Marler’s testimony before Congress regarding food safety was instrumental in getting S-110, the sweeping Food Safety Bill passed in January.
“It’s tough to find a way to feed 9 billion people,” Marler said. His hope is to get the FDA to become more proactive, rather than only reacting after each outbreak. In the present system, food producers are left to monitor their own behavior.
“The big producers say leave us alone,” Marler explained. “We’re big. We know how to do this. The small producers say leave us alone, we have good intentions and we can’t do much damage.”
“Our system sets up the civil justice system for making people accountable,” Marler said. “We have criminal laws on the books, but in the last two decades I could count on a couple of fingers where even the most egregious, almost intentional acts, were ever charged with a crime.”
It’s not a perfect system Marler admits, but he’s seen worse. Working on food poisoning cases all over the world has given him new perspective. For instance, he met with lawyers representing victims of tainted infant formula that affected more than 300,000 infants in China. When he checked in with the lawyers for an update, three of the four lawyers had been arrested and put in jail.
In a perfect world, Marler’s services wouldn’t be needed. He started a nonprofit organization Outbreak to disseminate information about food borne illness to the food industry. He travels the country making his “put me out of work” speech without compensation. His firm produces food-borne illness fact sheets to educate the public “as part of Marler Clark’s on-going effort to end the need for food-borne illness litigation in this country.”
“I’m pretty sure I could find something else to do,” he said.