The ‘simple’ solution to safer food

Making the food system less complex could be key to cutting down on food contamination, says veteran food safety attorney William Marler.

CYNTHIA GRABER: This is Cynthia Graber reporting for FutureFood 2050. Food safety in the U.S. is still a huge issue today. According to the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention (CDC)], 48 million Americans a year are sickened by foodborne illnesses, which leads to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. In addition to the loss of life, the government estimates the cost from such illnesses in the billions of dollars in terms of lost wages and productivity and medical expenses.

William Marler is a well-known lawyer whose practice, Marler Clark, is called The Food Safety Law Firm. He’s won a number of key lawsuits that have advanced food policy in the U.S. In one of his most famous, he won a landmark case for victims of E. coli contamination from hamburgers purchased at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993. I asked him about the current state of food safety.

If I got to be the guy with the magic wand, I would do exactly with salmonella what the government did with E. coli 20 years ago, and I would say that you can’t have salmonella in chicken. And industry would adjust.”
—William Marler

WILLIAM MARLER: There’s a lot of things going on sort of simultaneously. I mean, you know, these bugs are constantly evolving. They’re dealing with more virulence than we’ve seen—you know, especially in bugs like antibiotic-resistant salmonellas and Listeria. These are kind of bugs that we didn’t see 30 years ago, so you have to really look a lot at how food is produced and then balance that against, you know, a growing world population. And it does make it very complex. And then when you add on to that 25, 30 years ago, you know, you couldn’t get bananas certain times of the year. Now you get them whenever you want them. And so food’s coming in from all over the world. So, I mean, it’s a global food economy. It’s difficult to control, and human beings are not necessarily the best at dealing with very, very complex problems. And the food system has become incredibly complex.

GRABER: So what do you think some of the biggest holes in the system are, both here and overseas?

MARLER: I think we really have to ask ourselves about how complex do we really need to make food. Do we really have to have bagged salad 12 months of the year? I mean, you look at the outbreaks that have occurred—the large outbreaks. They’re usually in highly processed products that are shipped long distances. So when you’re trying to figure out ways to make your food supply safer, sometimes simpler is better. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that local organic grown products are not going to sicken you if that local farmer is not using good manufacturing processes. But the more a product is manufactured, remanufactured, shipped, and you having cold-chain issues and keeping things hot or keeping things cold, it just makes for the entry of a bacterium or a virus into that process that can cause people to get sick.

GRABER: So based on what you said, it seems like there are a few different things. You mentioned kind of too many steps in the processing and the cold chain in which, you know, bugs can kind of grow and proliferate. Is it also an issue that there aren’t enough inspectors or that there are no repercussions for, um, food safety issues?

MARLER: Let me, let me give you an example. If you look at Food Safety Inspection Service, which is the FSIS, it’s the USDA, it’s the meat side of the food equation, um. That was a entity that really grew up, you know, at the post-Upton Sinclair “The Jungle.” And, and you have an inspector in every plant. And they’re public employees and they’re in the plant. They’re monitoring what’s going on, um. But yet we still had the horrific E. coli outbreaks in the ’90s and, you know, early part of the 2000s, even though that product was being inspected. But we had not brought sort of the new technologies of testing meat and test-and-hold and, and interventions to get E. coli off the meat.

Those things still had not been sort of implemented. Once those things got implemented, you know, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in, in the number of E. coli cases linked to red meat and hamburger. And that’s a good thing. The FDA side of the ledger is, you know, everything else. It’s fish. It’s vegetables, cereals, you know, and imports—non-meat. They don’t have inspectors, and some of the worst foodborne illness outbreaks that I’ve been involved in, the plants that I got court orders to go into, had never been visited by an FDA inspector, ever. And so we’ve created this sort of enormous food manufacturing industry, all of which really has sort of come about post-World War II. And we really don’t have sort of the level of inspection that is, I think, required even though we still mandate companies to do food safety planning and testing and, you know, recall.

I really feel strongly that you’ve got to have a public employee in the plant or at least inspecting the plants on a regular basis. And that’s just a real failure on the part of, you know, our government to do that and, frankly, the taxpayer to pay for it.

GRABER: You mentioned technology. Are there technological innovations or developments that you think, you know, that you see coming down the pipe that will help make consumers safer?

MARLER: There’s always new interventions and innovations. You know, we’ve seen that once the government made the decision that you could not have E. coli in hamburger, the industry figured out a way to try to eradicate it, and they did it by a variety of interventions, um, and cleaning up the process of the slaughter plant. And again, we’ve seen O157, that nasty form of E. coli, just almost disappear from the meat side of the equation.

And that’s…again, it’s a great thing. So I really think what needs to happen is industry and government need to set goals of zero tolerance for these bugs in food and then, you know, let innovation happen. And they can happen. We’re seeing the ability to trace products, you know, when we know there’s a problem either through barcodes or even some really interesting innovations about putting inactive DNA in products. So if there’s a, an outbreak, you can link it immediately back to where the source is. But, you know, what it really, really comes down to, in my view, to create a food safety system is to really try to simplify the number of steps so you limit the opportunity for bugs to be introduced and human error to occur.

GRABER: So what’s the role for public policy in this? Are there changes in policy that we need that can also help keep us safer?

MARLER: Again, I think simplifying things as opposed to making things more complex, at least in my view, makes it easier for humans to do the right thing. Presently, you know, we have somewhere between a dozen and 20 different organizations in government that have some level of oversight for food. And it gets really difficult when you think about, you know, the cheese pizzas overseen by FDA, but cheese pizza with sausage is overseen by the USDA, and fish is overseen by FDA except for catfish, which is overseen by USDA. So one of the things that I think needs to happen, you know, is a really hard re-look at how we regulate things. You know, I think USDA has done a great job. FSIS has done a great job in how they regulate meat. FDA through the Food Safety Modernization Act is sort of taking those first steps. But part of the ongoing problem is, you know, cross-jurisdictional issues between FSIS and FDA.

You know, in a perfect world, I’d certainly like to see, you know, one single agency that was specifically charged with…focused on, you know, like a laser on making our food supply safe.

GRABER: I’m wondering what you think will be the biggest food safety challenges in the decades ahead.

MARLER: Well, I think it’s going to be, you know…more food is going to be imported, so there’s going to be greater distances. Either it’s going to be a lot more pressure, I think, as the population gets larger. There’s going to be a lot more pressure on businesses to produce food potentially cheaper and, you know, we may have pressure to, you know, sort of put food safety to the side. And I think that would be sort of wrongheaded.

So I think those are things that we really have to pay attention to make sure that don’t happen, you know, as we’re paying attention to things that come around the corner.

GRABER: So you had great success with E. coli contamination cases. And since the lawsuits, there have been changes in the food system in terms of beef and improvements in health. But there doesn’t seem to be the same political will today. There are still high rates of salmonella in raw chicken. It seems that there’s been a challenge in passing the same types of legislation that made beef so safe.

MARLER: Um, yeah. I mean, that’s why I still have a job. There’s certainly more to do, and if I got to be the guy with the magic wand, I would do exactly with salmonella what the government did with E. coli 20 years ago, and I would say that you can’t have salmonella in chicken. And industry would adjust. They wouldn’t like it, but they would adjust. And, you know, in the long run, the industry would be better off. Consumers would be better off, and I wouldn’t have anything to do.

GRABER: But that’s not happening yet.

MARLER: Not yet.

GRABER: That was William Marler, a food safety lawyer with Marler Clark. Thanks for listening to this podcast for FutureFood 2050. More information on this subject can be found at www.futurefood2050.com. I’m Cynthia Graber.

Cynthia Graber

Boston-based radio and print journalist Cynthia Graber received one of the inaugural Food and Farming fellowships from the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism in 2013. Her radio documentaries have aired on “Scientific American,” “The World,” “Studio 360,” and “Living on Earth,” while her print stories have appeared in media including Fast Company, Slate, BBC Future, Smithsonian.com and others.

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