Would you knowingly buy chicken contaminated with salmonella or another potentially lethal bacteria?
Of course not. But chances are you already have.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that improperly prepared and undercooked chicken sickens more than 1 million Americans every year and more than 48 million get sick from a food-borne illness each year.
Such dangers concern Bainbridge Islander William Marler, a food safety advocate and attorney who is highlighted in a Netflix documentary that recently made its West Coast premiere at the Lynwood Theater. The documentary is set for worldwide release on Netflix Aug. 2.
For 30 years, Marler has been fighting for victims of food poisoning, and protection of the food supply while holding companies accountable and pushing legislators to pass the Food Modernization Act.
As the managing partner of the Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark, he first gained notoriety while litigating the worst food-poisoning outbreak in US history—the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that sickened 700 people, hospitalized hundreds and caused the deaths of four children.
That case was documented by author Jeff Benedict in his 2011 book Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat. Benedict has since teamed up with film director Stephanie Soechtig to raise awareness of ongoing food safety issues. The documentary, titled Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food, looks at food outbreak case histories. It also reveals the state of our food supply, its complex network of food industry insiders focused on profits, and government regulators who have failed to protect consumers.
An eye-opening and at times stomach-turning look at past and current food industry practices include scenes of chickens being washed in a “fecal soup” at a poultry processing plant, and over-crowded cattle feed lots next to leafy greens farms. Regulators, whistle-blowers and industry insiders are contrasted with interviews with advocates and victims’ families. The film opens with former Vice President Al Gore stating, “We have the safest food supply in the world,” while later, food safety expert Darin Detwiler, contradicts that statement saying, “Profit is more important than ethics.”
Marler said companies are under financial constraints and stockholder pressure to make a profit. “We really need to come up with some strategies that makes this work not just for consumers, but also for the food suppliers. So farm workers are getting paid, their health care is taken care of, and the growers and shippers are getting paid fairly for the cost of their produce, so they can do it safer.”
He informed the audience about “the amount of financial and political pressure put on governement officials from industry that keeps putting money in campaigns, so a lot of food legislation gets pushed aside because of that.” Marler is calling on consumers to stop being distracted. “We need to step up and make our voices heard,” because “the government is putting the responsibility on consumers to protect themselves,” he warned.
Marler pointed out many food safety improvements that have been implemented the past 30 years. The most fundamental occurred in 1994 when industry and the Department of Agriculture committed to zero tolerance for E. coli 0157 and listeria monocytogenes in food products. Before that, companies could knowingly sell ground beef contaminated with E. coli because the USDA took the position that it was not the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure that ground beef was free of contaminants. Instead, the responsibility was put on consumers to cook the meat properly.
After suing the meat industry for 10 years and taking more than $500 million in settlements, Marler said the industry started to change its practices, and in 2003 there were no E. coli outbreaks involving ground beef. But, new E. coli cases are showing up in lettuce and spinach grown in areas near cattle feedlots in Central California and Arizona. Runoff contaminates irrigation canals that run alongside the fields that provide most of the bagged lettuce in grocery stores today.
“There’s a lot of people at fault here, who don’t want to do anything. And the people from the government are acting like bureaucrats. They don’t want to make it better. They don’t want to rock the boat,” said consumer expert Herb Weisbaum, who moderated the panel discussion after the Lynwood screening.