Good Food Hero: Bill Marler, Food Safety Attorney

Good food is not just better for the environment, the people who grow it, and the people who eat it; it is also safe food. Good food should not make you sick.

For our first Good Food Hero, we’ve chosen Bill Marler, a nationally recognized food safety attorney. Marler has spent his career lobbying for regulations to protect consumers from foodborne illnesses; educating food processors, handlers, and consumers about food safety; and representing families and individuals affected by contaminated food products.

We recently spent some time with Bill discussing food and food safety. Following is a condensed version of that conversation.

GoodFood World: You know, when I was growing up, we never heard of anyone getting food poisoning. Occasionally someone would get an upset stomach after a church picnic, that sort of thing. Is it happening more now or is it just being reported more? It seems like we’re hearing about food recalls and food safety scares all the time.

Bill Marler: It’s sort of “all of the above.” Lawyers love a simple solution but there are things about those questions that become complex.

One, there is absolutely no question that there are bugs out there today that are bigger, faster, and nastier than when you and I were kids.

There’s also the fact that our food has become much more mobile around the world. Bugs that would have been in South America are now in North America, and vice versa. We are now seeing certain shiga toxin-producing e-coli in the US that is predominantly Australian and European.

These bugs are the most adaptable creatures in the universe; they weren’t even around in the environments we knew in the 50s, 60s and even into the early 70s.

It’s also true that we’re better at figuring them out. Science has improved so much in the last 50 years. It was just over 100 years ago that we really understood that bacteria could cause human illness. We also have a robust public health system that tracks and shares information nationwide and worldwide. We are getting a lot more data now.

All of that makes the public much more aware of these things. When a mistake gets made, it is amplified incredibly quickly.

GoodFood World: When we talk about industrial food production and processing – and the “franchising of America” – are these contributing to the problem?

Bill Marler: An outbreak in a small location where you have a regional production facility processing spinach or hamburger would be a much smaller event than mass produced hazelnuts or cantaloupe that goes to a bunch of different states.

Sometimes we look for an easy answer; for example saying, “If we only ate local food, this whole thing wouldn’t be a problem.” It’s much more complex than that. We really don’t know.

Logically it makes sense, but I’d like to have a robust surveillance system that would help figure out whether we really aren’t poisoning more people, less people, or the same amount of people. It would be helpful to know, and we haven’t done that.

GoodFood World: You’ve been lobbying for changing and improving food safety regulations. Will tightening regulations strangle the small artisan producer? For example, would that take us to a scenario where we would see France’s 365 different artisan cheeses reduced to cheese from 3 huge, super clean producers?

Bill Marler: That’s a tough question. Regulations are not perfect, but I do come from a different perspective. I have represented families who have lost family members or whose children are forever changed because of something they ate. The question really is, “How do you prevent that from happening?” The most rational approach is to fix as much of the problem as we can.

Those of us who were pushing for the Food Safety Modernization Act, S510, all assumed that the protections in the bills themselves for small producers were clear and enough. We didn’t do a very good job of reaching out to them. Much of what the bill required was already required before.

The way the original food safety bill was designed, with the modification from the Tester amendment, gives a lot of freedom to small local producers to do a lot of things completely unregulated.

GoodFood World: Because of what you do and what you know, are you going around looking for bad guys?

Bill Marler: Yes, sometimes I see all the bad things out there. If we take a step back and think though, there are a lot of good people, a lot of good producers out there. The reason we don’t talk about them is because they’re doing just fine.

I completely understand and respect where people are coming from. The challenge for us all is to try to figure out how to get the mix right and how to get the incentives right so that safe food can be produced abundantly.

GoodFood World: Because of what you do and what you know, do you eat sushi, soft-boiled eggs and rare steak?

Bill Marler: No. Part of it is because of the kind of work I do; like being a cop, I sort of see things differently. I’m not looking for the good guys, I’m looking for the bad guys.

Because of the work I do, food has a different connotation to me than most people. My wife is a good cook and I enjoy dinners with my family, but my relationship with food is different; I probably over think it too much.

It’s more like brushing your teeth; you have to eat, you have to brush your teeth, you have to take a shower.

GoodFood World: I understand that you enjoy the conviviality of dining, the conversation around the table, your family time; do you ever really enjoy the food?

Bill Marler: No, I think the answer is probably not. And it’s also true that because I travel so much, I don’t consistently get good, healthy food. I just don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. That said, I don’t order raw juice or raw milk, I have a well done steak, I don’t eat hamburger, I don’t eat sushi, I don’t eat oysters.

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To learn more about one of Marler’s earliest cases and how it set him on the path to becoming one of the world’s experts on food safety, read Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat.

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4 comments to GoodFood Hero: Bill Marler, Food Safety Attorney

  • Ouch! Harry, if I had a dollar for the amount of time that I have thought about your issues, talked to you and/or emailed you, I would have long ago retired. Your personal attacks are not helpful. I think the Safe Food Coalition should have reached out to local ag earlier and more often. It was for not other reason than we thought we really were in agreement on most issues. We agree on 95% of most, but you want to fight over the 5%. I stand by all of my comments above.

    • Here we go again, Bill; I take the time to carefully write a critique of what you said and you dash off a response that fails to address a single issue I raised or answer a single question I asked. Rather, you attempted to deflect my critique by calling it a personal attack when it is only a critique. I made no comment about your character; I only described your actions and statements.

      Unfortunately, all too often, this is the response that those of us who oppose the FSMA approach to food safety get when we address the actual content of what the Make Our Food Safe coalition and other supporters of that approach say and write.

      Also, Bill, I spoke of the Make Our Food Safe coalition (MOFS – see http://www.makeourfoodsafe.org) not the Safe Food Coalition. You are NOT a member of MOFS—a group which appears to be a subgroup within or spin off from the Safe Food Coalition (see http://www.safetables.org/about/coalitions_partners.cfm).

      Your response once again inaccurately describes what occurred. I asked you to cite examples of the supporters of the FSMA having “reached out to local ag” and you only repeat your claim but cite no examples. The opposite is true.

      I personally attempted to open a dialogue with STOP Foodborne Illness (when it was called Safe Tables Our Priorities or S.T.O.P), the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Pew Charitable Trust and Food & Water Watch to no avail.

      Which of our groups were invited to participate to provide input during the writing of the bills? Food & Water Watch—a member of MOFS—was forced to break with MOFS over Tester-Hagan.

      Food Safety News wouldn’t even publish a mention of the study “Hurting NC’s Local Food Harvest: The Unintended Consequences of Federal Food Safety Legislation on North Carolina’s Small Agricultural Enterprises” by Roland McReynolds, Esq., Executive Director of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (http://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/docs/Hurting_NC's_Local_Food_Harvest042010.PDF) despite its raising serious questions about the impact on small ag of the FSMA approach to food safety.

      As for the instigators of the FSMA having “thought we really were in agreement on most issues. We agree on 95%,” I ask you, Bill, to list 3 issues that directly impact local ag on which we agreed. I can’t name a one that wasn’t a change put forward by local ag.

      Finally, Bill, you and I have a substantial difference of opinion as to the amount of time we have talked and e-mailed. Almost of it has been because of the scores of comments I made on your blog and Food Safety News to counter the inaccurate and misleading statements you published without any response from our side. You also have failed to mention that you have deleted and/or blocked comments I have made on both sites.

      I would happily share my copies of all my correspondence and notes with GoodFood World were it interested in taking a in depth look at the FSMA and its impact on local, healthy food.

  • I find it absolutely stunning that an organization with your mission statement would choose as its FIRST “Good Food Hero” a person who does not have anything to do directly with the production or distribution of good food. Rather, you have chosen a person who annually makes more money off bad food than most of us who actually provide local, healthy food movement will make in a dozen years.

    Much worse than that, your interview allowed Bill Marler to grossly dissemble about the content and impact of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). You have failed fulfill your stated mission of “providing accurate information.” Very little of what Marler told you is accurate.

    Even with the multiple changes obtained by Sens. Tester, Hagan, Brown, Sanders, Stabenow and others, the impact of the FSMA on small producers will be devastating. Unless substantially changed, the FSMA assures the ascendancy of the industrial food system and that local, healthy food will only be a niche market for the affluent.

    Marler’s statement, “We didn’t do a very good job of reaching out to [small producers],” is not only self-serving, it is false. The writers of the original bills (HR 2749 and S 510) clearly intended that there be no threshold based on size. Why? Because that was an absolute requirement for the support of those in the industrial food system.

    Ask Marler to document any attempt by the supporters of the HR 2749 or S 510 to include small producers in the discussion.

    In the House, our supporters were essentially told to sit down and shut up. They weren’t even allowed to offer amendments.

    In the Senate, the Manager’s committee said that Tester-Hagan would only be included if the Make Our Food Safe (MOFS) coalition agreed to it. MOFS refused to do so because of its, at least, implicit agreement with the key players in the industrial food system despite extensive efforts by Tester & Hagan’s people. Tester-Hagan was only included when Sens. Harkin and Reid realized the Senate couldn’t get unanimous consent without it.

    Ask Bill Marler to list “protections in the bills themselves for small producers.” There were none of any material, legal substance. That’s why Tester-Hagan was so important.

    During the push to pass HR 2749, S 510 and the FSMA, Marler argued again and again how badly the FDA needed new, additional powers, but now that the FSMA has passed, he has changed his tune. He wants us to believe “much of what the bill required was already required before.” It wasn’t. The FSMA ratified the FDA’s interpretation of its authority but had been unwilling to fully assert. Thus, the FDA’s butt is covered from any fallout that occurs when the extensive changes have little or no impact on the number of outbreaks and cases of foodborne illness.

    Marler’s statement that the FSMA “gives a lot of freedom to small local producers to do a lot of things completely unregulated” is absolutely false. All small local producers will continue to be subject to the thousands of pages of national, state and local regulations (e.g., Health Department regulations) intended to keep food safe.

    Finally, I will happily document every statement I have made. I can be reached at [email protected]. My wife, Elaine, and I were 2010 Co-activists of the Year of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Assn. because of our work on this issue.

    • GoodFood World Staff

      We appreciate your quick response to our posting and will use your comments as the basis for additional dialog on our site.

      I’ll be going back to Bill for commentary and will address your points in a follow on piece. Dialog is good – and important – on the issue of food safety.

      Later in the week, if you’re available, I’d like call you and discuss the issue of food safety and the small producer in more detail. That interview will be the basis for an additional piece on this topic.

      We firmly believe that we need to provide perspective from all those involved in the good food system, and to do so we want to include your voice.

      Thanks for your comments and your passion about good food!