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Food Safety Warrior

February 5, 2015

When it comes to representing people poisoned by food, Bill Marler says he’d like to be put out of business. He’s considered a national expert on food safety and advocate for victims of contaminated food.

Terry Murphy:  When you see Merrill Behnke with her daughter Channing, it’s clear that motherhood is at the center of her life…a life she almost lost because of something she ate.

Merrill Behnke: Two years ago I became very sick after eating ricotta salada cheese, an imported pasteurized cheese from Italy.

Merrill Behnke reading to her daughter

Murphy: 32-year-old Behnke is lucky to be alive. She was one of dozens poisoned by Listeria tainted cheese. Four people died. Behnke believes she’s here because of her daughter.

Behnke: I know that I fought to be alive, to be there for my daughter. She was nine months old. She was everything to me.

Murphy: Behnke’s ordeal is not an isolated incident.

Bill Marler: Listeria is an incredibly deadly pathogen.

Murphy: Food Safety attorney, Bill Marler, handles hundreds of foodborne illness cases. Most involve children and the elderly. A recent outbreak, traced to contaminated cantaloupe, took a devastating toll.

Bill Mahrer, a food safety attorney, wants to be put out of business.

Marler: We had a listeria outbreak in 2011, 147 people sickened, 33 people died. The largest foodborne illness death toll in the US in nearly 100 years. You think about it: 2011, we’re sickening and killing that many people with food?

Murphy: When it comes to representing people poisoned by food, Marler says he’d like to be put out of business. He’s considered a national expert on food safety…advocating for victims and testifying before Congress for tougher laws.

Marler: I spend 40 to 50% of my time now traveling all over the US and all over the world talking about how to put me out of business, why it’s a bad idea to poison your customers, what companies can to do to fix the problem, what government should be able to do to fix these problems.

Murphy: Many of Marler’s clients are critically ill children…and it was a child who marked the beginning of his food safety practice. Marler represented Brianne Kiner, the most seriously injured child from the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak. Four children died and hundreds were sickened from E-coli tainted hamburgers.

Marler: From that point it was illegal to sell hamburger with E-coli in it and that forced change in the industry. It didn’t happen overnight.”

Murphy: Government regulation of the beef industry has produced positive change…but when it comes to poultry, Marler says there’s no fox watching the hen house.

Chicken manufacturer are able to sell chicken that is contaminated with salmonella and camplybacter.

Marler: It is completely okay for a chicken manufacturer to sell you chicken with salmonella and campylobacter, knowingly sell that to you. People say, but if you cook it everything will be fine. But that’s not as simple as you think. Consumers should not have to handle chicken as if it’s radioactive.

Murphy: Whether it’s contaminated spinach or sprouts or peanut butter…outbreaks are still happening…and the coat is hard to digest.

Marler: The Economic Research Counsel which is part of the USDA just put out a new publication that shows that the economic cost to Americans for foodborne illness on a yearly basis, almost 16 billion dollars.

Murphy: Merrill Behnke is one of those statistics. She spent 16 days in the hospital and racked up more than $60,000 in medical bills. Her nightmare began at a family gathering.

Behnke: I was sitting down having a great family meal, showing off our daughter and I got very sick. Woke up in the morning, had severe back and neck pain and extreme nausea and couldn’t get out of bed. Immediately, I checked into a hospital. They knew it was meningitis but they didn’t know what caused the meningitis.

Merrill Behnke almost died after a food poisoning incident brought on by listeria-tainted imported cheese.

Murphy: Doctors determined the meningitis was caused by Listeria, a deadly bacteria found in food.

Behnke: I kept racking my brain asking the doctors what I could have eaten or done that caused this listeria and they said you’ll probably never know unless there’s an outbreak. And sure enough, the day I was discharged from the hospital there was an outbreak that hit the news. So there were 22 of us who fell ill across the country. Four people passed away. It was an Italian producer that imported the cheese.

Marler: Government is not doing enough. We have inadequately funded oversight of food safety. We are importing more foods, but we look at only 1% of food coming into the United States. That’s insane.

Murphy: But according to Marler…there are plenty of homegrown problems on US soil.

Marler: For every law suit I have brought, especially companies here in the US, it’s more likely that they have never been visited by an FDA inspector and if they have, it’s been four, five, six years before.

Murphy: Factory farming and distrust of big business are feeding the local food movement. While Marler supports it…he’s cautiously optimistic.

Marler: People, whether they’re a big manufacturer or a small manufacturer have to use common sense in the production of food.

Murphy: But when it comes to safe and local, Marler draws the line with unpasteurized milk, especially giving it to children.

Marler: I’ve represented dozens and dozens of children who have gotten incredibly ill from drinking raw milk.

Murphy: This family is part of a recent outbreak in Oregon. Their daughter drank raw milk contaminated by E-coli 0-157…found in animal feces.

Marler: This child is exceedingly brain damaged, she’s unable to walk, she’s unable to speak. And you look what happened to this kid and you listen to the parents and they’re like, I didn’t have the right to do this to my kid.

Behnke: What I learned is that it can happen to anyone. It makes you think twice about what you’re eating and what you’re putting on the table to feed your family.

Murphy: Behnke’s ordeal is behind her, but because of the impact on her body, doctors doubted she’d be able to have more children. Fortunately, they were wrong.

Behnke: I have a healthy baby boy. I call him my little miracle baby, because he was my way of saying I’m perfectly healthy. I survived this experience.

Murphy: Behnke is also using her story to push for stronger laws.

Behnke: The Food Modernization Act is the first change in regulation of our food supply since The Great Depression. We need these laws fully implemented so that government can help protect us as well.

Marler: FDA has the tools. But they don’t have the resources. We, as taxpayers, don’t want to pay more taxes, don’t want more public employees, so in many respects, you get what you pay for.

Murphy: For Bill Marler, seeking justice for victims and fighting for better food safety laws…goes beyond his job. In fact, it’s a vocation.

Marler: When you’ve been in as many ICU units as I have, when you’ve seen a child removed from life support and watched them die, avoiding these problems is a lot better than a law suit. That’s what we should do to work on.



Made possible in part by

Terry Murphy

Terry Murphy has worked at every TV station in Seattle for a wide variety of local and national shows, including: KCTS9 Connects, Evening Magazine, Dateline, Biography Channel, The Steve Harvey Show, special projects, public affairs and children’s programming. Her work has taken her everywhere from Alaska to Brazil. National and regional awards include American Women in Radio & Television, two Gabriels, PM Magazine National Honors, several regional Emmys and Academy of Religious Broadcasting awards. After almost 30 years in broadcasting, Terry still believes it’s a joy and a privilege to tell other people’s stories…especially here at KCTS9.

More stories by Terry Murphy

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You can do a lot better than that! highlighting a single case of imported food borne illness without providing the statistics on place of origin of food which has caused illnesses is irresponsible.