Food Safety Lawyer Bill Marler On Sprouts, Raw Milk, and Why “Local” Isn’t Always Safer

Bill Marler

Based on the cases he’s tried and the amount of blogging he’s done on the subject, it’s amazing that Seattle-based food safety lawyer Bill Marler can eat anything he hasn’t grown or raised himself. But instead of being repulsed by the sheer volume of recalls and outbreaks, the prominent attorney, who was an integral part of the Jack-in-the-Box e. case Coli in 1993, has decided to take the challenge and become one of the most outspoken advocates for consumer protection and food safety in the U.S.

“I spend more than 50% of more of my time giving lectures on food safety topics, testifying before Congress, working on the Food Safety Modernization Act…I probably spend way too much time blogging about food safety,” he says.

It’s unfortunate but true that when it comes to food safety, things usually have to get bad before they get better. Someone has to get sick (or even die) before measures like the Food Safety Modernization Act get passed–which means that someone has to be there to advocate on their behalf. A lot of the time, that person is Marler.

I asked him about sprouts (which Jimmy John’s recently discontinued from all stores due to health concerns), raw milk (which is a polarizing issue, and a microcosm for a lot of bigger “big-government” issues), and why “local” sometimes gives consumers a false sense of security.

Since the Jack-in-the-Box case, what changes have you seen in the food climate in the U.S?
From the public’s perspective, I think we’ve seen a greater demand on the part of consumers for more healthful products, less processed products, products that are organic, natural, and perceived to be safer.

At the same time, we’ve had, obviously, a population increase. And mass-produced, highly-processed foods are still available. But we’ve seen a pretty substantial increase in organic agriculture, and a big increase in farmer’s markets. You know, Walmart is marketing local products and, in some respects, that says it all.

From a consumers perspective, there have been some improvements. Some of the big mass-produced players have still had problems, but on the other hand, we’ve still seen a pretty significant decrease in e Coli cases.

90% of what my firm did in the late 90s and early 2000s was e. Coli linked to hamburger, and that’s not something we see anymore, and that’s because e.Coli in red meat is way down.

What does that push for local and organic produce mean for food safety? Are we safer eating that kind of food?
Although I’m a huge supporter of organic and local and small agriculture, I worry a lot about those purveyors thinking that they’re immune to food safety issues…even though it’s true that most of what I do is representing victims of mass-produced food, I worry that there are people who are producing local food, who are seeing their farmer, who think that just because it’s local and just because it’s small, they think it’s absolutely safe.

I was on a panel with a James Beard chef, and the chef said “You know, I don’t cook my meat to the appropriate temperature, because I get my meat locally, so it won’t have e.Coli in it, because it’s grass-fed.” And I was like “You’re crazy!”

You can’t approach things that way. It may be safer, but it’s not safe.

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    • Lorraine K Vail

      Excellent interview — appreciated hearing the “public” versus “personal choice” side of the issue. I agree consumer education is needed. Too often consumers see the word “local” or “organic” and think they are safe, but neither equates to food safety per se.