The other morning when I was prepping in another studio to talk with another cable channel about yet another food crisis—this time the recall of a half of a billion Salmonella-tainted eggs that had already sickened at least 1,400—I was asked by a young producer, “Attorney Marler, if you had a magic wand, what would you do to make food safer?”

My first thought (to myself) was, “How the hell do I know, I’m just an ambulance chasing barracuda looking to destroy some poor helpless food manufacturing corporation that just poisoned a bunch of people, cost retail chains hundreds of millions of dollars in recall costs, and damaged its entire sector’s image and sales?”

But then I thought some more. I thought about my nearly eighteen years spent dismantling those helpless corporations to secure medical expenses and lost wages for clients whose lives were destroyed, or ended, because they did something we all do about three times a day: they ate food. I thought about the ICU’s I had been in and witnessed the panic in a parent’s eye as a doctor coldly explained the need for kidney dialysis, or the reasons to stop life support because their child’s brain had stopped functioning. I thought about the heroic struggles in rehab as a brain-injured client learned to brush her hair and teeth, or learn to walk again as the family looked hopefully on. I thought about the fear that these families have as they wonder how they will cope with a disabled future without the resources to pay for it.

And, then I thought, “Give me the damn wand!”

First, I would increase criminal sanctions for poisoning your customers. If a CEO of a food manufacturer takes unreasonable risks with the public’s health, and people get severely sick or die, that CEO should spend time in jail. For goodness sake, we make kids do hard time for smoking dope, yet we do nothing to a CEO who sickens several hundred and kills nine by knowingly shipping Salmonella-tainted peanut butter (Yes, Mr. Parnell, I am thinking of you).

Second, I would financially-incentivize food manufacturers and retailers to produce and buy safer food. I would give them tax breaks for food safety interventions that have been proven to make our food both safer and healthier.

Third, I would encourage transparency in food safety; consumers need to know who produces and sells the safest and healthiest food, not just who produces and sells the cheapest food. Quality needs to replace quantity in the American diet.

Fourth, I would assure that our food regulations were even and flexible for all players—small and large, foreign and domestic. Safety would be paramount, but innovation—especially, those focused on energy consumption, environmental concerns and sustainability—must be encouraged.

Fifth, give local, state and federal inspectors the resources to enforce the regulations fairly and as frequently as necessary to assure compliance. Make all inspections – especially product test – transparent. Manufacturers and retailers need to work in virtual glass houses. Food production and food safety needs to be seen by all.

Sixth, I would elevate public health to the height it deserves. We need to encourage cooperation between all levels of public health in charge of educating the public on safe food handling. We also need to encourage coordination to those charged with surveillance of foodborne and bioterrorism events. We need to stop outbreaks earlier and prevent the spread of disease.

Damn, my wand arm is tired. I know I missed some things, and likely emphasized ideas that others would not, but I am tired now and still have an ambulance to chase.

  • Larry Andrew

    Great list of improvements, especially the need for more transparency as well as sanctions for killers like Parnell. I would like to suggest that retailers need to be encouraged or even required to take more responsibility for the products they sell. Lucerne (Safeway) should pay a price for buying eggs from a supplier with a record of violations like the Iowa supplier. The supplier of the Chicken Feed should pay a price for introducing salmonella into the chicken/egg chain. etc.
    None should be exempt from responsibility. If Safeway, Costco, Walmart, etc. are faced with sanctions for not properly vetting their suppliers, the system would improve without, perhaps, the high cost involved with major increases in governement inspection protocols.

  • Bill, you don’t have to have a fairy tale “food safety magic wand” to improve food safety tremendously. You just have to use the one you already have.
    Because of your extensive blogging, commentary and the creation of “Food Safety News,” you have created a genuine magic wand—the power of YOUR pen.
    Your list completely overlooked the fact that without good performance by our regulators—local, state and national—food safety will remain only a mirage. Unless regulators are also held accountable, the food safety regulatory system will always be corrupt.
    As you well know, the case of Montana Quality Foods clearly demonstrated that regulators were not being held accountable in 2002 – 2004. I see no evidence of significant positive change since.
    Instead, since then there has been clear evidence of shoddy work in the 2006 spinach outbreak, the 2008 salmonella tomato/pepper fiasco and, now, in the egg recall.
    Instead the FDA’s damage control apparatus changed the focus to matters that had little if anything to do with what happened.
    Name one food safety regulator who was been held accountable this century!
    Accurate, in-depth reporting by “Food Safety News” that continues to carefully monitor regulator’s performance on an outbreak over the months and years that follow it will journalism doing its job. Then, as “the worms come out of the woodwork,” “Food Safety News can catch them and, then, hold them up for all to see.
    One of the best ways to do this is to support whistleblowers in print.
    The primary rewards for those of us who have blown the whistle on regulators are retaliation and substantial to disastrous financial loss.
    Fortunately, once again, Bill, your genuine magic wand can make a huge difference for whistleblowers. First, you can make certain their stories are heard and see the light of day by publishing them. Second, “Food Safety News” can establish the John Munsell Whistleblower Award which “FSN” will give out whenever it sees someone whose work for healthy food (not just safe food) merits substantial recognition.
    Bill, I hope you will use your genuine magic wand.

  • Joel

    I would suggest a series of public service messages to be played on television, which inform people how to properly wash and cook their food. So many people just don’t have any understanding of the proper ways with which to cook and handle food safely. It won’t save everyone, all the time, but if it prevents one kid from dying of E. coli, I say it’s well worth it.