Barack Obama will become the Farmer in Chief after the worst year in American food safety history. There was a new foodborne illness or contamination recall for each week of 2008, which included every part of the foodchain from infant formula through meat, dairy, produce, and processed foods. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were sickened this year, according to an algorithm for reported illness versus actual illness, created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many were hospitalized or suffered life-changing health consequences.
Both the FDA and USDA are perpetually under fire for being disorganized, mismanaged, and ineffective, despite having huge budgets and huge staffs; critics include lawmakers, the Government Accountability office, former employees, watchdog groups, and the media. Realistically, if either agency fulfilled even half its official mandate, we'd have a far safer food supply. But our system is in wild disarray, and citizens are exposed to avoidable risks at every point between plow and plate, whether food is conventionally or organically grown.
Obama, thankfully, is now being heavily lobbied to pay immediate attention to food safety. Last Thursday, in an open letter, a collective of high-profile organizations issued a joint statement urging the President-elect to make food safety a top priority. The groups include Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumers Union, Safe Tables Our Priority, Food & Water Watch, the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, the Government Accountability Project, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Separately, on Friday, the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies of Science, released a report calling for a revamp of the USDA and FDA, stating that both need to updated in order to meet that challenges of emerging food safety issues. A host of media outlets have recently run editorials on the importance of food safety, and last week, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof also called for a revamp of the very idea of a Secretary of Agriculture, stating that what we really need is a "Secretary of Food." PETA's Bruce Friedrich is appealing for big changes in food safety, too. Close to ninety notable foodists recently sent a letter to Obama calling for an ethical/sustainable Secretary of Agriculture, which speaks directly to the importance of a safe food supply. All of this is building on writer/activist Michael Pollan's open letter to the President-elect, Farmer in Chief, published in NYT in October. Pollan's theory that changing our approach to agriculture policy is central to creating policy changes across the board implies, at its heart, that we need changes in food safety policy.
But the truth is, for all the excellent goals and aspirational ideas being publicly aired and petitioned for by concerned foodists, Obama is facing unprecedented challenges when he becomes President. Everyone's desire for immediate and swift change in food and agriculture must be tempered by the fact that Obama's got huge problems across the board. Changes in food policy will come the way change usually does in government--slowly. Thus it's crucial to appoint visionaries who can work through the long process of change toward a common goal, realistically and transparently.
Still, there is an opportunity for swift and dramatic change in the USDA. The currently vacant post of Under Secretary for Food Safety needs to be filled immediately by an inspired, activist leader, someone with both a long institutional memory and a firm grasp on what's so terribly wrong with our current system. There's one individual in the food safety world who is the most uniquely qualified candidate to take on such a major project: Attorney Bill Marler, the foremost food poisoning authority in the country (pictured).
A founding partner of Seattle's Marler Clark law firm, Marler is an extremely activist consumer advocate and champion of change in food safety. His firm has become a powerhouse of food borne illness litigation, garnering close to half a billion dollars in settlements for injured clients. Marler himself is the leading US expert in institutional and agricultural structures for food safety, and he regularly works with farmers, packers, producers, and food service entities to change/create safety practices. Most recently, he persuaded global conglomerate Conagra to dramatically alter their policies, and he has successfully and repeatedly sued Big Ag baddie Cargill. Marler is a vociferous and much-published critic of government policies and practices (including the ongoing labeling fights over "organic" and "adulterants"), and he frequently testifies before Congress on food safety. His Marler Blog is the best internet source for food safety information.
Currently, Marler devotes much of his professional life to non-profit consultations on food safety and security around the world. Under the umbrella of Marler Clark's non-profit organization, Outbreak, Marler regularly advises foreign food producers, packagers and governments. Equally important, Marler is intimately acquainted with exactly what goes on in international markets, which is crucial, because America imports a huge amount of food each year.
Even better, Marler is completely free of any kind of connection to lobbying entities. USDA's notorious history of appeasing the profit motives of large corporations will be completely erased if Marler is appointed. As an important side note, Marler is well-schooled in sustainable, ethical, and organic practices for food. He grew up in a small rural community in Washington state, and he and his wife are raising their family with locavore values. Marler's philosophical approach to food would dovetail perfectly with even the most radical and sustainability-minded Secretary of Agriculture, but he knows exactly how to deal with Big Ag and corporate intrusions into farming. If Tom Vilsack is confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture, there's simply no better choice for a food safety Under Secretary than Marler.
Marler's wealth of practical, theoretical, and scientific knowledge about every aspect of food safety from plow to plate--including bioterrorism--makes him an ideal candidate for Under Secretary for Food Safety. Bill Marler is where the fork hits the field, so to speak, and his appointment would ensure that major changes can--and will--rapidly occur to provide a good, clean and safe food supply, using the existing legal framework. An Obama Barforama should never be something Americans have to worry about.