BILL MARLER DIDN’T prepare a speech for the Critics Choice Awards last month. The Seattle attorney and food safety advocate has given so many talks over his long career, he’s comfortable winging it — even in a New York City ballroom packed with luminaries from the world of documentary films.
Marler already knew the main point he wanted to make at the podium if “Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food” won the science/nature category: That while progress has been halting, it is possible, if government, industry and consumers work together.
“Or I could have cried like Sally Field,” he jokes when we chat a week after the ceremony.
But he never got the chance to do either. The award went to National Geographic’s “Secrets of the Elephants.”
Marler tells me he’s not too disappointed, because “Poisoned,” which was released Aug. 2 by Netflix, is helping raise awareness of food-borne illness — if only in an incremental way. It was screened on D.C.’s Capitol Hill for members of Congress and their staffs and helped inspire at least one proposed bill.
Rolling Stone describes “Poisoned” as “an alarming reminder to watch what you eat, at least if you want to stick around and stay healthy.” Among Salon’s“6 most horrifying revelations” from the film is that companies legally can sell chicken contaminated with salmonella.
The documentary is based on Jeff Benedict’s book “Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed The Way Americans Eat” — and Marler is essentially the star.
The film version revisits the deadly 1993 outbreak caused by undercooked Jack in the Box hamburgers that killed four children and sickened more than 700 people, many in Washington and Oregon. The outbreak was also the origin of Marler’s business model: suing corporations on behalf of people harmed by contaminated food. My Feb. 26 cover story was pegged to the 30thanniversary of the outbreak, but also focused on the way Marler since has leveraged his position and expertise to become one of the country’s foremost agitators for stricter food regulation, challenging companies to clean up their acts and put him out of business.
Unfortunately, as the documentary highlights, 48 million Americans still fall ill and 3,000 die from contaminated food annually — and the trend hasn’t abated this year. Since our story published, Marler’s online newsletter Food Safety News reports more than 200 food recalls or health department warnings, covering everything from listeria-tainted fondue and exploding cans of spoiled cider to flour laced with salmonella and 30 tons of unsafe halal meats. As the year drew to a close, recalls of salmonella-contaminated cantaloupe continued to expand across the United States and Canada, with more than 14,400 people sickened, dozens hospitalized and 10 dead. On Dec. 18, federal inspectors identified cinnamon at a plant in Ecuador as a likely source of lead in applesauce that has sickened more than 200 children.
Marler and his firm currently are representing a woman whose husband was killed by listeria in a milkshake at a Tacoma restaurant, the families of children with kidney failure linked to E. coli-tainted lettuce at Wendy’s restaurants, and several people hospitalized or sickened by salmonella in Papa Murphy’s raw cookie dough.
The one unequivocal success in recent history, which Marler would have mentioned in his speech, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ban on sales of meat contaminated with toxic strains of E. coli. Enacted soon after the Jack in the Box tragedy, the measure virtually eliminated hamburger-linked outbreaks.
Now, the biggest sources of E. coli in food are lettuce and other fresh produce contaminated by manure from nearby livestock operations.
The proposed bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), would give federal officials the authority to collect microbial samples from suspect feedlots to identify the source of outbreaks — something it seems they already should be able to do. But “the animal industry has … impeded investigators from accessing farms during outbreaks, which further hinder their efforts to identify the source of outbreaks and develop preventive measures,” according to a summary of the legislation.
Marler doesn’t give it much chance of passing. “I’ve gotten to the point where, in the political realm, I don’t expect big changes,” he says.
But a recent USDA proposal to ban sales of certain raw, breaded chicken products if they’re tainted with salmonella could be the “nose under the camel’s tent” he’s been hoping for.
Marler has been pushing the agency to outlaw sales of all chicken contaminated with toxic strains of salmonella, as it did with E. coli-contaminated meat. He’s had no luck, largely because the industry argues it’s impossible to eliminate the microbes.
But if the proposed regulations for breaded chicken were successfully enacted — which is uncertain, based on possible industry opposition — then poultry producers’ objections would become harder to swallow.
And if agencies, companies and Congress won’t act, maybe juries would.