I have a routine when I am home on the Island (which is not that often). I get up early and make the coffee – OK, after I turn on the computer and check my email for the latest food safety disaster.  Last Friday when I was about to take my first sip, the room started spinning like I was on a child’s playground merry-go-round.  For a guy who likes fishing only on rivers or calm waters, and finding myself unable to focus or stand, I woke my wife and called 911. 

In 54 years, I have never been in an ambulance – well, there was that motorcycle accident in college – and the times I have been in a hospital have been to visit clients – not to be a patient.  I must admit, besides my nausea, vomiting and spinning, the ER staff and physician were great.  However, after a half a day, the best call they could make was “Idiopathic Vertigo” that should go away in a few days or weeks.

Looking at a computer screen and typing have been problematic.  However, it was nice to see The Meating Place “Safety Zone” by Dr. James Marsden fall into my inbox this morning.

James-Marsden.jpgBill Marler is building consensus on food safety

You may have heard of Bill Marler, a prominent and successful foodborne illness attorney based in Seattle, Washington. He has represented thousands of foodborne illness victims and secured more than $600,000,000 in compensation. But did you know that Mr. Marler has also become a leading advocate for food safety and an influential consensus builder on food safety policy?

Over the past several months, I have seen signs of an emerging consensus on important food safety issues. This kind of consensus leads to good policy decisions by regulators because they don’t have to be concerned about fall-out from consumer groups, industry trade associations and food safety activists when they have to make controversial rulings.

We saw an example of the importance of consensus building last week with USDA’s decision to postpone the non-E. coli O157:H7 STEC testing program. Mr. Marler deserves a lot of credit for clearing the way for USDA. After attending the 2007 FSIS/FDA/CDC meeting on STEC’s, he personally funded a $500,000 baseline study, which led to a much better understanding of the issue. In response to the USDA announcement on testing, he was able to build a coalition of consumer activists, academicians and industry leaders who all recognized that the STEC policy simply wasn’t ready for implementation. I have no doubt that most if not all of the individuals who made up Mr. Marler’s consensus support the STEC testing policy, but recognized that a delay was in the interest of all parties. The result was a good decision by USDA.

Bill Marler has been working on food safety cases since the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak in 1993. Clearly, he is one of the most successful foodborne illness lawyers in the U.S. It’s impossible to work in the area of food safety without developing a personal interest in the people who are affected by foodborne illness tragedies. I believe that his work with foodborne illness victims transformed Bill Marler into a dedicated food safety activist and an important contributor to food safety policy. In addition to building consensus on the STEC testing issue, he was instrumental in raising the interest of the US Congress on food safety issues and helped establish a coalition of consumer groups and victims’ organizations to support the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

He also supports college scholarships, makes donations to organizations involved with food safety issues and frequently speaks on food safety at meetings across the country and around the world, always paying his own expenses.

Since food safety emerged as a major issue in the early 1990’s, there has been too little consensus. Too much time and effort has been wasted on disagreements founded on mistrust. It may seem over simplistic, but food safety really is an objective that is shared by consumers and food companies alike. Bill Marler has taken on the important roles of food safety advocate and consensus builder. He has challenged the food industry to “Put me out of business – please”. I believe he means it and is trying hard to make it happen.

Dr. Marsden, I hope this doesn’t get you in trouble.