Seattle food contamination expert in China as tainted milk sickens thousands of kids


The World According to Bill Marler. Oh, what an interesting one. Consider the dilemma facing Seattle's esquire extraordinaire of e.coli this week in China. Slated to give a keynote address today at an international food safety conference, the Chinese government gently reminded him that, "speakers are expected to exercise diplomacy during your presentation."

As Marler asks in his always educational, entertaining blog, Bill Marler: Providing Commentary on Outbreaks & Litigation:

"I wonder if they do not want me to talk about the tainted baby formula that has been blamed for killing four infants and sickening 6,200 in China since the scandal broke last week....Hard not to notice – impossible not to talk about."

Marler is the nation's foremost legal crusader against companies, restaurants, county fairs, schools, et. al, that have sold undercooked burgers, served up platters of poo (buffet style) and featured salmonella on the side. His clients typically range from pre-schoolers to fifth-graders who've endured months of ill effects and hospitalization, and often long-term kidney damage. Or they are bereaved parents who've lost children to foodborne illnesses.

Marler, a graduate of the Seattle University School of Law, and Washington State University in political science, has made a national (and more lately, international) name for himself for not only suing the purveyors of poisoned food but also guiding them on food poison prevention.

"Please, put me out of business." That's Marler's favorite taunt to food companies when he travels on his own time and dime to lecture them on food safety. The nonprofit food safety consulting firm of the Marler Clark law firm is called Outbreak.

This week, he's on his way to an international food safety conference in Beijing as China's tainted baby formula scandal continues to unfold. The formula had been found contaminated with the industrial additive, melamine, used to make plastics and fertilizers. It's banned from food production but believed to have been used by farmers as a cheap way to boost protein content of the formula.

Marler got his start 15 years while representing Brianne Kiner, the young Redmond girl who almost died from eating two kiddie burgers from Jack in the Box. For her months of hospitalization, permanent organ damage, multiple strokes, hundreds of seizures and having to start life all over again with a cadre of physical, mental and school therapists: $15.6 million in a settlementnegotiated by Bill Marler, then a wet-behind-the-ears personal injury attorney.

(A.I.G., by the way, an insurer of many food-related companies, paid out the settlement to Kiner. The financially-troubled giant is also on the defensive end of many other of Marler's more recent lawsuits. Marler said he'd be more worried about getting settlements for his clients if the insurance company hadn't been bailed out by the government.)

After the Kiner case, Marler recruited the sharks on the other side of the aisle, Denis Stearns and Bruce Clark, who once defended Jack in the Box, to join his firm. Now, they all pursue better cooking through pasteurization (think Odwella fruit juice outbreak), more vigilant food protection oversight from supposed government watch-cattle agencies (think disgusting slaughterhouse practices and the recent recall of 40 million tons of ground beef.)

And they spread the word that spreading salmonella and other nasty bugs kills people. And costs plenty.

I first met Marler ten years ago when he arrived in Atlanta during a baffling e.coli O157:H7 outbreak. Dozens of kids were in the hospital as public health officials scrambled to figure out what sickened them and where it came from. They knew it couldn't be the usual suspect -- ground beef -- because one of the sickest toddlers, and the only one who died, was a vegetarian, and had never tasted beef in her two years of life.

The culprit?

Fecal matter floating in a kiddie pool at a popular amusement park in Marietta, Ga. Health officials unraveled this chain of events: Pool chlorination levels weren't potent enough, and were below required levels, to kill e.coli matter that seeped out of kids' diapers. Children then splashed about and sipped the unknowingly contaminated water.

As a health reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I covered the outbreak and the families affected, learning more than I ever wanted to know about e.coli and the many children it's killed and maimed. Brianne Kiner. and her mother, Suzanne, both became advocates for safer food practices and often console familes going through the ordeal of severe e.coli contamination.

Kiner, now all grown up, has been working at Marler's law offices atop Seattle's tallest downtown building helping sort through myriad legal documents for his latest cases.

Here is the story I wrote about Marler ten years ago and a narrative piece about Brianne Kiner's medical ordeal.

Also worth checking out is this recent interview appearing on the very witty food blog, Haphazard Gourmet Girls.

Needless to say, friends don't invite Bill Marler over much for dinner any more.