When Bill Marler steps into a supermarket, he sees danger everywhere. “I’ve litigated plenty of cases of romaine lettuce,” he says. “Cut fruit, tomatoes, onions…”
It doesn’t stop in the fresh aisle. Infant formula, cereal and cookie dough are also highlighted by the food safety lawyer as areas of concern in Netflix documentary Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food (available now). It tells us some 48 million Americans a year are affected by foodborne illnesses – and Marler is among those looking to slash that number.
The film – inspired by the book of the same title by Jeff Benedict – questions the oft-repeated claim that the US has the safest food supply in the world, taking us back to 1993, when an e.coli outbreak was traced to hamburgers from fast food chain Jack in the Box. Then, government action shifted responsibility away from food preparers, who had previously been expected to ‘cook off’ any nasty bugs. “It’s a success story,” says Marler.
However, the film shows how, in the US at least, it seems to be harder to eliminate e.coli from leafy greens, and salmonella from chicken.
The country’s massive scale and multiple food safety authorities – there are 15 federal agencies to deal with it – are partly to blame. There seems a lack of political will to properly regulate the farm animal waste run-off that finds its way into salad irrigation systems. And powerful lobbyists help prevent legislation to cut salmonella in chicken. Instead, salad pickers get hairnets, while chicken giant Perdue’s impressive-looking monitoring measures are shown to be only partially effective.
Europe is held up as a land of pathogen-free possibility – but testimonies from victims of foodborne illness are likely to leave viewers thinking more carefully about what they choose to eat, no matter where they live.