Food Safety Expert Weighs in on Food Safety Progress and Pending Legislation

Meet Dave Theno. He’s been quietly–and sometimes not so quietly–working behind the scenes to make the food industry safer for 30 years. With an extensive background in food safety and quality assurance, Theno was called in to help Jack in the Box during their E. coli outbreak in 1993 that sickened hundreds and killed four children.

Theno helped the company manage the crisis as it unfolded and immediately went to work to overhaul quality systems and operations in an effort to prevent food safety crises. Theno has spent the last 15 years overseeing Jack in the Box’s quality assurance as well as the field operations quality assurance group.

Food Safety News had a chance to catch up with Mr. Theno to gain perspective on how food safety has changed since 1993 and to add more expert commentary to the debate over food the food safety legislation making its way through Congress.

Q: What were the major changes that came out of the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993?

A. Well, there was a lot that needed to happen. This was clearly an issue that had arisen in the supply chain, the E. coli thing. I was working with a lot of beef people, so I had a very clear view of what was going on in the industry. It became really obvious to me that there was a lot of improvement to be made.

There were people that were being very progressive and were very good at what they were doing and there were people that weren’t very good. They just weren’t adopting new technologies and they wanted to blame it all on someone else. “Consumers just need to cook it.” And so we [at Jack in the Box] needed to find people who were the most progressive so we could partner with them, because we needed, to the greatest extent possible, to eliminate this from the supply chain.

We partnered with some people and we didn’t eliminate, but we certainly reduced it to where it was a manageable risk. And at the same time, the more we did it, the more we learned the more we needed to change things in the back of the house in the restaurant in terns of handling procedures and the level of training provided to people.

Food safety, I think, prior to 1993 in the restaurant industry was not unimportant, but was just a piece among a lot of other operational stuff. And after 1993, food safety became priority number one. Everyone looked at that and said, “Gee, that could have been me.”

Today, I would say, if a restaurant executive–especially someone from the operations end–is not as concerned about food safety as they are about everything else, they ought to find a new industry.

Q: Can you expand on this idea of “manageable risk”? At the fresh produce industry conference last week, I heard a lot of buzz from businessmen who want to know what an acceptable risk level looks like.

A: Well that’s interesting. Some of the naysayers are saying, “Tell us the level of risk, and we’ll get there.” But I would submit that if your goal is there is no risk, and that’s your long-term goal, and you start working backwards to manage it, you’ll find you can manage it to where risk is negligible.

The industry is not moving as rapidly, frankly, as I would like to see it move. There is more foot-dragging than I think is appropriate. They’ll all tell you that testing is a bunch of shit, it’s too hard to do, its too costly.

Bottom line is, do you really want to crash into the wall, or would you like to avoid that? If I am a CEO, I owe it to my shareholders and a whole bunch of other people to help those things not happen.

Q: I think we’ve seen a shift towards realizing those economic costs. How do you see the string of high profile outbreaks–from spinach to cookie dough–playing in to this?

A: Those absolutely force people to move, but why do we have to go through that pain and agony? I can absolutely guarantee you that there is no good news that comes out of those.

It does catalyze change, no doubt. You’d think that we would have grown up enough where we would not have to go through something like that–and the inevitable tragedies that go with it.

Q: So have you been closely following the food safety bills in Congress?

A: Oh yeah. The fact is–what pissed me off–is that [Obama] had all this rhetoric about food safety. And this is way too important for excuse me–political flacks and communicators to be writing this.

I don’t want it to be political fodder. This should be apolitical and should be the kind of thing that if people want to comment on it they’ve read up on it. You don’t solve it by throwing five guys in a room for two days and hoping it fixes itself.

The systems that we have today, despite the failings we’ve had, are pretty good systems.

Q: You include both FDA and USDA in that assessment?

A: Absolutely. There are a lot of things that can be better, but they aren’t bad. The fact is we have a lot of things we can do within the FDA and USDA that would make a lot of things better pretty easily. They could help industry, if you will, nurture along a best practices approach.

They should be nurturing improvements in food safety. To some extent, the agencies are impediments because of all the hurdles you have to go through to get stuff done.

If you went to beef, poultry, and pork industries, and the “A-team” of the produce industry, and said, “You tell us, what is the best way to produce the safest food? What minimally must be done to ensure that?” They can give that to you.

My question is then, why are we letting everyone else in the food business produce food that is not to those standards? That doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s crazy.

That’s where the agencies can really make a difference. I have the highest respect for [high level officials at the USDA and FDA]. I mean, I have had people trying to get me to take those jobs, even today. And I wouldn’t be able to do it, for a lot of reasons. One being that I have a very low tolerance for bullshit, so I would probably be run out of town in about twelve minutes.

That aside, it’s a hard ass job.

Even if you know how to do something better, it’s very difficult to enact laws and set standards. You never make anyone happy, but hat I am hoping is that we can get responsible people that can show the agencies a better way–to help the agency raise standards and the bar for our basic commodities. It will make the whole food supply safer.

Q: I wonder how you see the small farmer argument in all of this. I am sure you have heard the clamoring from the sustainable, organic, and small farmer groups.

A: I am disappointed in those guys. I come from an Ag background. I gotta tell you, small does not mean bad.

But, why is it okay for someone to use 1950s and 60s processing technologies to supply food to people when we know there is a better way? My point is to these guys is, if you’re going to play in the food business today, whether you’re the small farmer or the organic guy, you need to play to a higher standard. That’s what it costs today. That’s what it costs to play.

I know plenty of small farmers who are doing it. I’ve seen some very small producers that are running some very sophisticated and very effective food safety and quality assurance programs. They do this because they think it’s the right thing to do. And sometimes they are at a competitive disadvantage for doing this, because someone else might not be. And how do you tell which ones do and which ones don’t? The answer is: you cant.

Q: So you think, for example, some of the exemptions for farmers who sell mostly directly to consumers at farmers markets are unfair?

A: I don’t know what to do with the guy with the backyard vegetable patch. I would expect that he picks up the best practices and does everything in his power to protect

the food. The other thing t
o remember is that if these guys create a problem, it’s going to be a small problem. To be quite honest, I am really more concerned with these big guys who supply produce to a bazillion restaurants and grocery stores, or meat to half the United States.

Q: I understand that you want to keep everyone to the same standards to even the playing field, but for medium- to smaller-sized producers are there economic barriers to entry to those levels of food safety?

A: No. Anyone can do this. All they have to do is decide that they want to do this. [This bill] doesn’t say exactly how to do it, it says there are certain kinds of things you should have in place. There are a lot of ways to make it happen.

Q: Do you think the food supply is safer now than it was in 1992?

A: Oh, it’s hugely safer. There are a lot of people who would like to make noise and say that its not, but I can tell you, all the stuff that’s going on in the beef industry, all the stuff in the restaurant industry, all the stuff in the produce industry, all the stuff in the fresh juices–all of that has happened since 1992.

Is it a perfect world? Can things be better than they are today?  The answer to that is of course they can. The question is, what can we do to help make them better?