No one really wants to meet Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer from Seattle, because those who do are likely A) critically sickened by contaminated food and in need of legal help, or B) responsible for selling the food.

Yet there seems to be no shortage of people who know Marler after several high-profile food illness outbreaks in recent years from spinach, tomatoes, frozen pizza, peanut butter, hamburger meat and, last week, Nestlé Tollhouse cookie dough. He has a national practice, but has had several cases in Minnesota recently, including several in which he's sued Cargill on behalf of clients such as the 10-year-old girl from Mahtomedi who became seriously ill in December after eating hamburger contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.

Marler rose to prominence during the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993. He maintains multiple food-related blogs while crisscrossing the country to speak about food safety. He's supportive of federal legislation winding its way through Congress that would require more inspections of food plants and give more authority to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to order food recalls, among other things. Marler, who's often quoted saying that he wishes food companies would put him out of business, also says that people must learn how to properly handle risky foods while companies must own up to the risks inherent in their products.

Marler's reaction to the Nestlé Tollhouse cookie dough outbreak: "It's almost un-American."

He sat down with the Star Tribune last week just before addressing a group of Minneapolis lawyers on food safety.

Q Isn't food safer now than it was 20 years ago?

A Sort of, and I don't mean to sound like a lawyer. E. coli is a good example. If you look at 20 years ago, you weren't counting it because nobody was counting it. Once they started counting it in 1993, it went, zoom! Campylobacter is becoming a huge problem, especially for the poultry industry. Now we have a lot of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that we didn't have 15 years ago.

The best we can say is we are holding our own against the numbers [of people sickened], but the types of bacteria coming at us are just much more virulent and nasty. We're starting to see E. coli outbreaks where the levels are just horrific.

Q Congress is looking at food safety. Can they fix it?

A Not completely. The bill that's coming out is adequate, but not what I would have written. I think it falls short on not having enough funding in there to actually accomplish what the bill is trying to accomplish. They're missing transparency on the testing issues. Companies can hold the testing without giving it to state officials. In my view all tests should be out there in plain view.

I would take a much harder look at combining FSIS [Food Safety Inspection Service], FDA, [into] sort of a single food safety agency. But that's more of a long-term play. The other parts of the equation that I think are missing are much more consumer awareness of the risks of food, of the types of foods that are risky. We don't spend much money on educating people on how to properly handle risky foods.

Q Why is it so hard to pinpoint the source of an outbreak?

A It's a problem of surveillance. And, the tomato outbreak is a good example, peanut butter is a good example. This Tollhouse is a good example. An outbreak can limp along for months, and most outbreaks, if you look at the epidemiological curve, usually the outbreak is almost over before the health department announces it. We miss so many. I think the statistic on salmonella is that for every one case, 38 are missed.

Q Does industrial agriculture make food unsafe, as people like Joel Salatin allege, or are foodborne illnesses just part of food?

A He's right, but the problem is that it's everywhere. There was a study of cows ..., they found that the level of pathogenic E. coli in those animals in county fairs pretty much was the same as what you'd find at slaughter facilities and farms. So, the bottom line is that these bugs, they are out there and they are everywhere. Can we unwind it back to some kind of situation that Salatin or [journalist Michael] Pollan would think would be adequate? I don't know the answer to that....

If you look at how the statistics of [the spinach outbreak], the farther you were away from California, the more the number of people who were sickened. Was that a function of the E. coli being in the bag long enough to reach a critical mass? I kind of think so.

Q Why don't we irradiate food?

A Part of it is that people don't believe the government or public health about the problems and what we need to do to correct them. And there's no clear voice saying here's what the problems are and here's what we need to do to correct them. I've done enough research and talked to enough experts to understand that the risks of [food] irradiation are nonexistent. ... I think irradiating product makes an enormous amount of sense, whether it's hamburger or spinach and lettuce.

Q There's so much interest in food right now, with people gardening in their backyards, going to farmer's markets, it seems like a time of rising intelligence about food, and yet there's also more people buying things like raw milk, which can cause paralysis.

A I just scratch my head on that one. People are, in a sense, pulling further and further away and becoming almost more irrational in how they feel. Like they're trying to protect themselves. My client in California, she was a public health nurse, really active, very healthy and her friends go, 'You really ought to try this raw milk.' She read all about the wonderful properties and she drinks it and now she's a quadriplegic. That's where the balance between people's choice and risk gets way more complicated.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329