Think of every major outbreak of foodborne illness in the past 23 years and Seattle attorney Bill Marler was involved, representing victims who were hospitalized or, in several tragic cases, died from eating tainted food.
He and his firm, Marler Clark, not only have won more than $600 million for their clients, but Marler has become a de facto expert in the complexities of our food safety system, from the science of tracking an outbreak to dealing with recalcitrant restaurant chains and hamstrung government agencies.
He rose to prominence in 1993 when hundreds were sickened (and four children were killed) by E. coli bacteria in undercooked burgers sold by Jack in the Box, and he’s currently involved with the outbreak at Chipotle.
And these are just the big-name outbreaks that get lots of publicity. As Marler told the Washington Post in a recent interview, problems with contaminated products are far more common than people realize. More than 9,000 products were recalled for contamination risk by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2014 issued 94 recalls, totaling 18.6 million pounds of meat.
“The industry does a good job of nudging people to forget about all this, and we all do a good job of obliging, because food safety isn’t the sort of thing anyone likes to think about,” Marler said. This despite the fact that 48 million Americans get sick each year from foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die simply because they ate the wrong thing.
What people don’t realize, says Marler, are the potentially severe consequences of foodborne illness, especially for vulnerable groups like children and seniors. “Unfortunately, over the years, I’ve seen dozens of dozens of kids hooked up to dialysis, or even adults in hospitals, on ventilators, in ICUs. It is pretty overwhelming,” he told the food magazine Lucky Peach last year. “I think a lot of us don’t really realize that foodborne illness is more than just a tummy ache, these people are horrifically injured and can have problems for the rest of their lives.”
Seeing the worst side of foodborne illness has made Marler extremely careful about what he eats. There are six foods he never eats, he told Bottom Line Health, because he feels the risk is just too high for getting sick. However, there is one surprising food that he still does.
Here are his six to skip — plus one not to:
Raw sprouts. Shun all sprouts — alfalfa, bean, clover and radish — when you see them on the salad bar, or added to sandwiches. Sprout seeds need warm, humid conditions to grow — the perfect environment for the growth of bacteria. Since 1996, there have been 30 sprout-related bacterial outbreaks, according to the FDA. Sprouts were also linked to two deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness, in Germany in 2011 and in Japan in 1996 that sickened thousands.
Bagged salad or cut fruit: The more food is handled or processed, the greater the risk for contamination — witness the numerous foodborne illness outbreaks from bagged salads. Just this month Dole recalled bagged salads suspected of listeria contamination that have caused one death and hospitalizations in the U.S. and Canada. Marler suggests buying instead unwashed, uncut produce in small amounts that you wash yourself. Eat within three to four days to reduce the risk for listeria, a deadly bug that can grow even at refrigerator temperature. In restaurants, he chooses safer cooked vegetables over salad.
Unpasteurized (“raw”) milk and juices. Marler won’t go near either raw milk or unpasteurized juices. Raw milk can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites, says the FDA, and accounted for 148 outbreaks of illness between 1998 and 2011. As for unpasteurized juice, one of Marler’s earliest cases was the 1996 E. coli outbreak from unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice, which killed one child and sickened 65, including a dozen with life-threatening kidney complications. The lesson here: Pasteurization was developed 150 years ago for a very good reason.
Beef that isn't well-done. Marler orders his burgers well-done — not surprising, given what he knows about bacteria in undercooked beef. He also asks if a restaurant needle-tenderizes their steaks by piercing them, a technique that can transfer bacteria from the surface to the interior of the steak. If they do, he orders his steak well-done. Otherwise, medium-well.
Raw or undercooked eggs: The risk of salmonella poisoning from eggs is much lower than it was 20 years ago, Marler said, but it’s still a concern. Just last year, two former egg industry executives were sentenced to jail for their roles in a major 2010 salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands. For that reason, Marler sticks to well-cooked eggs.
Raw oysters or other raw shellfish: Raw oysters have been causing more foodborne illness lately, Marler said, because there’s more bacteria in warming oceans, and oysters, which are filter feeders, pick up every microbe in the water. Eating them “is simply not worth the risk.”
And the one surprising food that he still eats? Sushi. Some people may shy away from raw fish, but there have been only a handful of outbreaks linked to sushi, he notes, so he’s still willing to enjoy — with a caveat. He wouldn’t recommend the sushi sold at a supermarket or variety store, only that from a reputable sushi chef. “If you’re going to eat sushi, spend the money and eat at a good sushi restaurant.”
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