Simpler Equals Safer When it Comes to the Food System

May 29, 2015
20 years after Jack in the Box, veteran food safety attorney William Marler asks: 'How complex do we really need to make food?'

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

"Simplifying things as opposed to making things more complex, at least in my view, makes it easier for humans to do the right thing," he says. "Presently, 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 it -- 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."

While he credits USDA and its Food Safety Inspection Service as doing a great job, he thinks FDA is just beginning to take the right steps with its evolving Food Safety Modernization Act. But there will remain cross-jurisdictional issues between FSIS and FDA and inefficiencies unless there is a single agency that is charged with all food safety – "focused like a laser on making our food supply safe," he says.

Marler was interviewed as part of the Institute of Food Technologists' FutureFood 2050 program. As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, IFT created a website featuring 75 articles and multimedia "to create a broad dialogue on how science will deliver solutions needed to feed the world’s nine billion people by the year 2050."

The name of Marler's practice is Marler Clark, but he calls it 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.

So he has profited from food contamination, but he also helped move the needle on food safety, a topic with which he has become very familiar.

"There are a lot of things going on simultaneously. These bugs are constantly evolving. We’re dealing with more virulence than we’ve seen — especially in bugs like antibiotic-resistant salmonellas and listeria. These are the kinds of bugs we didn’t see 30 years ago, so you have to look a lot at how food is produced and then balance that against a growing world population.

"It’s a global food economy. It’s difficult to control, and the food system has become incredibly complex. And human beings are not necessarily the best at dealing with complex problems. We have to ask ourselves how complex do we really need to make food? Look at the outbreaks that have occurred — 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, organically 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 and shipped, [the easier] for the entry of a bacterium or a virus into that process."

However, one thing that shouldn't be simplified is the search for new technologies. Even with a USDA inspector in every plant, "we still had the horrific E. coli outbreaks in the ’90s and the early 2000s. We had not brought in the new technologies of testing meat and test-and-hold and interventions to get E. coli off the meat. Once those things got implemented, we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of E. coli cases linked to red meat and hamburger."

He thinks the same can be done with salmonella. "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," says Marler. "And industry would adjust.”

Even with new technologies, he thinks there should be a food inspector from this new, unified food safety agency, in every plant – copying the USDA system, not the FDA's. "Some of the worst foodborne illness outbreaks that I’ve been involved in, the plants had never been visited by an FDA inspector, ever.

"Industry and government need to set goals of zero tolerance for these bugs in food and then let innovation happen. And it can happen. There are always new interventions and innovations."

But "more food is going to be imported, so there’s going to be greater distances. As the population gets larger, there's going to be a lot more pressure on businesses to produce food cheaper, and [there may be] pressure to put food safety to the side. That would be wrong.
"In the long run, the industry would be better off, consumers would be better off, and I wouldn’t have anything to do."

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