By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer of Land Line:

Defending victims of food-borne illnesses – like E. coli – has been attorney Bill Marler’s focus since 1993, now he has a new perspective on how hauling potentially contaminated loads of produce and the lack of federal regulations affects truckers.

How long can the produce industry continue to dance around mandatory regulation?

That’s the question famed E. coli attorney Bill Marler posed to Land Line Magazine when he responded to an article, “Produce industry still missing the point with self-regulation,” posted on Land Line’s daily Web news last week.

“To be honest with you, I never realized how wide of a swath has been impacted by the E. coli outbreak,” Marler told Land Line on March 16. “I didn’t even think of the impact on truckers.”

The E. coli outbreak in September 2006 piqued the interest of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, since many produce haulers were stuck with the financial and logistical responsibilities of disposing of potentially contaminated spinach. Some were not paid for their loads that weren’t even part of the recall because no regulations are in place to protect truckers in situations where produce has been recalled.

Marler’s firm, Marler Clark, based in Seattle, has become one of the nation’s foremost law firms representing victims of food-borne illnesses. His firm is representing 93 victims of the recent E. coli outbreak, who were sickened after eating bagged spinach. So far, none of the clients Marler represents have received a penny, he said. However, a recent Iraq spending bill in Congress includes a provision that would give $25 million in federal aid to help spinach growers financially impacted by the E. coli scare, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

Earlier this week, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials admitted that growing practices for fresh fruit and vegetables need to improve, but said they favor voluntary guidelines that would allow the produce industry to regulate itself.

Marler agrees with OOIDA leaders who say the FDA isn’t doing enough to ensure consumer confidence in eating leafy greens, and that federal oversight is needed to protect public health.

“Without some uniform standards that are applicable to everybody and more rigorous oversight, this is going to happen again,” Marler said. “It still kind of perplexes me when I go to these hearings and I listen to shippers and growers and hear them say they want a voluntary marketing agreement – basically dancing around regulation.

“But, they never really articulate a clear reason why they don’t want it. They are basically telling everybody publicly that they want it strictly enforced, but they want to enforce it themselves, and I think it’s kind of gone past that.”

Marler began litigating food-borne illness cases in 1993, when he represented victims of the highly publicized Jack-in-the-Box E. coli O157:H7 hamburger outbreak. His litigation helped change the United States Department of Food and Agriculture’s meat-inspection procedures.

E. coli contamination in meat is down almost 80 percent because of stringent USDA inspection procedures now in place, but the same stringent procedures must be applied to the produce industry, he said.

“Until the produce industry realizes they must change their practices and stop dancing around regulation, I am going to continue to take money from them,” Marler said. “All I have to do is prove their products make people sick.”