You have to love the last quote of this article that covered my speech to the lettuce and spinach growers in Salinas a few weeks ago.

Lawyer: Food safety mishaps could cost millions

By John Chadwell of The Packer

Bill Marler’s message to California grower-shippers was clear: he appreciates the leafy greens industry’s attention to food safety programs, but he is prepared to take millions of dollars out of their businesses if they “poison their customers.”

Marler, the Seattle attorney who’s made a name by winning settlements against the food industry in the wake of foodborne illness outbreaks, said he felt like Daniel stepping into the lions’ den as he appeared before nearly 300 growers and packers during an Ag Forum Luncheon on Feb. 28 at the National Steinbeck Center.

Marler said he appreciated how people who make their living growing fresh vegetables might feel about listening to someone who has received judgments against other food industries surpassing $300 million.

“People who are in this room today are serious about this (food safety),” he said. “But I’m concerned about the people who aren’t in this room who may not be as dedicated to solving the problem.”

He gained a national name for himself by obtaining record-breaking settlements against the Jack-in-the-Box chain in 1993 when more than 600 were sickened and three children died from eating undercooked hamburgers. From 1993 to 2003, 95% of his business involved litigation against the meat industry.

“By 2004, I was saying there are no more meat E. coli cases,” he said. “Unfortunately, the fresh produce industry has filled in quite well in the sense that most cases I now have are E. coli cases tied to spinach and lettuce.”

Marler said he appreciated what the industry was doing in devising a self-regulating marketing agreement.

“But the industry as a whole in every corner of the United States and product that comes from overseas has to play by the same rule book,” he said. “Voluntary/mandatory standards in California make no sense when you’re competing with folks in Arizona, Texas and New Jersey.”

If the industry fails in its food safety efforts, Marler said he has an advantage over the produce companies.

“I don’t have to prove fault,” he said. “I don’t have to prove you’re bad. All I have to prove is that my client got sick from eating your product. It’s a matter of strict liability.”

Lorri Koster, co-chairwoman of Mann Packing Co., said she didn’t think Marler was accusing the industry of deliberately doing something wrong.

“Obviously, something’s broken,” she said. “Some people asked me what’s he doing here and I told them if it’s not him, somebody else is going to sue you. Some said he’s the bad guy, and I said, ‘Keep your friends closer and your enemies closer.’ He’s a necessary evil.”