ROSEMONT, IL — Today Food Safety Summit 2020 featured Will Daniels with a keynote presentation titled “Back to Basics: Consumer-Focused Food Safety.”

 Daniels is currently president of the produce division at IEH, where he oversees lab and consulting services for the produce industry. Daniels previously worked as the chief food integrity officer at Earthbound Farms, where he was responsible for food safety, food quality and overseeing their organic integrity program.

 Daniels’ diverse background in various food safety sectors of production gives him a first-person view when he speaks about how companies can become more consumer-focused in their food safety programs.

 “Wearing masks matter. Black lives matter. Our consumers matter,” Daniels said, “We need to slow down and focus more on the human being.”

He started the presentation by focusing on our past year in the U.S. He explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us as a nation to focus on the individual. And to be more socially responsible.

 “The stories I’ve heard have been nothing short of spectacular,” Daniels said, explaining the lengths the industry went to keep the employees safe — distancing, face masks, face shields, plexiglass. What has always impressed him the most about food industry players, he said, is how quickly they can respond to a crisis.

Will Daniels is currently president of the produce division at IEH.

Daniels explained how the COVID-19 crisis has shown us how important leadership is. “We need a clear message from the top. Because we haven’t responded well from the top, we have not responded well as a country. Everyone in your organization needs to realize the threat. This is a tragedy and something we will not forget in our lifetime.”

Most important to Daniels is to keep this momentum and turn it into positive change. “What if we put as much focus on food safety as we have on Covid-19? Would we see as much success?”

How can we convince leadership that Food Safety is important?
Though there is a low likelihood of severe food poisoning happening, Daniels explained that does not mean it won’t happen. If you are in the food business, you are feeding children, mothers, sons, daughters and the list goes on. Daniels said he regrets not focusing enough on the consumers. He says that if the industry was more focused on consumers, we wouldn’t see the same numbers of recalls and outbreaks.

Food safety icon Dave Theno, who became head of Jack in the Box’s food safety shortly after the 1992-1993 outbreak, used to carry around a photo of Lauren, a young girl who died during that outbreak. He would always pull out the photo of Lauren when faced with a food safety question.

Daniels explained he has a photo, too. It is of a 2-year-old boy that died from contaminated spinach in his smoothie. The boy’s name was Kyle. Daniels was part of the food safety program in charge at the time of the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak that killed Kyle. He says he has only recently been able to talk about this.

“The thought of losing any of my family, losing a child has to be the worst thing. My daughter loves raw fruits and vegetables. And as I rinse these items, I think about my daughter. And how rinsing them won’t remove the pathogens. I still have to rely on every person in the supply chain. It’s a daunting thought.”

Why would we possibly want to make food that would make someone sick?
Daniels explained how the psyche of the food industry has changed to satisfy the business customers and not the consumers. The consumers continue to move farther and farther away. The consumer has become the furthest thing from the process at this point, Daniels said, but he also said he thinks the pendulum has started to swing the other way.

“Food Network is bringing us back to food. And show us the human aspect of the food.” Daniels appreciates how culture brings light to the food industry and even into the kitchen. Farmers’ markets, ethnic food, and supermarkets are all-around. “Consumers are becoming more savvy everyday. They are gaining new insights.”

If regulation is not enough, how do we convince?
Put people in front of the food safety team. That is what we need. The company determines the level of risk they are willing to take. It becomes real when it’s someone close to you. 

Daniel sees it as similar to this year in our attempts to “flatten the curve.” As Gov. Cuomo of New York said, “The cost of a human life should be considered priceless.”

Daniels says that it is important to show our leaders that foodborne illness is a nasty thing. And we need to tell the stories of those affected by it. 

Daniels ended his presentation by talking about food safety attorney Bill Marler. “Bill Marler is a hero to me. He defended ill consumers in the Earthbound case. He never engages with companies, unless they have made people sick. These are individuals who are stuck with a lifetime of illness. If we don’t make them sick, he won’t come after us. He has asked us for 30 years to put him out of business. Let’s put our focus on consumers and put Bill Marler out of business.”

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Editor’s note: Bill Marler is the publisher of Food Safety News.