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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

In case I get too nervous on Larry King this Monday night at 6:00 PST to remember these, here are the things I would say we should do to fix our broken Food Safety System in the short and long terms.

Short Term

1. The President must appoint an Undersecretary for Food Safety now whose sole mission is safe food. The Undersecretary should, and needs to be the responsible person within the FSIS on this important issue, advocating and making decisions solely on behalf of public health. That person and staff should spend time with Stephanie Smith and the family of Abby Fenstermaker.

2. Provide tax breaks for companies that push all types of food safety interventions, including vaccines, irradiation and employee training. Greatly expand traceability of high-risk meat products and work directly with the big retail chains to lessen price pressure on manufacturers.

3. There are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

4. Develop uniform cooking and handling instructions that actually provide helpful guidance to consumers. Foster a campaign similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which uses consumer power to promote safe food handling and a no-tolerance policy toward companies that produce tainted food. Create new quality certifications to aid consumers in making choices, and allow companies to capture price premiums for higher quality.

5. Enforce a real zero-tolerance policy for E. coli O157:H7 and non-O157 EHEC STEC on meat, and consider expanding it to all bacteria and viruses that cause serious human disease.

6. Do meaningful sampling and surveillance of meat for bacteria and viruses at all levels of production to determine real prevalence of all pathogens before it hits restaurants and grocery store shelves. All tests should be online in real-time. All Non-compliance Report (NR’s), and other enforcement documents, at slaughter plants and grinding operations should also be online in real-time. Consumers need transparency.

Long Term

1. Improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders, such as ER physicians, need to be encouraged to test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly. Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are some 20 to 40 times those that are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped.

2. These same governmental departments, whether local, state or federal, need to learn to “play well together.” Turf battles need to take a back seat to stopping an outbreak and tracking it to its source. That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged so illnesses can be promptly stopped and the offending company – not an entire industry – is brought to heal.

3. Increase food inspections. While domestic production has continued to be a problem, imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists were to get into the act. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. We need more inspectors – domestically and abroad – and we need to require that they receive the training in how to identify and control hazards.

4. Reorganize federal, state and local food safety agencies to increase cooperation and reduce wasteful overlap and conflicts. These agencies need to be more proactive, and less reactive. This too requires financial resources and accountability. We also need to modernize food safety statutes by replacing the existing collection of often conflicting laws and regulation with one uniform food safety law of the highest standard.

5. We need to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animals. We are creating drug resistance bacteria that are beginning to catch up with the human population.

6. We have to ask hard questions about the safety and sustainability of the massed produced, oil and corn based, food production system we have created in our lifetime. A true fact – in 17 years of litigating nearly every food borne illness outbreak, almost all were caused in whole or in part, by mass produced food. I have never sued a farmer’s market. True, in a world of nearly 7 billion, we all cannot eat at farmer’s markets. However, the system we have now is not sustainable from either an energy or food safety perspective.

  • We’ll be watching!

  • I have mentioned this before on your blog, but I will repeat it again.
    There has to be a way that food companies can report on themselves without having to report the public.
    Right now, the incentives are perverse rewarding late reporting to the FDA. You want the incentives to work in the reverse: points go to those who report first any suspected problem.
    The reality is the food safety should not be treated as if the food producers were potential criminals, because they will demand certain constitutional protections which are at odds with the goal of a) finding the correct source of contamination, and b) cutting of the supply to the public.

  • Ken

    Bill,
    How many cases have you litigated where there was a single pathogen related illness reported? I’m not sure that saying 17 years without one from a farmers market is meaningful when we don’t know how many are just to sporadic to find. Ten years ago we would have never found the peanutbutter cases they were to far apart in both time and distance to have related without genetic identification. We would all be healthier if we ate less refined products but we’d probably be back to spending a higher percentage of our income on food.

  • dlangland

    Loved the comment, Marler, that you have never sued a farmer’s market. I used to be be a market gardener and am a strict vegetarian. Ever since my terrible bout with e-coli a few yrs.ago, and given a 2-5% chance of living, to this date, I am still unable to force myself to buy produce or fruit from a commercial store. Don’t even go to farmer’s markets/Use my own produce home-grown produce, canned, frozen, ect. at home until it’s out, then wait out the season. Call me paranoid, but until you have lived through e-coli to the extreme I did including a coma, I don’t think anyone could possibly understand. My case occurred in early spring/nothing yet in the garden, so I broke down and bought some fresh veggies from a store.

  • In addition to stringent slaughterhouse standards, the manner in which we raise animals should be reevaluated. Livestock fed their natural diet of grasses, forbes and other pasture plants do not suffer from virulent E. coli in their tissues. Furthermore, animals cannot live in crowded confinement operations without heavy doses of prophylactic antibiotics to protect them from getting sick in such unhealthy environments. The combination of grain-feeding and confinement creates a perfect breeding ground for pathogens like E. coli, salmonella etc.

  • Marymary

    Saw most of the Larry King show. You did a good job, but there were probably too many panelists. Still, I give him credit for bringing on a variety of guests on the topic.

  • You did fine w/ Larry King and got a lot of your points across! You should upload the segment from TV to your blog here.
    Having personality Anthony Bourdain on was a good idea too- keeping viewers tuned in even if they weren’t interested in the subject matter. With the conversation revolving around safety, I like that he noted steak and bacon smells good when its cooking and it is good to eat. I AGREE!
    The nutritionist in the prior segment sure stuck to her guns over and over saying that handling and cooking food at home is safe. She didn’t come off too bright and what in God’s green earth was she wearing? Anyways
    In long term #6- ironic with Norman Bourlog’s death, people are paying a little more attention to what he created. Here was our take on it at http://ahrcanum.wordpress.com/2009/09/13/borlaug-green-revolution-eugenics-genetically-modified-food/
    Regards and keep us posted!