Steve Bjerklie

WASHINGTON — The real consequence of the continuing vacancy in the Undersecretary for Food Safety’s post at USDA is that there is no one "with the gravitas of a Senate appointment" to unite the industry, consumer organizations and regulatory agencies into an effort to pursue a plan to improve the safety of the meat and food supply.

So says Bill Marler, the influential E. coli victims’ attorney, based in Seattle, Wash., who has made a career from successfully suing meat companies in the wake of outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 poisoning traced to adulterated meat. "We are missing the person who can see the big picture," he told

Marler thinks the longer the post goes unfilled – the Obama Administration has reportedly considered several candidates since last January, but no names have been officially announced – the deeper the problem becomes. "Although the focus lately has been on the FDA, with these new proposals being made in Congress, not having a real food-safety point person at either FDA or USDA is hampering a pretty unique opportunity to move forward on food safety in a unique way. I think there have been a lot of missed opportunities for the industry and consumer groups to work together to improve food safety," he said.

He pointed out that in the long article published on Oct. 2 in the New York Times that detailed lapses in testing protocols and other E. coli control problems, resulting in several deaths as well as cases of permanent disability, there was no one at USDA who could effectively address the issue beyond a general statement from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and a couple of comments from executive assistants at the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. "To really not have anybody at USDA respond in a meaningful way to the issues the article brought up was telling," Marler said.

This week, a bill with bipartisan support to expand FDA’s authority to regulate the nation’s food supply made its way on to Congress’s crowded calendar. A sense of urgency has pushed politicians to pursue food-safety reform: In addition to the Times story, which inspired a roundtable discussion on beef safety on "Larry King Live," a survey conducted in July by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that nearly 90% of voters favored new food safety measures. While the legislation proposed this week would not directly impact FSIS, there is widespread agreement that a major overhaul of FDA would likely influence reform in the meat inspection program.

Marler said he thinks that "sometimes, FSIS forgets what its mission is. Its mission is public health and food safety. The person who takes the food-safety job at USDA has to wake up every morning and say, first thing, ‘My job is to protect the public health.’" He added: "But how do we get there? That’s the part that’s missing. You can’t try to strike a balance between food safety and industry needs, like one USDA person said in the Times article that they were trying to do, and not compromise on the safety. That’s the bottom line. The government’s job is to protect the public health."

Marler is disappointed, he told, by remarks he still hears and reads on occasion from industry executives who say that if consumers simply cooked ground beef to the correct temperature, there wouldn’t be a problem. "The idea that it’s the consumer’s fault, that cow poop on meat is ‘natural’ – this is still pervasive in the packing industry. Look, I understand that large-scale food production is difficult to do. But it’s not impossible to do it and have the safety of the product be the top priority," he said.

In Marler’s view, the real culprit behind the industry’s struggle to eliminate E. coli and other pathogens from the meat and poultry supply is the commodity cost structure the industry is trapped in. "If food safety is all of our responsibility – the industry’s, the consumer’s and USDA’s – then the cost structure we have, where cheaper is always better, makes no sense whatsoever," he stated.

The attorney doesn’t buy excuses that the Administration hasn’t been able to find viable candidates for the USDA food-safety job who can meet the Administration’s no-previous-lobbying standard. "Frankly, that’s BS," he said. "There are a lot of people – and I’ll include myself here – who have a broad interest in and knowledge of food safety. My God, there are 300 million people in this country. Surely we can find one person who can do this job effectively."