Cannery_Row_1,_Monterey,_CA,_jjron_24.03.2012Over the last 10 years, I have been averaging about 20 speeches a year on issues surrounding food safety.  The talks have taken me to most parts of the United States, as well as Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and China.  However, it is always nice to be a bit closer to home in front of a receptive audience – some industry groups tend to get a bit prickly about my day job.

I seldom get much press coverage, but it must have been a slow Friday for Andy Stiny of the Monterey Herald to cover my speech: “Food Safety Conference: ‘The Key is Education’”

Foodborne illness is “way more avoidable than we give it credit for,” Seattle food illness attorney Bill Marler told health industry professionals and business owners here during a keynote speech Friday.

“The key is education,” Marler told those assembled for the three-day, seventh annual Monterey County Food Safety Conference, whose theme was foodborne illness prevention.

The conference is sponsored by the Monterey County Health Department, the Food Safety Advisory Council of Monterey County, the California Environmental Health Association and others.

“There is always an opportunity to turn the bus around before it careens off the cliff,” said Marler. The attorney, speaking at the Portola Hotel, has been a leading food safety attorney since 1993, when he represented a survivor of an E. coli outbreak in which, according to his website, he won a $15.6 million settlement against Jack in the Box.

Marler filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Santa Cruz County Superior Court against Safeway in the December 2014 death of Shirlee Frey of Felton, whose family alleges she contracted Listeria bacteria after consuming a caramel apple from the store, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported.

“I tell industry that (food) regulators are their best friend,” said Marler.

To avoid death or injury to consumers and to avoid litigation, Marler urged manufacturers to “identify hazards” and determine the culture of their company. “Do you have the culture to communicate back up the chain of command?”

Two examples where Marler said that did not happen were the Jack in the Box case and the Odwalla, Inc. case from 1996, when the Half Moon Bay company’s unpasteurized apple juice caused an E. coli outbreak in several states. The apple juice caused the death of a 16-month-old girl, health officials said.

Both cases had red-flag warnings, said Marler. He cited a letter sent to Odwalla by the U.S. Army a month before the outbreak, saying it would not buy the company’s juices because of plant sanitation issues. “They didn’t want to test the finished product,” said Marler, and “we asked the court to seize Odwalla’s (computer) hard drives.”

The apple juice was recalled and the company now pasteurizes its juices and “implemented a juice-safety program that meets and exceeds current Federal Drug Administration proposed fresh-juice requirements,” Marler wrote on his blog.

The New York Times reported the company paid out $12 million to $15 million in settlements but the terms of the settlements were confidential.

In the Jack in the Box case, Marler said a consumer wrote to the company suggesting they increase their cooking temperatures and times for hamburgers. “They made a decision not to do that,” said Marler.

Marler spoke of the difficulty of “tracing back” from food illness to the food contamination source. “I think what the public doesn’t understand is how long and how complex this is.”

Much of the work by health professionals is already done “by the time I catch up with the ambulance,” Marler said, to chuckles from the audience.

Microbial pathogens cause an estimated 48 million cases of human illness annually in the U.S., said Marler, but “things are better.” From 1993 through 2003-04, 95 percent of his firm’s revenue was derived from E. coli/hamburger litigation. “That has fallen to nearly zero,” he said. “The industry has responded … that might be very bad for my bottom line but it is really good for consumers.”

California has “strict product liability” in civil suits, said Marler, which asks, “are you the manufacturer, was the product safe and did the product cause injury?” It’s called “strict product liability” for a reason, he said. “The only defense is prevention.”

In an interview, John Ramirez, director of the county Environmental Health Bureau, said the conference’s broader theme of “working together for food safety” is meant to educate food service professionals and business owners to “take the time and effort to ensure staff is trained” in food service, preparation and safety. Spanish language training for food service workers is provided free, several times a year, he said.

As Marler explained, Ramirez said, “if you don’t do it, it could be the ultimate consequences and we don’t want them to meet Mr. Marler in a courtroom.”