PULLMAN – Americans don’t tend to take a “buyer beware” approach to food consumption, but perhaps they should.
William D. “Bill” Marler, an expert in food-borne illness and the law, spoke at WSU Pullman Wednesday to say that food-borne illness is far more prevalent than most people realize and the United States should be doing more to confront the problem.
“It’s not easy being an eater in America,” Marler said. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that can kill you.”
‘Chasing the Ambulance Away’
Marler, a WSU alumnus and former regent, delivered a talk titled, “Chasing the Ambulance Away: Reshaping the Role of the Personal Injury Lawyer in Society and the Law,” as part of the WSU Common Reading lecture series that centers around this year’s book selection, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan.
In some people’s mind, personal injury lawyers are “ambulance-chasing, bottom-sucking” parasites, Marler said, and he doesn’t disagree.
“I’ll tell you right now, that’s me,” he said. “That’s who I am.” But, he said, “There is a place in society for a parasite like me.”
Make it painful
Marler’s Seattle firm, Marler Clark, has earned more than $500 million for victims of food-borne illness caused by organisms such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria. His goal is to make the settlements so painful that businesses will guard food safety as if their lives depend on it because, in fact, our lives do depend on it.
According to statistics from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 76 million people are sickened by a food-borne illness each year, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized and about 5,000 die. A report last week, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, estimated that those illnesses cost the United States $152 billion annually in health care and other losses.
Memory lane of food poisoning
During Marler’s 90-minute presentation he took the audience down a memory lane of significant food-borne illness cases, from tainted hamburger at Jack-in-the-Box in 1993, through the Odwalla apple juice poisoning in 1996, to tainted spinach in the Salinas Valley in 2006, to contaminated peanut butter at a ConAgra plant in 2007.
Marler said he sometimes feels like the boy who sticks his finger in the dike to hold back the water, but as soon as he does, another leak spouts.
“If you don’t like lawyers, one of the things to do is to fix the food system,” he said.
Europe does better job
The European Union does a much better job of protecting its food system, he said, mostly through increased regulation and rigorous enforcement on the front end and criminal prosecution on the back end.
In the United States, he said, there are regulations on the books, but often there is insufficient funding to monitor or enforce food safety laws. In the nearly two decades that he has been involved in these issues, he said, only a handful of people in the United States have been fined and only two people have been jailed.
In China, by contrast, two men were executed in 2009 for their role in a melamine-tainted milk scandal that killed six and sickened 300,000.
Marler’s list of recommendations for improving food safety include:
– increased surveillance
– more cooperation among government agencies
– better training of food handlers
– stiffer licensing requirements
– more food inspections
– reform so agencies are more proactive
– heavier legal consequences
– use of technology to make food traceable from field to fork
– funding and promotion of food safety research
– tax breaks to companies that have low profit margins
– improvement of consumer understanding
“I think what I do is honorable,” Marler said. "It’s right, but it’s not complete.” The government and the consumer have to do their parts as well, he said.