Secretary Veneman: you have not put me out of business yet


As a trial lawyer I spend much of my time looking for fault. But, from my mother, I learned to compliment and thank someone for doing the right thing, whatever their motives. So, thank you Agricultural Secretary Veneman for stepping in and protecting the multi-billion dollar meat industry from economic suicide by instituting long needed protections against BSE or “Mad Cow” disease - even if the cow was long “out of the barn.” These changes over time should rebuild confidence in our trading partners that the US Government is really serious about making our food system one of the safest in the world.

The change requiring the tracking of animals from birth to slaughter or from ‘farm to fork,” should allow the meat industry and the Government to document where cows come from and where specific lots of meat are sold. That way, meat can be recalled quickly if a pathogen (not just BSE) is detected anywhere in the process. We have had this technology for some time (If we can track online a book from Amazon.com, we should be able to do the same with a cow); Secretary Veneman must be complimented.

The recommitment to the 1997 FDA ban on the use of cow brain and spinal tissue in cattle feed is also positive. But in 2002, according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report, several firms were violating the restriction, and the GAO concluded that the ban was not adequate to control the spread of BSE. One would think that with all the knowledge the government and cattle industry have about BSE, they would realize that tough enforcement is in order on the feeding of animal parts to other animals that are eventually consumed by humans. This should be a “no brainer” for Secretary Veneman.

Some of these changes may also have the added impact of potentially taking other food borne pathogens off our children’s tables. For example taking “downer” cattle out of the human food chain (consisting of only 200,000 of 45 million cattle slaughtered each year), not only significantly reduces the risk of BSE, but also, according to the USDA’s own studies, reduces the risk of greater contamination with the deadly E. coli O157:H7. This pathogen alone, according to the CDC, sickens 75,000, hospitalizes 2,500 and kills nearly 100 Americans yearly. Most victims are children, and many that survive suffer long-term complications, such as brain damage and/or kidney failure.

I know this because I have built a practice on food borne pathogens. Over the last ten years, I have represented hundreds of families who were devastated for enjoying a very American pastime – eating a hamburger. I have taken millions of dollars from the meat and restaurant industries. This may prompt Secretary Veneman to consider me a blood-sucking ambulance chaser who exploits other people’s personal tragedies. Secretary Veneman, congratulations for what you have done to date in the face of the economic collapse of the meat industry. However, you have much more to do to put this trial lawyer out of business; and please:

Put me out of business.

For me, E. coli has been a far too successful practice - and a heart-breaking one. I am tired of visiting with horribly sick kids who did not have to be sick in the first place. I am outraged with a meat industry that allows E. coli and other poisons to reach consumers, and a President, Congress and federal regulatory system that do nothing about it (many of the changes recommended by Secretary Veneman had been rejected by Congress in the last year).

Stop making kids sick - and I will happily stop suing your boss’s biggest donors. Here is how:

Actually inspect and sample meat. At present, the USDA employs thousands of inspectors across the nation to inspect hundreds of plants that produce millions of pounds of beef at processing plants and retail outlets. The GAO has warned that the USDA's food samplings are so scattered and infrequent that there is little chance of detecting microscopic E. coli or any other pathogen.

Give the inspectors real authority to sample meat and stop its distribution as soon as a pathogen is detected. Implement a sampling system that provides a reasonable chance of preventing another outbreak. Doing so might add a nickel a pound - maybe less - to the price of hamburger. It will also cut into my business - isn't that the idea?

Reconsider mandatory recall authority. This authority was required in Senator Tom Harkin's Safer Meat, Poultry and Foods Act of 2002 (named Kevin’s law for a young boy who died of E. coli in Wisconsin in 2001). Under the present system of voluntary recalls, no company has actually refused to recall contaminated product. However, in a recent report, the GAO did document several instances where companies delayed complying with recall requests. Delays mean tainted product has more time to reach consumers.

Require the meat industry to document and disclose where specific lots of food are sold. That way, during an E. coli outbreak or recall the public can be told where the meat was sold and it can be recalled quickly if a pathogen is detected.

Merge the two federal agencies responsible for food safety. Right now, USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service and the inspection arm of the Food and Drug Administration share this mission. The system is bifurcated, which leads to turf wars and split responsibilities. We need one independent agency that deals with food-borne pathogens and whose sole responsibility is to protect the public.

Finally, Secretary Veneman, you should urge large purchasers of meat – fast food industry, grocery store chains, and yes, the USDA – to require the meat industry to produce high quality, pathogen lessened, meat. Can you imagine the power they can put on slaughterhouses to clean up this mess?

None of this will stop E. coli entirely. This invisible poison has been around a long time and is bound to pop up again. But, these steps will enable us to detect it far more quickly, to alert stores and families, and to keep our most vulnerable citizens - kids and seniors - out of harm's way.

We have the ability to live up to the billing of the safest food supply in the world. The question is whether this “Mad Cow” crisis will be the catalyst that finally starts the reform necessary to stop making US consumers ill and to regain the confidence of the World in our food supply.

And, with a little luck Secretary Veneman, you will force one damn trial lawyer to find another line of work.

William Marler is a Seattle trial lawyer specializing in food borne illness litigation and the father of three girls.

BACKGROUND: William Marler is the managing partner at Marler Clark. Marler Clark is the premiere food illness litigation firm in the Untied States. It has achieved great success representing victims, mostly children, in the largest outbreaks across the country over the last ten years. William Marler represented Brianne Kiner in her $15.6 million E. coli settlement with Jack in the Box in 1993. In 1998, Marler Clark resolved several cases for children who suffered kidney failure in the Odwalla apple juice E. coli outbreak. The firm represented most of the seriously injured victims in the Finely School E. coli outbreak of 1998, the Sun Orchard Salmonella outbreak of 1999, the E. coli Sizzler outbreak on 2000, the Wendy’s E. coli outbreak of 2001, and the Con Agra E. coli outbreak of 2002. Marler Clark is presently involved in Chi Chi’s Hepatitis A and Chili’s Salmonella outbreaks. Marler Clark has also obtained record verdicts and settlements on behalf of thousands of people infected with E. coli, Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Listeria, Shigella and Campylobacter. Total recoveries to date on behalf of victims are in excess of $100 Million.

The partners at Marler Clark also speak frequently on a variety of issues regarding food safety.