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Outspoken Food Safety Advocate Wants In

By Ed O'Keefe

Two leading candidates have emerged to serve as the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for food safety, which leads the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). But there’s an "outside the box" and "outside the Beltway" candidate eager and ready to give up his comfortable private sector life for the less lucrative government job.

Bill Marler is a Seattle-area attorney who specializes in food safety litigation. His passion and concern about food safety inspired him to launch a blog,, which he updates several times a day with news and his views on the issue. Most recently he has focused almost exclusively on the nationwide salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter and peanut paste that may be responsible for seven deaths.

"If this does not catch President Obama's attention, I do not know what will," he wrote last week. "Hey, Mr. President, call me, I'll work for peanuts."

(FSIS is only responsible for the safety of the nation’s commercial meat, poultry and eggs, while the Food and Drug Administration oversees the safety of all other foods, including peanut butter.)

While other candidates would not comment on their prospects at FSIS, Marler willingly elaborated about his interest in the position during a lengthy and candid phone interview. Although the undersecretary job is filled by presidential appointment and requires Senate confirmation, he applied for the position through, the Obama transition Web site where more than 300,000 people applied for government jobs.

“It was a little interesting. I’ve never applied for a federal position and in effect I hadn’t even filled out a résumé in 25 years," Marler said.

Marler also has taken several steps deemed necessary to win Senate confirmation: he has spoken about the job with representatives from the food industry, consumer groups and academia and has secured the support of key home state politicos, including former Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D).

“My view is that Bill is an incredible proponent of food safety," Locke said in a phone interview. "He practices what he preaches. He’s very careful about the food that he eats, that he feeds to his family." The former governor emailed Tom Vilsack shortly after the former Iowa governor accepted Obama's offer to serve as agriculture secretary, but Locke has not heard back from anyone about Marler's prospects.

The blogging attorney might be too unconventional for the position, considering his legal work and lengthy blog stacked with his views on food safety, the food industry and other matters.

“Having someone that has public health at their core I think is important," said Bob Brackett, a senior vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, who called Marler “a conscientious person who has a great interest in public health and safety.”

Still, Brackett said the FSIS undersecretary should be "Someone who has the ability to diplomatically interact with food safety."

Marler will harbor no ill will if Obama picks someone else to lead FSIS. He may even reconsider his initial application and apply for a food safety-related position with FDA instead.

"He's the president. I'm the managing partner of my law firm and get to make all the decisions. He gets to do that too," Marler said. "But do I think the food industry needs radical change? I do."

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By Ed O'Keefe  | January 27, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Revolving Door  
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It's terrific to see your piece on Bill Marler, who is unquestionably the most qualified person in the United States to head FSIS. But at the same time, it's a little disturbing that you also point to Barbara J. Masters as one of the top picks for the same position, without commenting on the fact that she's a lobbyist. We urge you to steal freely from our blog for any insight you need into food and ag policy during the Obama administration...You've got a big job keeping track of all those wiley Washingtonians, and we're here to help!

Posted by: Obamafoodorama | January 28, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

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