E. coli Attorney Marler Calls for States to End School Poisonings

Partner Bill Marler takes a stand on school lunch safety

Seattle, WA: Seattle attorney Bill Marler announced today that he is asking food safety advocates around the country to join him in a state-by-state campaign to make school lunches safer. Marler released text of a letter he is sending to consumer and government accountability groups, and the press, asking for their help and support. Complete text of the letter follows:

I am writing you today about the safety of food served to our nation’s children at school.

Please allow me to introduce myself. My wife Julie and I are parents of three young daughters. Since 1993, as a lawyer based in Seattle, I have represented hundreds of children who have become seriously ill or died because of exposure to E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Shigella, or Hepatitis. I have also consulted with companies with the goal to convince them that it is not in their interest to harm children.

These food borne illnesses are especially threatening to our children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. Presently, I am representing a dozen children in Finley, Washington who became sick with E. coli from eating a school lunch. Last year, I resolved a nearly identical case in Athens, Georgia. It has now happened again in Minnesota.

I wish I could tell you that these were isolated cases, but based upon what we have learned; they are not. In March of this year, the U.S. Congress’ investigative arm, the General Accounting Office (GAO), released a report identifying 17 outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with school lunch programs in 1997 and 1998, which effected an estimated 1,600 children. Most schools are in session for only nine months of the year. That means that during the school year, every four weeks and two days, another school lunch program poisons close to another 100 children. I’m sure we all agree that this is entirely unacceptable.

I think it is time that advocates of food safety and the press focus their energies on a nationwide campaign, waged state-by-state, to make food served in schools far safer than it is today. I am writing today to solicit your endorsement for this campaign and your involvement in advancing it in your state and with your elected officials.

Effective, low cost legislation, must include:

1.     Online reporting of safety violations: Inspection reports from the Food Safety & Inspection Services (FSIS) on processing plants selling to schools would be required to be made available to parents and the public online.

2.     Regular inspection of school lunch programs: State and/or local health inspectors would be required to give a higher level of inspection to schools.

3.     "Safe Serve” training for school food workers: Food service workers in schools would be required to be certified in safe food handling practices through formal “Safe Serve” training.

This three-pronged approach is designed to break the pattern that clearly is behind most of the school lunch outbreaks. Simply stated, USDA’s massive commodities purchase program is buying meat and poultry from some processing plants with the most food safety violation records in the country. Those records are maintained and are available from FSIS but are never revealed by the USDA to the schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Too often, local health inspections and properly trained food handlers are not there as the last line of defense.

Like many of the parents and families of victims of food borne illness, I would like to see the federal government address this issue by consolidating all food inspection into one independent agency and by increasing inspections. Congress is no closer to doing this than it was almost 8 years ago in the aftermath of the Jack in the Box outbreak. The food industry is just too interested in protecting the status quo.

That’s all the more reason I think its time that we shake things up at the local, state, and national levels. Parents standing up to USDA, demanding their records, and giving their products extra scrutiny, will have an impact.

All too often as an attorney, I have found myself in the Intensive Care Unit with parents of a child who was first sickened by E. coli O157:H7, and then went on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a rare and severe kidney disease. I cannot help but react like a father whenever I see parents having to make life and death decisions about the treatment of their child, decisions no parent should ever to have to make.

So let’s take some simple steps in the interest of making food safer in our schools. I am writing to both ask for your personal endorsement of this effort, and for your assistance in gaining support from your elected officials. My law firm, Marler Clark will provide model legislation to potential sponsors, and I will make my clients and myself available to testify, speak to editorial boards, and educate reporters on the issue.

-End of Letter--

BACKGROUND INFORMATION: Bill Marler has extensive experience representing victims of food-borne illness. He represented Brianne Kiner in her $15.6 million settlement with Jack in the Box. This settlement created a Washington State record for an individual personal injury action. Mr. Marler also represented several other victims from the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak with numerous cases settling for more than $1.5 million each. In May 1998, he settled the 1996 Odwalla Juice E. coli outbreak for the Dimmock, Wright, Hiatt, Berman, and Beverly families, whose children were severely injured after consuming Odwalla apple juice. He is currently representing several children in an E. coli outbreak stemming from contaminated beef served in school lunch programs in southeastern Washington State, and others including an Atlanta, Georgia E. coli outbreak involving contaminated swimming pool water.