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Rochester Meat Recall: Interview with E. Coli Wars Veteran

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Seattle, WABill Marler is the managing partner of Marler Clark LLP, a Seattle law firm specializing in food safety law. He has been in the thick of food safety litigation since the 1993 Jack in the Box incident--when E. coli contaminated hamburgers sold by the restaurant chain sickened hundreds and cost the lives of four children. More recently, Marler and his firm have been closely involved in the Topps Meat and Rochester Meat beef recalls.

With the recent record-breaking Westland/Hallmark Meat recall of 143 million pounds of meat making headlines, Marler's telephone has been ringing off the hook. Nonetheless, he managed to find time to speak to LawyersandSettlements on a busy day.

LAS: The Rochester Meat recall seems to have fallen off the radar. Have you heard anything further about it?

Bill Marler (BM):Yes; as a matter of fact, I was just retained by one of the victims in the Rochester case, the one case in San Diego, California; I just met with them last week. It certainly appears that Rochester Meat was the supplier of the contaminated hamburger in this case; it also appears that in both Wisconsin and California, where the actual cases of illness appeared, the common denominator was Tony Roma's restaurant.

Our claims will be for strict liability against both Tony Roma's and Rochester Meats for past and future medical expenses, lost wages to the parents who had to stay home and care for the girl who became sick in San Diego, and pain and suffering that occurred during the course of this young woman's illness. E. coli O15:H7 is pretty nasty stuff, and it made this young woman very sick for a long time. She's slowly getting better, but she lost 15 pounds during her illness, and she's a skinny kid to begin with.

LAS: You mentioned that possible connection between Rochester and Tony Roma's early on, specifically because USDA declined to say where the contaminated product was sold.

BM: The Rochester-Tony Roma's connection was more than just speculation, but USDA never made it public. That's one of those things that the USDA and state health departments tend to do—they make it difficult to figure out where contaminated meat came from. The rationale is that they want to maintain positive relationships with the meat suppliers, so they don't want them to have to disclose their proprietary customer lists.

Now, my view is that every time there's a meat recall, consumers deserve to know where it went, so if they bought it at the supermarket they can discard it or if they went to a restaurant and got sick afterwards, they can know where the illness came from and can take steps to protect themselves.

For example, in the 2002 ConAgra meat recall, most of the victims got sick in July 2002. ConAgra never was forced to disclose where their contaminated meat went. I wound up getting an e. coli case in September 2002 that was a match to the meat in the ConAgra recall; I asked them where they got the meat that made them sick, and they said, "We bought it at Safeway"; well, it was still recalled ConAgra meat. Consumers can get confused about that. So that's why I feel that consumers have a right to know where the meat went.

LAS: After the Topps Meat recall in October 2007, USDA announced an enhanced inspection program to head off e. coli. Has that actually happened, to your knowledge?

BM: I really do think that there's been much more surveillance. The fact that there have been a number of other recalls since Topps indicates to me that USDA is being a lot more aggressive. The fact that they've been so aggressive recently with the Westland/Hallmark recall indicates to me that [USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety] Dick Raymond is serious about this stuff. So in my view, the way they've been handling things since Topps is pretty good.

LAS: You recently announced an independent project to collect and analyze 5000 samples of ground beef at the consumer end. What do you hope to find out from this?

BM: Yes. We just started it a week ago, so no test results have come back as yet. I thought that it would be a good way to get a clearer sense of how contaminated the meat supply actually is. I think in some respects, that USDA's approach to food safety—the whole idea of having inspectors in plants—is a little 19th century. I think the way to go is to do more product testing. It's a more objective way of testing products. Doing it in a way that uses a good sample is a good way; having a guy walking around the meat packing plant looking at stuff is pretty old school.

USDA does some testing currently, but they test less than 1000 samples a year. Given that billions of pounds of meat are consumed annually in this country, that's really not a good enough sample size. Right now, companies are expected to do their own product testing, but they usually don't turn the results over to USDA. We will do that. Unfortunately, right now USDA just doesn't have the money to do the amount of product testing they should.

LAS: Recently USDA announced that they will publicize the names of poultry plants involved in salmonella recalls. Do they need greater transparency with respect to e. coli recalls as well?

BM: I think the one thing that would get everybody on board for making sure that our food supply is safer is to make everything transparent—and that includes where recalled meat went. That way consumers can vote with their feet and their pocketbooks. A place that has a history of selling contaminated meat and making people sick is not a place where you're going to buy food for your kids.

LAS: A lot of proposals have been floated to improve food safety. What are your thoughts?

BM: Well, my feeling about how to make the food safety system safer is more surveillance. I think there should be more surveillance for people who come into an ER or a doctor's office with a diarrheal illness. The food safety system would be much safer if there were more followup with those people—we need to know, if they became sick, whether it was from e. coli, camphylobacter, shigella, listeria, or whatever.

One reason why food safety is somewhat difficult is that it's hidden from view. People don't know how they got sick. If you have follow-up on individual patients across the country, you can start to see patterns in how and where people get sick from contaminated food. You can start to connect the dots.

Some people say that's just a way for me to get more cases. Well, maybe so, but if people know that a company consistently sells products that poison their customers, and that company gets a reputation as one that poisons its customers, maybe they'll start to pay more attention to food safety.

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