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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Marler: Health surveillance key to fresh produce By Tom Karst

Interview with Tom Karst of the Packer.com

In Bill Marler’s view, the case is closed.‚Ä®‚Ä®

In the wake of yet another long running salmonella investigation Рthis time linked to peanut butter Рthe Seattle-based food safety lawyer said he believes there is more than enough proof that federal and state governments need to increase their investment in foodborne illness surveillance.

“If I had one piece of advice to the produce industry, it would be to support (resources for) public health and surveillance,” he said, noting that more resources could limit both the spread of illness to consumers and economic damage to industry. Marler said the peanut butter foodborne illness outbreak investigation has been no different than the spinach outbreak in many respects.‚Ä®‚Ä®

“Until we come to grips with our inability to track these things accurately, we are never going to learn how to stop them quicker and we are never going to have enough information to prevent the next outbreak,” he said.‚Ä®‚Ä®

In a Jan. 23 interview, he said there have been no surprises in the way the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and state health departments have handled the peanut butter investigation. Salmonella tainted peanut butter has sickened more than 500 and resulted in seven deaths through early February.

“It is as haphazard as what we have seen in most foodborne illness outbreak over the last 15 years when I have been doing these cases,” he said. “I feel a lot of the same frustrations the industry feels when these outbreaks happen.”‚Ä®‚Ä®

Marler, who scored a landmark $15.6 million settlement against Jack in the Box in 1993 relating to E. coli in hamburgers, has been active since then representing the victims of numerous foodborne illness outbreaks, including several involving fresh produce.

Currently, he represents 25 victims of salmonella-tainted peanut butter throughout the U.S., including one case that resulted in death.

He noted Marler Clark LLC has filed a lawsuit against the Peanut Corporation of America, Blakely, Ga., the manufacturer of the tainted peanut butter.

The failures of FDA oversight of food safety have captured the attention of the new administration. President Barack Obama indicated Feb. 2 that he was ordering a full review of the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of food safety.‚Ä®‚Ä®

In view of potential bioterrorist threats to the U.S. food supply and ongoing foodborne illness outbreaks, Marler said federal oversight of state efforts regarding surveillance efforts is needed.

“I don’t think you need to necessarily federalize it, but I think you need to have federal oversight because you have a federal if not international food supply,” he said. “You need to find a way to get everybody to work together better.”‚Ä®‚Ä®

Marler, who at one point volunteered himself as a candidate for the top food safety post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service, said he understands industry resistance to government regulation.‚Ä®‚Ä®

Though he said he doesn’t believe simply hiring more inspectors is the answer, Marler said he believes food safety reforms could move the industry forward.‚Ä®‚Ä®
“I do think that government regulation, fairly done, based on science and uniformly applied levels the playing field for industry.”‚Ä®‚Ä®

While Marler told a Salinas audience of leafy green growers and markets in early 2007 that the meat industry had made all the right moves in prevention foodborne illness outbreaks, subsequent recalls of E. coli contaminated ground beef have changed perceptions.

“I said follow their example and put me out of business,” he said.‚Ä®‚Ä®

However, since then been a surge in E. coli illness tied to hamburger in the last 18 months and a couple of huge meat recalls linked to E. coli and the fear of BSE.

He said the big problem is not that federal and state officials are incompetent Рit is because the public health surveillance system is inadequate.

“Once we solve that problem, the difficulties we see in these recalls will go away,” he said.