What if I had a food safety magic wand?


The other morning when I was prepping in another studio to talk with another cable channel about yet another food crisis—this time the recall of a half of a billion Salmonella-tainted eggs that had already sickened at least 1,400—I was asked by a young producer, “Attorney Marler, if you had a magic wand, what would you do to make food safer?”

My first thought (to myself) was, “How the hell do I know, I’m just an ambulance chasing barracuda looking to destroy some poor helpless food manufacturing corporation that just poisoned a bunch of people, cost retail chains hundreds of millions of dollars in recall costs, and damaged its entire sector’s image and sales?”

But then I thought some more. I thought about my nearly eighteen years spent dismantling those helpless corporations to secure medical expenses and lost wages for clients whose lives were destroyed, or ended, because they did something we all do about three times a day: they ate food. I thought about the ICU’s I had been in and witnessed the panic in a parent’s eye as a doctor coldly explained the need for kidney dialysis, or the reasons to stop life support because their child’s brain had stopped functioning. I thought about the heroic struggles in rehab as a brain-injured client learned to brush her hair and teeth, or learn to walk again as the family looked hopefully on. I thought about the fear that these families have as they wonder how they will cope with a disabled future without the resources to pay for it.

And, then I thought, “Give me the damn wand!”

First, I would increase criminal sanctions for poisoning your customers. If a CEO of a food manufacturer takes unreasonable risks with the public’s health, and people get severely sick or die, that CEO should spend time in jail. For goodness sake, we make kids do hard time for smoking dope, yet we do nothing to a CEO who sickens several hundred and kills nine by knowingly shipping Salmonella-tainted peanut butter (Yes, Mr. Parnell, I am thinking of you).

Second, I would financially-incentivize food manufacturers and retailers to produce and buy safer food. I would give them tax breaks for food safety interventions that have been proven to make our food both safer and healthier.

Third, I would encourage transparency in food safety; consumers need to know who produces and sells the safest and healthiest food, not just who produces and sells the cheapest food. Quality needs to replace quantity in the American diet.

Fourth, I would assure that our food regulations were even and flexible for all players—small and large, foreign and domestic. Safety would be paramount, but innovation—especially, those focused on energy consumption, environmental concerns and sustainability—must be encouraged.

Fifth, give local, state and federal inspectors the resources to enforce the regulations fairly and as frequently as necessary to assure compliance. Make all inspections – especially product test – transparent. Manufacturers and retailers need to work in virtual glass houses. Food production and food safety needs to be seen by all.

Sixth, I would elevate public health to the height it deserves. We need to encourage cooperation between all levels of public health in charge of educating the public on safe food handling. We also need to encourage coordination to those charged with surveillance of foodborne and bioterrorism events. We need to stop outbreaks earlier and prevent the spread of disease.

Damn, my wand arm is tired. I know I missed some things, and likely emphasized ideas that others would not, but I am tired now and still have an ambulance to chase.