Editor’s note: This column and profiles of the 16 food safety champions (four not pictured above) was originally published by Quality Assurance magazine. It is reprinted here with permission. To read profiles of the individual food safety professionals referenced in the column, please click here.

By Steven Mandernach, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials


When I talk to food safety leaders across the country and from around the world, we often discuss what has changed, how things are different. Many pathogens are the same: Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes continue to be persistent foodborne illness pathogens of concern, though significant progress has been made with all. Many, such as Cyclospora, norovirus and Hepatitis A, were largely unknown as potential foodborne illnesses. Produce and eggs were not known vehicles for illness, yet they have dominated much of the last 30 years of illnesses. In 1992, we hadn’t really thought that what happens at the farm level can affect food safety throughout the supply chain. 

Thirty years ago, a food safety professional’s work often focused on cleanliness and hygiene, but today, it’s more focused on process and prevention. Our facilities and establishments now often have and are required to have HACCP or food safety plans along with well-developed standard operating procedures. Further, we recognize that much of food safety isn’t necessarily based in microbiology, but rather soft “power” skills such as human behavior. 

Technologically speaking, cell phones were a thing of Hollywood 30 years ago, computers were somewhat rare, and handheld devices were on Star Trek, not found in the real world. Today, we are in an age of instant communication, and information expectations are immediate for everyone in the food chain, including the farmer, consumer and regulator. Further, laboratory testing that may have taken weeks or longer now often takes hours or only minutes. Also, we are regularly using DNA fingerprinting, which has advanced greatly since 1992, to identify smaller and smaller clusters for outbreaks. Many outbreaks now can be solved in days rather than weeks or months. 

Today, like then, we have many curious food safety professionals asking questions and advancing the body of knowledge. We have many areas that require yet more research, for example, on the transmission of pathogens through produce. Knowledge of Cyclospora remains tiny, and we have yet to find the silver bullet for human behavior, which is likely the most challenging component of food safety. 

One common factor across the past 30 years is people. We have had talented people and policy makers in industry, academia, regulatory, public health and consumer groups who have been unwilling to accept the status quo. These passionate food safety leaders insisted on and expected food safety to improve with knowledge, and they pushed to develop the knowledge where none existed. Work by these leaders has nearly eliminated some pathogens such as botulism, made significant reductions in others and kept the spotlight and focus in the public and C-suite on food safety. 

As we reflect on the 30th anniversary of the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, which in so many ways provided increased awareness of foodborne illness, we need to celebrate the people who have helped improve the safety of our national and global food supplies. These people have persevered where their message was often unpopular and expensive, and they managed to truly impact our world. 

These leaders would likely tell the emerging food safety leaders a few important things. 

  • You will always want more information than is available — but react with prevention and mitigation in mind, rather than complete certainty.
  • Not everything works. Periodic failures and persistence lead to successes.
  • Think, hypothesize, experiment and try: These actions result in improvements in food safety and the reduction of illness.
  • Build a community: Nothing can be accomplished alone. Everything requires friends, colleagues, critics and others.
  • Mentor and collaborate with others to build the next community of leaders.

Most importantly, though, do what’s right to prevent human illness. These leaders featured in the following pages can each be credited with work that improved food safety and further limited or reduced human illness. Food consumers — all of us — thank them for their courage, leadership and persistence in making food safer and reducing foodborne illness.

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