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Bill Marler, Attorney, Blogger, and Food Safety Advocate, Talks Turkey (or Spinach, Rather)

The Miami New Times | By Ily Goyanes | November 2, 2012

When we first heard of Marler Clark, the "food safety law firm," we pictured a dozen ambulance chasers strategically posted outside of establishments that served spinach in large quantities throughout the day. After a few conversations with Bill Marler, however, we realized that our assumption couldn't be further from the truth.

Marler is as passionate about preventing foodborne illness as he is about ensuring that victims are compensated for their medical bills, loss of wages, and decreased quality of life. He has petitioned the USDA for stricter food safety regulations, he works with nonprofit food safety organizations, and he helped push through the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. He also helms the Marler Blog, which he uses as his pulpit and comments about food safety issues, food poisoning outbreaks, and litigation.

We spoke with Marler about food safety, corporate responsibility, and some of his biggest cases.

Follow the jump for part one of our Q&A.

Short Order: How did you become involved in food safety?
Bill Marler: During the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, I was contacted by the family of Brianne Kiner, the most seriously-injured survivor of the outbreak. I represented Brianne and dozens of other E. coli outbreak victims in claims against Jack in the Box, its parent company, and its meat supplier. While that litigation was wrapping up, I was contacted by the family of a child who had become ill with an E. coli infection after drinking Odwalla apple juice. I wound up representing several other victims of the Odwalla E. coli outbreak and other E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria outbreaks across the country. The sole focus of my practice soon became foodborne illness cases, and I haven't looked back.

What are the major food safety issues facing us today?
Today we see more and more outbreaks traced to fresh produce. The major culprits we've seen in the last several years are cantaloupes, sprouts and leafy greens--foods that are not cooked and therefore do not go through a "kill step" before being consumed. We see an emphasis on eating local food and knowing the farmer who grows your food. Just because you can look a farmer in the eye doesn't mean his or her food is implicitly safer. We've seen dozens of people--mostly children--sickened in 2012 alone because they drank raw (unpasteurized) milk produced at a small, organic farm.

On a national level, the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law by President Obama last year, still lacks funding. Call it election-year politics, but it can't go into effect until the White House Office of Management and Budget does its job. FSMA would give the FDA more tools to ensure the safety of our food supply. It was supported widely by both consumers and the food industry. There's no reason it shouldn't have gone into effect months ago.

In the past, when you brought a foodborne illness case against a huge corporation, have you found them to take responsibility immediately, or would you have to litigate in order to force them into taking accountability?
Food companies respond to claims in different ways. Some are very proactive and pay for clients' medical bills right away. Others hold off until verdicts or settlements are reached. In most cases, it's not the company that's making the decision. Many of these cases involve multi-party complex litigation, where we're dealing with a manufacturer, distributor and retailer--all of which have two to three layers of insurance coverage. Determining who pays what is no simple matter.

If a company buys contaminated product, such as spinach, why are they responsible as opposed to the supplier?
If a company buys contaminated product and sells it, that company is part of the chain of distribution and therefore warrants its product to be fit for a particular use--in this case, human consumption. Retailers, distributors and manufacturers of contaminated food can all be held liable for selling food contaminated with human pathogens. Each party's portion of fault for selling a contaminated product is determined during the course of litigation, and responsibility for compensating victims is apportioned accordingly. The only case in which a retailer would be held solely responsible for damages is if the product could not be traced back farther down the chain or distribution.

Bill Marler Interview, Part Two: His Most Difficult Cases and Lobbying Congress


Short Order recently published part one of our interview with Bill Marler, attorney, blogger, and food safety advocate. He discussed food safety concerns and foodborne illness.

We wrap up our interview today with Marler discussing his most difficult cases and lobbying Congress to pass the Food Modernization Act.

Short Order: What has been your most difficult case and why?
Bill Marler: Any case involving a death is difficult. Some of the victims I represent in lawsuits stemming from the Jensen Farms cantaloupe Listeria outbreak in 2011 stand out in my mind because I've been hired by the wives and children of World War II veterans who received Purple Hearts for serving their country, but died because of something so simple as eating a cantaloupe.

As the father of three daughters, though, representing the parents of 7-year-old Abby Fenstermaker after her death was probably the most emotional case I've ever been involved in.

Abby went to the hospital to visit her grandfather, who was suffering from an E. coli O157:H7 infection he contracted from ground beef. While there, she became infected with E. coli and less than two weeks later she was gone.

Abby's illness started like any other E. coli infection, with painful abdominal cramping and diarrhea. It progressed quickly; causing acute renal failure and a massive stroke that left her completely brain dead.

Abby's parents held her while she was taken off life support and her heart beat for the last time. No parent should have to go through that--especially because of something preventable like foodborne illness.

What has been your proudest achievement as an advocate of food safety?
I travel around the world to share my clients' stories with members of the food industry and public health communities. I do this for free because I think it's so important for people in positions to prevent foodborne illness or who are investigating foodborne illness outbreaks to be aware of how their jobs impact each and every one of us--especially those who become ill during outbreaks.

I lobbied Congress to pass the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and petitioned the USDA to declare Non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) adulterants in meat products. My clients and I worked with other food safety advocates to arrange dozens of meetings with Senators, Congressmen and leaders at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service to show them that people sickened by foodborne illness are not just statistics.

President Obama signed FSMA into law nearly a year ago (it's still stuck in the Office of Management and Budget) and FSIS declared non-O157 STECs adulterants in ground beef last spring.

(For more on STECs click here.)

What changes would you like to see in the food industry?
We would need days to discuss this fully. Each and every member of the food industry -- from farm to fork -- must create a culture where food safety and nutrition is paramount. Baring companies from doing the right thing on their own, if I had the power to enact immediate changes, I'd:

  • Have comprehensive minimum food safety standards for domestic and foreign production with more frequent inspections based upon risk.
  • Implement criminal sanctions for food producers that knowingly produce tainted food.
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