Bill Marler B-W headshotUnpasteurized (“raw”) milk and packaged juices. Unpasteurized milk, sometimes called “raw” milk, can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites. Between 1998 and 2011, there were 148 food poisoning outbreaks linked to raw milk and raw milk products in the US—and keep in mind that comparatively few people in the country ever consume these products, so 148 outbreaks is nothing to ignore. As for unpasteurized packaged juices, one of Marler’s earliest cases was the 1996 E. coli outbreak from unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice. As a result, he won’t go near raw milk or juice. There’s no benefit big enough to take away the risk of drinking products that can be made safe by pasteurization,” he says.

Raw sprouts. Uncooked and lightly cooked sprouts have been linked to more than 30 bacterial outbreaks (mostly of salmonella and E. coli) in the US since mid-1990s. As recently as 2014, salmonella from bean sprouts sent 19 people to the hospital. All types of sprouts—including alfalfa, mung bean, clover and radish sprouts—can spread infection, which is caused by bacterial contamination of their seeds. “There have been too many outbreaks to not pay attention to the risk of sprout contamination,” Marler says. “Those are products that I just don’t eat at all.” He did add that he does eat them if they’re cooked.

Meat that isn’t well-done. Marler orders his burgers well-done. “The reason ground products are more problematic and need to be cooked more thoroughly is that any bacteria that’s on the surface of the meat can be ground inside of it,” Marler says. “If it’s not cooked thoroughly to 160°F throughout, it can cause poisoning by E. coli and salmonella and other bacterial illnesses.” As for steaks, needle tenderizing—a common restaurant practice in which the steak is pierced with needles or sliced with knives to break down the muscle fibers and make it more tender—can also transfer bugs from the surface to the interior of the meat. If a restaurant does this (Marler asks), he orders his steak well-done. If the restaurant doesn’t, he’ll opt for medium-well.

Prewashed or precut fruits and vegetables. “I avoid these like the plague,” Marler says. Why? The more a food is handled and processed, the more likely it is to become tainted. “We’ve gotten so used to the convenience of mass-produced food—bagged salad and boxed salads and precut this and precut that,” Marler says. “Convenience is great but sometimes I think it isn’t worth the risk.” He buys unwashed, uncut produce in small amounts and eats it within three to four days to reduce the risk for listeria, a deadly bug that grows at refrigerator temps.

Raw or undercooked eggs. You may remember the salmonella epidemic of the 1980s and early ’90s that was linked mainly to eggs. If you swore off raw eggs back then, you might as well stick with it. The most recent salmonella outbreak from eggs, in 2010, caused roughly 2,000 reported cases of illness. “I think the risk of egg contamination is much lower today than it was 20 years ago for salmonella, but I still eat my eggs well-cooked,” Marler says.

Raw oysters and other raw shellfish. Marler says that raw shellfish—especially oysters—have been causing more foodborne illness lately. He links this to warming waters, which produce more microbial growth. “Oysters are filter feeders, so they pick up everything that’s in the water,” he explains. “If there’s bacteria in the water it’ll get into their system, and if you eat it you could have trouble. I’ve seen a lot more of that over the last five years than I saw in the last 20 years. It’s simply not worth the risk.”

First published at Copyright © 2016 by Boardroom Inc., 281 Tresser Blvd., Stamford, Connecticut 06901-3229.

2015 – Profile in Obsession: Bill Marler, By Naomi Tomky March 24, 2015

2015 – The New Yorker – A Bug in the System
The New Yorker, Wil S. Hylton, February 2, 2015.

2014 – Q&A: Food Safety Lawyer Bill Marler on What Not to Eat
The National Law Journal, Interview with Jenna Greene, November 3, 2014.

2012 – Bill Marler, Attorney, Blogger, and Food Safety Advocate, Talks Turkey (Or Spinach, Rather)
Miami New Times, Interview with Ily Goyanes, November 2.

2012 – Bill Marler Interview, Part Two: His Most Difficult Cases and Lobbying Congress
Miami New Times, Interview with Ily Goyanes, November 14.

2012 – Profiles in Public Health Law: Interview with William “Bill” Marler CDC Public Health Law News, July.

2012 – Food Safety Lawyer Bill Marler On Sprouts, Raw Milk, and Why “Local” Isn’t Always Safer, Hanna Brooks Olsen, March 5.

2011 – Listeria outbreak draws Seattle lawyer to battle
Associated Press, Shannon Dininny, October 9.

2011 – Food-Borne Illness Attorney: Top Foods to Avoid
ABC News, Neal Karlinsky, September 29.

2011 – How to Keep Food Free of Salmonella: Lawsuits
The Atlantic, Barry Estabrook, August 31.

2011 – More Stomach-Churning Facts about the E. Coli Outbreak
New York Times, Mark Bittman, June 8.

2011 – Bill Marler: A Personal Injury Attorney and More
The Xemplar, Nicole Black, June 1.

2011 – Good Food Hero: Bill Marler, Food Safety Attorney
Good Food World, Gail Nickel-Kailing, May 23.

2011- Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. coli Outbreak that Changed the Way Americans Eat.
Inspire Books, Jeff Benedict, May 15

2011 – New Book Chronicles Islander Marler’s Work.
Bainbride Island Review, Connie Mears, May 13.

2010 – Food Safety Lawyer Puts His Money Where Your Mouth Is
AOL News, Andrew Schneider, September 29

2009 – Food Safety Lawyer’s Wish: Put Me Out of Business
Seattle Times, Maureen O’Hagan, November 23

2009 – WSU Discourse on Food Safety, Courtesy Seattle Lawyer
Kitsap Sun, Tristan Baurick,  August 29

2009 – When Food Sickens, He Heads for Courthouse
Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Matt McKinney, June 24

2009 –  Bill Marler, The Food-Safety Litigator
Culinate, Miriam Wolf, April

2009 – Food Fight:Bill Marler’s Beef (PDF)
Washington Law & Politics, David Volk, May

2009 – Candidate for Top FSIS Job talks E. coli Testing, Irradiation, Education
The Meating Place, Ann Bagel Storck, February 6

2009 – Five Minutes with Bill Marler, Well Known Lawyer, Food Safety Activist
CattleNetwork, Chuck Jolley, February 5

2009 – Heath Surveillance the Key to Fresh Produce
The Packer, Tom Karst, February 3

2008 – Seattle Food Contamination Expert in China as Tainted Milk Sickens Thousands of Kids
Seattle Health Examiner, September 23

2008 –  E. Coli Lawyer Is Busier Than Ever
Associated Press, February 4

2007 –  Legally Speaking: The Food Poisoning Lawyer
The Southeast Texas Record, John G. Browning, November 20

2007 –  The Nation’s Leading Food-borne Illness Attorney Tells All
Washington State Magazine, Hannelore Sudermann, August

2007 –  Back to Court: Burst of E. coli Cases Returns Jack in the Box Litigator to the Scene
Meat and Poultry News, Steve Bjerklie, June 8

2007 – Food Fight
Portland Oregonian, Alex Pulaski, March

2007 –  Mr. Food Illness Esquire
QSR Magazine, Fred Minnick, February

2006 –  Seattle Attorney Dominates Food-Borne Illness Litigation
KPLU, October 20

2006 –  How a Tiny Law Firm Made Hay Out of Tainted Spinach
The Wall Street Journal, Heather Won Tesoriero and Peter Lattman, September 27

2005 – Bill Marler – Education Holds Key in Tainted Food Fight
King County Bar Association Bar Bulletin, Ross Anderson, November

2001 –  THE INSIDE STORY: How 11 Schoolkids Got $4.75 Million in E. coli Lawsuit, Bryan Salvage, March 7

2001 –  Hammer Time: Preparation Pays When Disputes Escalate to Lawsuits
Meat & Poultry Magazine, David Hendee

2001 –  For Seattle Attorney, A Bacterium Brings Riches—and Enemies
The Wall Street Journal, Rachel Zimmerman

2001 –  The Bug That Ate The Burger
Los Angeles Times, Emily Green, June

1999 –  Courting Publicity, Attorney Makes Safe Food His Business
Seattle Post, Maggie Leung, September 7

  • Jeremy Alexander

    I’ll take every bit of advice aside from steak temperature. Sorry, but I’m not giving up rare steak. I only have it 4-6 times per year and I’m willing to risk it.

    • Regan Ferguson

      The rule of cooking beef well done is for ground beef. Steak is perfectly fine to eat medium rare as long as you sear the outside of the meat. I am a meat inspector for the USDA and I would never eat undercooked ground meat of any kind.

  • Bill Catz

    I’m glad I don’t have the stress from all the paranoia this guy has. I wonder what he does eat. Cantaloupe and watermelon can have listeria. ANY vegetable can have e.coli. ANY fruit can carry bacteria. Any store bought meat can be infected with anything from antibiotics & hormones to e.coli or worse — especially since we no longer are advised of where it came from or where it was processed. Canned goods have BPA in the plastic lining. … If people would quit using antibiotics like candy because doctors, who don’t know what’s wrong, just use them as a quick fix and antibacterial soaps, their immune systems would be a lot stronger. Oh, I hope he never travels out of the country either because he may be subject to all kinds of foreign bacteria.

    • Eric Woodley

      So…… It’s a bad thing that he is trying to help prevent food borne illnesses that only require a little common sense that seems to be desperately lacking these days? Gotcha

    • Noah

      Doctors don’t know what’s wrong? Lol, scientists don’t either. So let’s just make stuff up!!!

      A bit tongue in cheek.

  • gary oblock

    He may be a legal “expert” but his advice on meat temperature is not based on solid science. I base my opinion on the food safety section in the multi-volume bible of modern cooking, the Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young. Note, he is partially correct for ground meat but does not mention safely cooking food is a combination of time and temperature. Even for temperatures as low as 125 degrees it is safe if the food is held at that temperature the correct amount of time. Furthermore, the Modernist Cuisine maintains that for intact muscle meat in the US there have been no proven instances of food born illness due to internal contamination by bacteria. This translates as steaks cooked rare or medium rare are safe as long as they’ve not been mechanically tenderized or glued together from smaller chunks of meat.

    • John Merritt

      Sous vide cooking aside, I think Mr. Marler is pretty knowledgeable about the science.

      • gary oblock

        Sous vide cooking aside, he is still very wrong about needing to cook steaks to a 160 degrees internal temperature.

  • Willy05

    Tort liability is a lot less forgiving than the educated choices we make as individuals. So no need to shoot the messenger. The point I’m pondering is the impact on my beloved Whole Foods and other snack bars. If the risk is too high, if there is significant risk of litigation, we may see snack bars phased out. Overall, this would be to our nutritional detriment.

  • Nishi Hundan

    Jesus, this guy is a huge wuss

  • Alison Kennedy

    I think this is called occupational psychosis or professional deformation. I personally have removed a cockroach from my soup purchased from a stand in the main square in Marrakesh, Morocco – it was Ramadan and I hadn’t eaten anything from dawn to dusk and was bloody hungry. I have also eaten fish and meat, over which flies had been swarming all day, cooked over a less than spotless, make-shift grill. I have eaten countless oysters and will continue to do so – just drown them in vodka and lemon juice or, alternatively, just drink a lot of vodka. I have also eaten sea urchins raw, caught myself in Calabria, Italy, which probably has a sea with one of the highest percentages of fecal waste and petrochemicals pumped into it. I have never had food poisoning, dysentery or diarrea. As a friend once advised me when I was thinking about going to India: “just drink gin instead of water and brush your teeth with it!” … Happy eating … life’s too short!

    • Noah

      Well, on his count he’d agree life is too short. For the families he has seen death come because of what they’ve eaten.

      I’d definitely say you’re in the extreme if you haven’t suffered -anything- from what you’ve eaten. Not having diarrhea once is crazy! I’ve had a good amount of food related stuff, but……….whatever.

      I try to avoid super oily foods though, gut can’t keep it in for long.

      • Alison Kennedy

        The Irish have weak lungs but a sheep’s stomach and a liver that defeats most medical examiners

  • Some juices that are labeled raw are actually pasteurized using HPP (High Pressure Processing/Pasteurization). Normally they are labeled as “Cold Pressed”. HIGH PRESSURE PASTEURIZATION (HPP) is cold pasteurization in pure water; it uses ultra-high pressure purified water to keep packaged food pathogen-free to stay fresh longer. At very high pressures bacteria such as Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella are inactivated. Foods using HPP include ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook meats, ready-meals, fruits and vegetables, juices and smoothies, soups and sauces, wet salads and dips, dairy products, seafood and shellfish. HPP helps producers increase food safety and extend shelf-life while providing consumers with nutritious, natural, flavorful food.

  • billmarler

    Re steaks – As for steaks, needle tenderizing—a common restaurant practice in which
    the steak is pierced with needles or sliced with knives to break down
    the muscle fibers and make it more tender—can also transfer bugs from
    the surface to the interior of the meat. If a restaurant does this
    (Marler asks), he orders his steak well-done. If the restaurant doesn’t,
    he’ll opt for medium-well.

  • iam_Nunya

    Can’t understand all the haters on here arguing with this guy’s professional assessment of the foods most likely to cause food poisoning. What is wrong with you?!

    If you want to take a chance and eat raw or undercooked foods crawling with bacteria – go right ahead but readers should take note that your personal anecdotes are certainly not proof that this guy is wrong.

    You obviously have a strong immune system but others who don’t could die if they listened to your uneducated comments.

    • dr. c reboul

      Kudos to those of you who are educated enough to understand the reality of harmful bacteria which are undoubtedly present in many undercooked , non-pasteurized, or simply raw – unwashed foods. Perhaps the others (of you) may benefit from taking a basic microbiology course.. perhaps then, you’ll get a clue. There is a lot to be gained from educating oneself with VALID information.
      Drowning one’s food in vodka or gin – really? Was that supposed to be amusing?

      • Noah

        Valid information……like the people/populations who can generally survive the most bacteria, etc. are ones that have been exposed to it?

        That doesn’t discount being risky w/food, but it’s a lifestyle choice.

  • Sarah

    Hi Bill,
    In relation to pre-washed and pre-cut fruits and vegetables, are you referring to fresh ones only or also those that have been pre-cooked and packaged?
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge