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Publisher’s Platform: Dave Theno defined food safety culture

Opinion

David ThenoEditor’s note: Food Safety crusader David M. Theno died Monday, June 19, 2017, when he was hit by a large wave while swimming with his grandson. Bill Marler, who worked with Theno to raise food safety awareness for more than 25 years, posted these thoughts after receiving the news about the death of his comrade in arms.

Why I Loved Dave Theno
In 2013, I wrote a piece on my blog about “Why I Love my Job.” It’s ironic how much of my job and my life over the past 25 years has been intertwined with Dave Theno. I will miss the occasions we shared a good meal — Dave with his rare steak and me with mine well-done — always with a very good bottle of wine. We will all miss his humanity and leadership.

Excerpt from July 25, 2013, Marler Blog: … In a not-so-often quite moment, I thought about the beginning of what became both my passion and my job. Honestly, it has had very little to do with being a lawyer.

I had just turned 35-years-old and was only five years out of law school, I was a young lawyer in a job that seemed quite dead-end, and then my world changed.

Lauren Beth Rudolph

Lauren Beth Rudolph

Lauren Beth Rudolph died on Dec. 28, 1992, in her mother’s arms due to complications of an E. coli O157:H7 infection — Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome — also know as acute kidney failure. She was only 6 years, 10 months, and 10 days old when she died. The autopsy described her perforated bowel as being the consistency of “jelly.”

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 undercooked at Jack in the Box restaurants on the West Coast during late 1992 and January 1993. I pushed myself to the front of the pack of lawyers. Roni Rudolph, Lauren’s mom, I have known for nearly 20 years.

Dave Theno became head of Jack in the Box’s food safety shortly after the 1992-1993 outbreak. I have known Dave, too, for 20 years, mostly because I spent several days deposing — he would say grilling/torturing — him over the course of the multi-year, multi-state litigation. However, a decade after spending such quality time — for me anyway — with him, I only recently learned a significant fact about Dave; one that made me admire him even more. It’s something that I think all leaders in corporate food safety, or any position of authority, should emulate.

Last year Dave and I shared the stage at the Nation Meat Association (NMA) annual “Meating” in Tampa as an odd pair of keynote speakers. 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 her mom Roni that struck me in a physical way.

man with briefcaseDave told the quiet audience about Lauren’s death. He, too, knew the same autopsy report. Dave told the audience that the death of Lauren and his friendship with Roni had changed him also in a physical way. He told us all that he had carried a picture of Lauren in his briefcase 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 of any corporation holding the picture of a dead child seeking guidance to avoid the next possible illness or death is stunning, but completely appropriate.

I hugged Dave and we promised to get together again — sometime, someday.

Shortly after leaving Tampa, I spent time with a family in South Carolina whose 4-year-old girl ate cookie dough tainted with E. coli O157:H7 and suffered months of hospitalizations, weeks of dialysis and seizures. She faces a lifetime of complications despite oversight by the Food and Drug Administration of the food she consumed.

After leaving South Carolina I headed to Cleveland, OH, where I sat across the kitchen table from a family who lost their only daughter, Abby, when she died from an E. coli O157:H7 infection from meat inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Services.

Neither head of either agency, nor the president of either corporation, whose product took the life of one and nearly the life of the other, ever visited either family, and, that is a shame.

In 20 years of litigation, in 20 years of spending time with Lauren’s or Abby’s family, I am changed. I see the world far differently than most do now.

If I had any advice to offer to corporate or governmental leaders — run your departments like Dave ran food safety at Jack in the Box. Go meet the families that Dave and I have met. 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 and to love it.

Theno’s idea – A Sarbanes-Oxley for food safety
I have been thinking about Dave Theno a lot today. I recall that several times before I wrote the below in 2013, Dave and I shared a few glasses of good wine. I am not sure what I’m going to do without Dave.

Excerpt from Aug. 23, 2013, Marler Blog:  … Fact – good food safety behavior in the long run protects consumers, which protects the corporate brand.  Not poisoning your customers is actually good for business.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act known as the “Corporate and Auditing Accountability and Responsibility Act” has set increased standards for all corporate management and auditing firms. The bill was enacted in 2002 in reaction to corporate and auditing scandals in the 1990’s, which cost investors billions of dollars when share prices of public companies collapsed.

As a result of Sarbanes-Oxley, top corporate management must now personally certify the accuracy of financial information. Management must certify that they are “responsible for establishing and maintaining internal controls” and “have designed such internal controls to ensure that material information relating to the company” is made known.

Sarbanes-Oxley has also increased the responsibility of outside auditors who review the accuracy of corporate financial data. External auditors are now required to issue an opinion on whether management maintained effective internal control over financial reporting and that the financial statements are in fact accurate.

How can the Sarbanes-Oxley Act relate to safer food?

Can you imagine if the president of a food company was actually required to sign off yearly on the company’s food safety “internal controls?” If that were the case, perhaps food safety would have a direct line of communications to corporate leadership instead of lagging behind marketing and short-term profits.

It would be truly revolutionary to have a food company focused on producing and selling safe food as its core mission. That would be a “culture of food safety.”

And, what about audits? What if an auditor had to sign his or her name that the audit was in fact truthful and was not simply a mechanism to move product speedily, not necessarily safely, along the chain of distribution?

An honest audit would be “food safety from farm to fork.”

Dave Theno

Dave Theno

Does it not seem at least equally important that the food manufacturers or retailers ask our children to put in their bodies have some of the safeguards that investors have in the same corporation?

Thanks, Dave.

For Dave Theno’s thoughts on corporate responsibility in the realm of food safety, please see this guest piece he contributed to Food Safety News in August 2013: “A Sarbanes–Oxley Act for food safety could save lives”

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