Two Things That Keep The Meat Industry Awake At Night - Food Safety and Bill Marler


About this food safety issue, I know you’ve read about it. It’s been in all the papers, the New York Times, for instance. And magazine-after-magazine has jumped on this fast-moving band wagon with breathless exposes on what’s wrong with our inspection system. Want to see my now cancelled Time issue dated August 21 - the one where Bryan Walsh showed everyone that the publication had abandoned its long-time news coverage and quietly turned to opinion pieces, instead? He wrote an interesting piece of fiction called “Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food”.

He blamed modern agricultural practices for almost every ill – real or imagined - that’s befallen America. If we could only adopt practices that would greatly increase the price of food, people wouldn’t eat so much of it and we wouldn’t be a nation populated by the unfit and overweight.

If we would only buy locally, the world’s carbon foot print would shrink drastically, forestalling or even reversing global warming. Of course Alaskans would be reduced to eating snow in the winter. I have no idea what people in the Dakotas would eat. Maybe the folks in Wisconsin could subsist on lutefisk during the colder months.

If we would only turn our bovines loose to fend for themselves, the reduction in the enormous amount of gasses emitted by these beasts (that’s cow farts for the uninitiated) would also help mitigate global warming. The assumption is natural selection (that’s turning cows into wolf food for the uninitiated) would greatly reduce their numbers.

Doing the math, could buying locally and ending bovine-based agriculture actually contribute to global cooling and create an advancing ice sheet that would soon wipe out Detroit and end another plague on our population – massive urban unemployment? I’ll ask Walsh about that possibility one of these days.

If we would just stop fast, efficient food production and leave it to small, local processors, food safety would blossom and our people could eat all they wanted, as long as they could afford it, without fear of food borne illnesses caused by such nasty microbes as E. coli or L. monocytogenes.

Did I mention one of the projects some friends are working on right now is trying to find a way to get the increasingly sophisticated food safety testing procedures and complicated federal, state and local rules and regulations into the hands of small- to medium-sized processors? It’s what keeps them up late at night.

And they admit the prospect of keeping the uncountable number of very small processors up-to-date is a daunting prospect that they just can’t get their arms around. Going from a few thousand to tens of thousands of processors and keeping them all inspected and in the loop on all the amazingly complicated new procedures sounds like one of those “It ain’t ever gonna happen” exercises in futility.

Still, there’s a man out there that’s determined to lead us to that promised land of absolute food safety. He thinks too many people at the higher reaches of food processing companies see food safety as a just another cost of doing business. They seem to be saying, “It must be done, of course, but let’s review the investment and make a financial decision on where we draw the line.”

Bill Marler, the well-know Seattle lawyer, is the man who wants to move that line considerably up to the high side of the corporate balance sheet. “If I can make the cost of a recall higher than it is now through the courts…”

He didn’t finish that comment; he’ll let those that might see him in a court of law while hoping their lawyer can best him in hand-to-hand combat fill in the last few words. Marler, though, is a well-seasoned man on a mission. He’s got 16 years of experience, dating back to 1993’s Jack-in-the-Box outbreak. He’s seen children and old folks die agonizing deaths and the industry claim that we’ve improved our record so that only the tiniest amount of food borne illnesses are actually caused by errors in food processing falls on his annoyed ears.

To a lot of people in this business Marler equals pariah so his appearance at the National Meat Association convention last February caused some controversy. His speech infuriated some people and Executive Director Emeritus Rosemary Mucklow was cornered by a few processors that thought his presence was inappropriate.

Mucklow didn’t invite him without some thought, though, and when I asked her about it, she said, “In order for us to see ourselves as others see us, it is important that we not merely accept adulations, but also criticism. I consider Bill Marler a friend! We took heat for having him at the convention, but we have much to learn from him, and we won’t learn if we put him in our deep freezer. I believe he is sincere when he tells our industry to put him out of business – and we should get as much input from him as we can to help us accomplish this goal!

The question was posed to her after another appearance that surprised people. He attended the Meat Industry Hall of Fame dinner with the editors of his new online pub, Food Safety News, and a handful of lawyers. He had purchased a table and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to meet some of the heavy hitters in the modern era of the meat industry - everyone from Cactus Feeders’ Paul Engler to Hormel’s Dick Knowlton.

Marler had chaired the ACI Foodborne Illness Litigation Conference in Chicago and the lawyers he brought to the Hall of Fame dinner were people who attended that conference and represent some of the largest food processing companies in the U.S.

“I was there because the Hall of Fame was honoring people I respect, people like Dell Allen and Russ Cross who have always tried to do the right thing. We might have had some disagreements but I’ve agreed with them more than 95% of the time,” said Marler. “Lots of people who received those awards spend a lot of time like I do thinking about food safety. I wanted to support that.”

“I understand the vast majority of companies are trying to produce a high quality product with all kinds of things flying around. I know it’s an ongoing ‘pain’ for them but it’s also a problem for the victims of food borne illness. People like Stephanie, the young dancer portrayed in the New York Times story, will live with the effects of E. coli for the rest of their lives.”

Bottom line #1: Yeah, we’ve come a long way with food safety and taking those last few steps will be very expensive and complicated but there is a groundswell of demand that’s absolutely insisting that the job be finished. To those executives that are trying to parse it out on their balance sheets, ignoring it is fiscal suicide.

Bottom line #2: A decade ago, this phrase struck fear into the hearts of CEO’s everywhere, “Hello, I’m Morley Safer with 60 Minutes and I’d like to ask you a few questions.” Today, the phrase is, “Hello, I’m Bill Marler and I’d like to ask you a few questions on behalf of my client.”