I personally had never heard of Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches until four years ago.
Several University of Colorado sorority women were ill; specifically they were hurling like sailors getting off a winter patrol on the North Atlantic.
I was asked to investigate. Since then I’ve been paying attention.
Jimmy John’s is largely a franchise operation. It has more than 1,000 units in 40 states, and 95 percent are franchise-owned.
Founder Jimmy John Liautaud is partly an American entrepreneur success story. His father loaned him the money to start a hot dog stand, and that business evolved into selling sandwiches.
Since those sorority sisters got sick in 2008, raw sprouts served on Jimmy John’s sandwiches have been associated with several more outbreaks, now including an outbreak of infections from the rare O26 strain of E. coli.
Liautaud, who owns 67 percent of Jimmy John’s after selling 33 percent of the company to the San Francisco private equity firm, Weston Presidio, is clearly following his own playbook for how to manage public relations following a foodborne illness outbreak.
For several days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Jimmy John’s was linked to still more contaminated sprouts, Liautaud failed to respond to any media calls. And he still hasn’t directly.
His franchise owners were the first to learn that sprouts were being permanently dropped from the Jimmy John’s menu, and his customer relations people shared the news with consumers.
Rather than step forward with some show of empathy for his customers suffering with O26 illness, or sharing some of what he’s learned about the risks inherent in raw sprouts, the word out of Jimmy John’s is simply that the new policy is because sprout supplies are “too inconsistent.”
Then there is the cowering executive’s best friend – Facebook. On those safe pages, Liautaud accuses CDC of “bullying” Jimmy John’s.
“Anyway,” he writes. “Gov is no longer here to serve us we are here to serve them and those who vote for them. Onward an upward! Peace, jimmy.”
Oh, boo hoo, Jimmy. Man up for God’s sake. Take some responsibility. Pay the medical bills of your sickened customers. Name all your sprout suppliers.
Better yet, hold a press conference and offer up some ideas on what the problem is with raw sprouts. You’ve got more experience than most in trying to buy them, and we will stipulate that you’ve been “trying” to buy safe sprouts.
Until he does something like that, I am going to be pretty disappointed in Mr. Liautaud.
And speaking of disappointment, last Tuesday’s “Boss Talk” column in the Wall Street Journal was a real disappointment. I was first excited because the subject was Yum Chief Executive Officer David Novak.
Taco Bell is the largest unit of Yum and I was fully expecting Novak would comment on last year’s 10-state Salmonella outbreak, which sickened at least 68 people. WSJ’s Julie Jargon, however, did not bring it up and Novak did not volunteer anything.
As Gomer Pyle use to say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”
In her introduction, Jargon did note that a lawsuit charging that Taco Bell tacos are more filler than beef has been withdrawn. She also asked Novak what he is doing to “innovate” at Taco Bell. He said the company has partnered with Frito-Lay to come up with a proprietary taco shell and a new premium product line.
After that, the interview was all about China, India, and even France, with no reference to food safety, the need to clean up its act, or anything about how a company that made $1.3 billion in profit on $12.6 billion in sales last year might help out customers it injured.
Food Safety News came in for some attention last week from Amy Kavanaugh, vice president of public affairs for Taco Bell. She charged in the Huffington Post that it is a conflict of interest for the food safety law firm Marler Clark to underwrite Food Safety News.
Conflict of interest? I ordinarily would not think twice about being called ugly by a pig.
But think about this. People know who it was that injured them simply because Food Safety News investigated and published the name of the restaurant chain.
Now that Taco Bell has been identified, the injured are certainly free to go hunting for an attorney who might sue Taco Bell on their behalf.
And although a Marler Clark client was the first to file a complaint against Taco Bell last week, there is nothing new or unusual about that. Our efforts gave Marler Clark no edge in that race, whatsoever.
In this era, it’s pretty easy to find out — in about 10 minutes — who is among the best at just about everything. Victims of foodborne illness don’t have any problem finding Marler Clark, which is America’s foremost food safety law firm. (That’s just a fact.)
We are grateful to have Marler Clark as our founding underwriter, and it’s also great to be picking up additional sponsors. But our mission is to provide readers with information about foodborne illness and how best to avoid it. We’ve attempted to build something that gives consumers access to information about food safety that we think should be public.
If that results in some corporation being sued for selling an allegedly unsafe product, when through government secrecy they might have gotten away with it … well, like I said earlier … boo hoo!