The Larry King Show on CNN last night cast a pretty wide net in focusing on both food safety and whether or not people are better off not eating meat.

Nationally known food safety attorney Bill Marler and victims advocates led off the one-hour program, but host Larry King, who had trouble pronouncing “E. coli outbreak,” was clearly more interested in hearing from his guests who sparred over whether a meat or vegan diet is best.

larry-king-larger-photo.jpgBefore all that began, Marler did update viewers on the condition of 22-year-old Stephanie Smith, the Cold Spring, MN dance instructor who two years ago ate a hamburger from meat-giant Cargill Inc. and suffered devastating affects.  Her story in the New York Times on Oct. 4th clearly captured King’s attention.

“She just entered into a rehab center today,” Marler told the CNN audience.  “The kid wants to dance again.  I think it is pretty unlikely, but she is going to give it a shot.  She will be in there for six months.  They are going to work hard physical therapy, occupational therapy, but she has a long road to hoe.  She has risk of kidney failure, she suffered brain damage, and whether she will walk again is another thing.”

After listening to some of the stories from the families of victims from the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, King was surprised to learn that E. coli O157:H7 can be transmitted person-to-person, rather than just from consumption of a contaminated food product.

“Wait a minute, this can be contagious?  You do not have to eat the meat?” King asked.

“Ten to 50 of these bacterium are enough to kill a child,” Marler explained how secondary transmission happens.  “Thousands could fit on the head of a pin.  You cannot see them, taste them or smell them.”  He also explained why E. coli is more prevalent in ground beef than in whole cuts.

The food safety segments of the show included Patrick Boyle from the American Meat Institute and former U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa A. Murano. 

Boyle said the meat industry has sympathy for the victims of foodborne illnesses, but said the industry’s overall record was one of great safety. “The positive development here is that these types of tragic illnesses are decreasing in America,” he said.  Boyle said there has been a 60 percent reduction in such illnesses in recent years.

Murano praised the victim advocates, and said the challenge is to control and eliminate human error.  She said it is USDA’s job to make sure the industry is going everything it can.

As last night’s program when on, guests on both sides of the meat/non-meat diet argument were brought into the discussion.  Chef Anthony Bourdain and Author Jonathan Safran squared off, as did two university researchers.

Before going on last night, Marler posted on his personal blog both short- and long-term recommendations he’d try and make on the CNN program.   He got some of it in, but far from all, so here’s a look at what he wanted to say:

Marler - Larry King Live.jpgShort-Term

1. The President must appoint an Undersecretary for Food Safety now whose sole mission is safe food. The Undersecretary should, and needs to be, the responsible person within the FSIS on this important issue, advocating and making decisions solely on behalf of public health. That person and staff should spend time with Stephanie Smith and the family of Abby Fenstermaker.

2. Provide tax breaks for companies that push all types of food safety interventions, including vaccines, irradiation, and employee training.  Greatly expand traceability of high-risk meat products and work directly with the big retail chains to lessen price pressure on manufacturers.

3. There are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

4. Develop uniform cooking and handling instructions that actually provide helpful guidance to consumers. Foster a campaign similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which uses consumer power to promote safe food handling and a no-tolerance policy toward companies that produce tainted food. Create new quality certifications to aid consumers in making choices, and allow companies to capture price premiums for higher quality.

5. Enforce a real zero-tolerance policy for E. coli O157:H7 and non-O157 EHEC STEC on meat, and consider expanding it to all bacteria and viruses that cause serious human disease. 

6. Do meaningful sampling and surveillance of meat for bacteria and viruses at all levels of production to determine real prevalence of all pathogens before it hits restaurants and grocery store shelves. All tests should be online in real-time. All Non-compliance Report (NR’s), and other enforcement documents, at slaughter plants and grinding operations should also be online in real-time. Consumers need transparency.

Long Term

1. Improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders, such as ER physicians, need to be encouraged to test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly. Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are some 20 to 40 times those that are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped.

2. These same governmental departments, whether local, state or federal, need to learn to “play well together.” Turf battles need to take a back seat to stopping an outbreak and tracking it to its source. That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged so illnesses can be promptly stopped and the offending company – not an entire industry – is brought to heal.

3. Increase food inspections. While domestic production has continued to be a problem, imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists were to get into the act. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. We need more inspectors – domestically and abroad – and we need to require that they receive the training in how to identify and control hazards.

4. Reorganize federal, state and local food safety agencies to increase cooperation and reduce wasteful overlap and conflicts. These agencies need to be more proactive, and less reactive. This too requires financial resources and accountability. We also need to modernize food safety statutes by replacing the existing collection of often conflicting laws and regulation with one uniform food safety law of the highest standard.

5. We need to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animals. We are creating drug-resistant bacteria that are beginning to catch up with the human population.

6. We have to ask hard questions about the safety and sustainability of the mass-produced, oil and corn based, food production system we have created in our lifetime. A true fact – in 17 years of litigating nearly every food borne illness outbreak, almost all were caused in whole or in part, by mass-produced food. I have never sued a farmer’s market.  True, in a world of nearly 7 billion, we all cannot eat at farmer’s markets.  However, the system we have now is not sustainable from either an energy or food safety perspective.

CNN studio photo courtesy Morgan Marler.