MarlerBlog: Dave Theno had it right – Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius should pay attention

Bill Marler writes:

Lauren Beth Rudolph (below, right) died on December 28, 1992 in her mother’s arms due to complications of an E. coli O157:H7 infection – Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. She was only 6 years, 10 months, and 10 days old when she died. Her death, the deaths of three other children, and the sicknesses of 600 others, were eventually linked to E. coli O157:H7 tainted hamburger produced by Von’s and served at Jack in the Box restaurants on the West Coast during late 1992 and January 1993. Roni Rudolph, Lauren’s mom, I have known for 16 years.

Dave Theno became head of Jack in the Box’s food safety shortly after the outbreak. I too have known Dave for 16 years. However, I only learned recently a significant fact about Dave – one that made me admire him even more – one that I think, not only that all leaders in corporate food safety should emulate, but one that both Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius should pay attention too.

Dave and I shared the stage at the Nation Meat Association annual convention a few months ago. The NMA is an association representing meat processors, suppliers, and exporters. Dave, spoke just before I did and was rightly lauded as someone who takes food safety to heart. However, it was his story about Lauren Rudolph and his relationship with Roni that struck me. Dave told the quiet audience about Lauren’s death. Dave also told us that the death of Lauren and his friendship with Roni had changed him. He told us all that he had carried a picture of Lauren in his brief case everyday since he had taken the job at Jack in the Box. He told us that every time he needed to make a food safety decision – who to pick as a supplier, what certain specifications should be – he took out Lauren’s picture and asked, “What would Lauren want me to do?”

I thought how powerful that image was. The thought of a senior executive holding the picture of a dead child seeking guidance to avoid the next possible illness or death is stunning, but completely appropriate. I wonder if Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius do anything similar when they do their work on President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group? If they do not, perhaps they should?

Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius right now there are hundreds of families struggling right now due to illnesses and death related to food that you oversee that has been tainted with E. coli O157:H7.
Yesterday, I spent time with a family in South Carolina whose 4 year old ate cookie dough and suffered months of hospitalizations, weeks of dialysis and seizures. She faces a lifetime of complications. And, there is a woman in Nevada who is still hospitalized, who has lost a portion of her large intestine, was on dialysis until a few days ago. She faces months if not years of rehabilitation.

Both ate cookie dough that was watch over by Secretary Sebelius’s FDA.

Today I sat across the kitchen table with a family who lost their only daughter because she died from an E. coli O157:H7 infection from meat inspected by Secretary Vilsack’s USDA/FSIS. I then visited families in a Cleveland hospital whose children are struggling in their battle against Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome – again E. coli O157:H7 tainted hamburger is to blame.

Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius you should be like Dave Theno. Run your departments like Dave ran food safety at Jack in the Box. Go meet these families. Sit across their kitchen tables. Go to their child’s hospital room and see more tubes and wires than you can count. Understand what these people have lived though. Take their stories into your heart. It is hard, very hard, but it will give you a real reason to do your jobs.

Local can be safe – prove it

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler got verbally beaten up a bit by daring to say that local food needs to be safe food.

Devra Gartenstein, the owner of Seattle’s Patty Pan Grill and the author of two cookbooks, Local Bounty: Vegan Seasonal Produce and The Accidental Vegan, wrote on something called The Green Fork yesterday that,

“It’s certainly true that food purveyors at every level should be scrupulously clean and conscientious about how they handle their food. But it’s patently untrue that farmers’ market prepared foods are unsupervised, at least here in Seattle, where both Mr. Marler and I live. Prepared food vendors are permitted and inspected by the health department. When health inspectors aren’t personally on site, the market managers act as their proxies, checking temperatures and handwashing stations. We’re also required to take classes in proper food handling procedures.”

That’s great. But what about local food that isn’t prepared or processed? The author seems to be playing semantics, jumping from prepared foods – which are clearly under local health folks supervision – to other local foods, like produce that isn’t processed.

The author recites the usual food porn about how she knows the grower so it’s safer, but I’m looking for data: water quality results, data on soil amendments, evidence of compliance with handwashing and safe handling.

It isn’t about local, small or big. It’s about what will make folks barf. And that requires control of dangerous microorganisms, regardless of politics.

Child sickened by raw milk; Marler sues

The North County Times reports that Tony Martin and his wife, Mary McGonigle-Martin, of Murrieta, California, have filed a civil lawsuit in Fresno County after their then seven-year-old son was sickened with E. coli O157:H7 and hospitalized for two months in 2006.

According to the lawsuit filed Feb. 6, Chris developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a common cause of kidney failure, due to E. coli infection.

Hospitalized from Sept. 7 to Nov. 2, 2006, Chris "suffered life-threatening injuries that have left him permanently injured," the suit states. The Martins have incurred more than $450,000 in medical bills.

The suit says the source of the E. coli was raw milk produced at Organic Pastures Dairy in Fresno and sold by a Sprouts store in Temecula.

Sprouts store owner Linda Watson was quoted as saying,

"There is no information I know of that any E. coli in any raw milk was sold at our store, or anywhere else for that matter."

A table of raw-milk related outbreaks is available at

Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy in Fresno, said there is no proof that his company is at fault, as also alleged in the lawsuit, adding,

"When a person sues for a food-related illness, they must be able to show a connection between a product and the person. There isn’t a connection here. …  Because there isn’t any connection, we feel confident we have a very strong defense."

Seattle attorney Bill Marler who is representing the Martins in their lawsuit, said,

"Under California law, the whole distribution chain is strictly liable. We don’t have to prove the store did anything wrong or was negligent, just that it was in the product. Selling unpasteurized milk is a risk stores shouldn’t be willing to take. … The message here is, whether it is raw or pasteurized milk, you have to be willing to take the responsibility of making sure your product is safe for your consumers."

Tony Martin was further quoted as saying,

"We live in a society where people are not that concerned with getting a pathogen and they need to be," and that some proponents of raw milk are "zealots" in the ways they push the product.

Who’s Minding the Store? – The Current State of Food Safety and How It Can Be Improved

Bill Marler and 35 of his food safety colleagues will be speaking at a packed day-and-a-half Seminar in Seattle, April 11-12, 2008.

From the brochure:

Seattle was the epicenter of the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that sickened 600 and killed four 15 years ago. In addition to explaining how our present system works, this program is intended to discuss how changing consumer preferences are affecting the development and distribution of food, examine whether federal, state and industry oversight roles are changing, and discuss how the regulatory and judicial processes can be most efficiently balanced.

Full conference and registration information is available at’s%20Minding%20the%20Store.pdf.