It’s easy to suspect ulterior motives when a lawyer says the sky is falling or this or that can kill you. But in the case of William Marler, who many believe is one of the nation’s leading food safety lawyers, he’s often right, And – with the help of a hot-shot team of food safety specialists – more often, he’s ahead of the government experts.
For example, he knew that millions of pounds of hamburger was contaminated with strains of E. coli that the Centers for Disease Control reported was sickening thousands and killing dozens each year.
But he paid for that information.
Why should a trial lawyer kick in a half-million dollars of his own money to document the presence of an unregulated pathogen in America’s meat supply when the agency responsible for meat safety won’t?
“That’s precisely why,” William Marler told me during a long series of interviews earlier this year.
“Much like a bureaucratic ostrich with its head buried in deep sand, the USDA insists that these non-O157 strains aren’t a problem, but they’ve rarely gone out and tested what’s actually in the butcher’s case.”
The USDA forbids the presence of E. coli 0157 in any meat sold in the market. But there are hundred of other strains of E. coli, including at least six that experts believe can be particularly harmful.
For years, food safety experts like Mansour Samadpour, a nationally respected food scientist, and others, including some government risk-assessment specialists, were telling Marler about people sickened by the usually ignored non-O157 strains of E. coli.
The meat industry and some of its protectors inside the USDA insisted that the non-O157s weren’t really a problem and that it had never been shown that these pathogens existed in the meat supply.
That was the same argument they made before the massive Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993. It was this mass poisoning that swept Marler into the food safety arena when he represented many of the 700 people sickened and four killed after eating the E. coli-tainted ground beef.
In early 2008, Marler began talking seriously to Samadpour, who heads the Seattle-based Institute for Environmental Health, about sampling meat in groceries to see whether there was widespread contamination. The microbiologist had worked with Washington state heath officials doing DNA analysis on E. coli O157 found in the Jack in the Box outbreak.
A deal was struck, a testing protocol developed and Samadpour told his labs across the country to begin buying 5,000 of the large, plastic-sealed packages of ground beef and analyzing the meat inside for all strains of E. coli. They used plastic-encased tubes to avoid store-induced contamination.
Marler hardly kept his expensive study a secret. Samadpour briefed the USDA scientists three times and shared the findings with the National Meat Association and American Meat Institute.
Samadpour found a low percentage of the meat was contaminated by the non-O157 strains of E. coli — about 2 percent. But since American consumers eat billions of pounds of ground beef each year, that 2 percent means millions of pounds of potentially dangerous meat are being eaten.
Last week, Marler joined three other food safety activists meeting privately with Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA’s recently sworn-in undersecretary for food safety, to discuss the non-O157 E.coli. After 90 minutes, Marler said that he agreed with the other participants that Hagen understood the risk to public health and that they were now closer than ever — maybe just months away — from seeing the USDA do its job.
Many of his critics say Marler spent $500,000 on testing just to generate new business. Not so, he says.
“From a legal prospective, it doesn’t matter whether the pathogen is considered an adulterant or not. If the injured party is sick and we can prove the source of the pathogen, they can still sue,” Marler said. “The reality is that the easiest way for the industry to make sure that I don’t make a penny from their shortcomings is to not poison the people in the first place.”
For more details on Marler and his magic, here is a link to much longer story I did this week on AOL News.