Like most of the things I do in life, both of them began out of an attempt to do good deeds that fortuitously also became good marketing. What do I mean by that?
Let me give you a peek into my philosophy of life and work. To me, work is an avocation rather than a vocation. What I do defines who I am. I simply do not think of being a food safety lawyer as a job – something I do from 9 to 5 or Monday through Friday – but as something I am 24/7/365.
No, I am not a workaholic (well, perhaps somewhat of a workaholic) and I do not ignore my wife and kids (too much anyway). And, it is not about the money (per se). I do not live in the largest of homes, nor do I have multiple houses. I drive either a Volkswagen Beetle (license plate: E. coli) or a 1951 Chevy pickup.
The money I have made representing people against companies who have poisoned them has allowed me to do community service, primarily to invest in education. We have given some $250,000 to high school science scholarships, most recently $25,000 to a high school in Lynchburg, VA, the former home base of the Peanut Corporation of America forced out of business after it distributed products contaminated with Salmonella.
It was an opportunity to help a community hit hard by the actions of one of its major employers.
I also have a very active travel and speaking schedule, going on the road to make my pitch about why it is a bad idea to poison your customers. I’m asked to speak to manufacturers, industry groups, or local state or federal officials because of my expertise, but I take the opportunity to tell the stories of the victims–the people who did nothing more that consume food that was prepared or regulated by my audience.
Recently I also spent $500,000 testing meat in an attempt to convince the beef industry and the USDA that it is time to list known, illness-causing pathogens as adulterants. That was meant to send a dual message to industry and government that they have been failing in their respective jobs; I had the money to show them that.
Good deeds, but also good marketing.
So, why the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Database? It started after I was not able to find an outbreak on Google that I knew had happened. As a result, Patti, the Marler Clark epidemiologist, decided to build a database (with the help of many) of as many outbreaks as we could find documentation for.
It is still a work in progress, but it is a helpful starting point for journalists, researchers and members of the general public who want to check on bugs, vectors and incidences.
This brings me to Food Safety News. Honestly, it started because of three factors.
First, newspapers were cutting back on in-depth coverage of food safety related stories. Second, the Internet was becoming populated with so-called news sites that were really fronts for manufacturers or law firms attempting to lure in customers. And, third, I often spent hours answering reporters’ questions, providing background and documents, and then mysteriously would not be quoted in their stories because some editors felt having a lawyer named as a source made the information suspect, even though they used my information.
I started Food Safety News, so far investing nearly $500,000 in its production and employees (including multiple interns and contributing writers). Yes, I have an editorial voice here in “Publisher’s Platform,” but other than that I have nothing to do with its day-to-day operations, run by Dan, Suz, Mary, Helena, et al. Think of me a a good Rupert Murdoch.
Occasionally I give the editors story ideas, and I am routinely ignored. The bottom line is that in just a year, everyone at Food Safety News has created a daily serving of what is happening in food safety with not so much as half a cup of my direct input.
Is it worth it? Readership and subscribers say it is. Like I said, good deeds can also be good marketing.