The Food Safety Set: 21 People Who Have Shaped the Last 30 Years of Food Safety
In the 30 years since the Jack in the Box outbreak, food safety has come a long way. Here are some of the people who have shaped it.
JASON BRILL, JACQUELINE MITCHELL | JANUARY FEBRUARY 2023
Food Safety Over the Last 30 Years
By Steven Mandernach, executive director, 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.
In the 30 years since the 1992-93 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, food safety policies, advocacy and research have come a long way. While there’s still more to be done, here are some of the people who have helped shape the last 30 years of food safety. — stories by Jason Brill and Jacqueline Mitchell
Rosa DeLauro, The Representative
Rosa DeLauro, U.S. representative for Connecticut’s third congressional district since 1991, has long been vocal about food safety. She was a key leader in writing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in 2011. She championed regular inspections of high-risk industrial food facilities, food companies taking preventive measures, a better system for tracing food and imported food meeting U.S. safety standards. In July 2022, she and Sen. Dick Durbin (also a member of The Food Safety Set) introduced the Food Safety Administration Act, legislation that would establish the Food Safety Administration, a single food safety agency responsible for keeping the food Americans consume safe for market. She and Durbin have advocated for streamlining the country’s food safety system since 2015.
Darin Detwiler, The Professor
Darin Detwiler didn’t have to take up the foodborne illness cause after his son, Riley, died in 1993 due to E. coli as part of the Jack in the Box outbreak. But the former U.S. Navy submariner turned tragedy into an opportunity to advocate and educate, working with groups such as IAFP and STOP Foodborne Illness and advising government agencies such as FDA and USDA. With more than 20 years’ teaching experience, he’s currently an associate teaching professor of regulatory affairs of food and food industry at Northeastern University. He’s received many awards, including IAFP’s Ewen C.D. Todd Control of Foodborne Illness Award in 2022. It’s all been part of an effort to help prevent more deaths such as Riley’s. “If 3,000 families are dealing with [foodborne illness] every year, that’s 90,000 families since my son died,” he told us in 2021.
Nancy Donley, The Advocate
After the death of her son, Alex, in 1993 due to E. coli, Donley dedicated herself to extensive advocacy with STOP Foodborne Illness, including serving as the organization’s president. She worked collaboratively with federal food safety agencies, industry, academia and other consumer groups in advancing stronger food safety practices and policies. Donley participated in numerous media interviews in efforts to build awareness of foodborne risk and educate the public on how best to protect themselves. Among other awards, Donley received NSF International’s 2011 International Lifetime Achievement Award for her “extraordinary efforts, outstanding dedication, and endless passion for food safety.”
Dick Durbin, The Reformer
Now in his fifth term, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois co-authored the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act — signed into law in 2011 and described by FDA as the most comprehensive food safety reform in 70 years — after receiving a letter from the mother of a child who died in 1993 after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli. Most recently, in July 2022, he and former Chair of the House Appropriations Committee Rosa DeLauro (also a member of The Food Safety Set) introduced the Food Safety Administration Act, legislation that would establish the Food Safety Administration, a single food safety agency responsible for keeping the food Americans consume safe for market. Durbin and DeLauro have argued in favor of consolidating the country’s food safety functions into one independent agency since 2015.
Sandra Eskin, The Consultant
Sandra Eskin, deputy under secretary for food safety at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), spent nearly 20 years as a public-policy consultant to numerous consumer advocacy and public-interest organizations, providing strategic and policy advice on consumer protection issues such as food safety, dietary supplement safety and food and drug labeling and advertising. Prior to joining USDA, she was project director for food safety at The Pew Charitable Trusts. She currently oversees the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which last year proposed regulatory framework for a new strategy to control Salmonella contamination in poultry products. Aside from her food safety work, she is also an award-winning children’s playwright.
Jorge Hernandez, The Foodservice Pro
It’s easy to be inspired by Jorge Hernandez. Maybe that’s why he’s so often asked to be part of sessions and panels at events — such as Food Safety Summit and IAFP’s annual meeting — and serve on boards such as The Ohio State University’s Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention external advisory committee. Hernandez led the development of the ServSafe food safety training program for the National Restaurant Association, US Foods, where he led it to become the first U.S. distributor to obtain a GFSI certification, and Wholesome International. He is currently quality assurance vice president at The Wendy’s Co., where he has helped introduce new technologies aimed at improving quality and safety, such as a project using Google Glass to track certain processes at the restaurant level, and leveraging big data.
Bill Keene, The Epidemiologist
Bill Keene was a senior epidemiologist who, prior to his death in 2013, dedicated 23 years to the Oregon Health Authority’s Acute and Communicable Disease Prevention section. He and his team were able to trace the origins of numerous foodborne illnesses across the nation, including a 2008 Salmonella outbreak involving jalapeño peppers that sickened more than 1,200 and killed two people. Keene had a remarkable impact on the field of food safety and was known around the world for his persistence, curiosity and enthusiasm for fieldwork. Considered by many, including USA Today, as one of the nation’s foremost food safety sleuths, his work likely saved countless lives. Keene created the International Outbreak Museum in Portland, Ore.
Larry Keener, The Validator
Like a few members of The Food Safety Set, Larry Keener’s impact on food safety predates the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak, including when he led the Unilever team that successfully validated and commissioned the first bulk (200 gal) aseptic processing system used for the production and processing of diced tomatoes in 1991. An Institute of Food Technologists fellow, Keener formed International Product Safety Consultants, a food safety consulting group, in 1996. His work since in areas such as the use of pressure assisted thermal sterilization (PATS) in the production of low acid canned foods and low energy electron beam (LEEB) technology for use in pathogen reduction on whole spices and low moisture foods has helped transform food processing regulations.
Bill Marler, The Lawyer
Bill Marler is recognized as one of the most prominent foodborne illness lawyers in America and a major force in food policy in the U.S. and around the world. He began litigating foodborne illness cases in 1993 and has since represented victims of nearly every large foodborne illness outbreak in the U.S. “If you do everything you can to prevent illness, you’re likely to prevent illness,” he told QA magazine in 2020. “And if that’s not something you think is doable, then maybe you’re not in the right business.” Marler’s advocacy for a safer food supply includes petitioning the USDA to better regulate pathogenic E. coli, working with nonprofit food safety and foodborne illness victims’ organizations and helping spur the passage of FSMA.
Find out how we picked these 21 people.
James Marsden, The Problem Solver
James Marsden was enlisted to turn the food safety program around at Chipotle Mexican Grill in 2016 following a series of norovirus, E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks at various Chipotle locations. No stranger to crisis, Marsden, who has over 40 years of experience in the industry, previously served as vice president of scientific and technical affairs at the American Meat Institute, working to improve the meat inspection process following the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. A retired Kansas State University professor of meat science for 21 years, Marsden’s research focused on the safety of meat products and food safety training for the meat industry. Fun fact: he is father to actor James Marsden of “Enchanted” and “X-Men” fame.
Ann Marie McNamara, The Industry Stalwart
Currently the vice president of food safety and quality for supply chain at US Foods, Ann Marie McNamara’s other notable leadership roles include vice president of food safety and regulatory compliance at Jack in the Box, director of the microbiology division at USDA’s FSIS and more. She co-authored USDA’s Pathogen Reduction/HACCP rule that, for the first time, required microbiological testing and a risk-based approach to controlling hazards in foods. In 2022, IAFP presented her with their Food Safety Award in recognition of her long history of outstanding contributions to food safety research and education. McNamara delivered IAFP’s 2018 John H. Silliker Lecture, speaking on the topic of “Heroes Past and Future.”
Barack Obama, The President
In 2011, President Barack Obama signed the most sweeping reform of United States food safety in more than 70 years into law, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), with the goal of ensuring the country’s food supply is safe by shifting the focus to preventing contamination rather than responding to it. Since it was passed, FSMA’s legacy has continued to be built upon. During his presidency, Obama also advocated for condensing the country’s food safety operations into one agency to better monitor food safety and quality.
Lisa Robinson, The Driving Force
At each stop along her more than 30-year career, Lisa Robinson has pushed for improvements in quality and food safety. While at General Mills, she brought in lean manufacturing techniques before it was all the rage. At Target, she created and facilitated three new corporate training classes for new hires, including one offering a merchants’ level introduction to food safety and quality assurance. While serving as vice president of food safety and quality assurance at SunOpta Grains and Foods, she led new label regulation and FSMA implementation for the organization. In 2019, she became vice president of global food safety and public health at Ecolab, where she also serves as spokesperson on food safety and public health for the $42.3 billion company. This year, she was elected to the Stop Foodborne Illness board of directors.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, The International Activist
Caroline Smith DeWaal founded Safe Food International in 2004, where she helped develop guidelines for consumer organizations to promote national food safety systems, as well as an information resource to track food outbreaks in multiple world regions to identify emerging trends and public health priorities. For 21 years, she was the director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, where she directed policy formulation and execution on food safety issues and made numerous appearances before congressional committees to deliver testimony on food safety issues. She then spent five years as FDA’s International Food Safety Policy Manager, coordinating international projects and leading negotiations with foreign governments. She is now deputy director of EatSafe, working to improve food safety in countries with high rates of foodborne illness.
Trevor Suslow, The Produce Safety Specialist
As one QA advisory board member put it, Trevor Suslow “has been at the forefront of the research on food safety for leafy greens and is a driving force behind the food safety standards for produce. He’s smart, innovative and someone who is respected by industry, academia and regulators.” Suslow helped found DNA Plant Technology Corp. before joining the faculty at University of California-Davis, teaching and leading research around the safety and quality of whole and fresh-cut produce. Suslow also served as vice president of food safety at the Produce Marketing Association for two years. He’s been recognized for his impact, receiving IAFP’s 2018 Elmer Marth Educator Award and the 2019 IAFP President’s Recognition Award.
Dr. Robert Tauxe, The CDC Constant
Dr. Robert Tauxe first joined the CDC in 1985, where he played a role in foodborne illness outbreaks such as the 2008 jalapeno Salmonella outbreak. He also helped develop PulseNet, a network of state public health departments across the U.S. to keep track of E. coli O157 and other foodborne illness pathogens. “Because of PulseNet, we’re able to identify outbreaks sooner than we used to,” he told PBS back in 2002. “And we’re able to identify a new category of outbreaks that we never would have identified before.” Tauxe holds faculty appointments at the Emory University School of Public Health in the Department of International Health as well as the Emory University Department of Biology. He has authored or co-authored more than 250 scientific journal articles, letters and book chapters. After retiring from the agency in 2008, he stayed on as a civilian employee.
Mike Taylor, The Consumer Advocate
As administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Mike Taylor was the government official who, after the deadly Jack in the Box outbreak, ruled that the pathogen E. coli is an adulterant in meat. He helped establish a new food safety regulatory program to prevent foodborne illness from meat and poultry in response to the outbreak. He was Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at FDA for six years, where he oversaw implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). He currently co-chairs the board of STOP Foodborne Illness, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that supports victims of foodborne illness and their families in efforts to strengthen food safety culture and practices in government and industry.
Dave Theno, The Crusader
Dave Theno became head of Jack in the Box’s food safety shortly after the 1992-1993 E. coli outbreak and is credited by many with having saved the company. Theno’s prior positions include food safety and quality programs at Armour Food, Kellogg’s, Foster Farms and his own consulting company. Food safety industry veteran Bruce Ferree once wrote that Theno often said, “Food safety is not a competitive advantage. We need to share and work together to achieve this level of success.” His leadership in industry-wide improvement in food safety is recognized by many, including posthumously through the Dave Theno Food Safety Fellowship at STOP Foodborne Illness.
Craig Wilson, The Retailer
Craig Wilson’s title is probably longer than yours. He’s vice president, general merchandising manager of quality assurance/food safety, non-foods product safety and quality assurance, environmental services/HAZMAT and merchandise services for Costco Wholesale Corp. So, imagine having to say or write that out every time he gives a keynote address or joins an industry board, both of which happen a lot. Aside from numerous appearances at events such as the Food Safety Summit, Wilson has served on the steering committee for the National Food Safety Consortium and the technical committee at the Global Food Safety Initiative. And he’s not just a good talker. Wilson holds patents, such as one for steam pasteurization of food, and published a number of research papers covering food processing and safety.
Frank Yiannas, The Forward Thinker
Innovation is one of Frank Yiannas’ favorite words. He told us so himself in a 2019 QA cover story. “It’s important to advance food safety with change and innovation,” he said at the time. At each career stop he’s made, first at Walt Disney Co., then at Walmart and now at FDA, he’s helped usher in a transformation of some kind. Whether it’s food safety culture, which he’s written two books on, or traceability via blockchain, Yiannas has long advocated for and implemented technological innovations for food safety advancement and supply chain traceability and transparency and helped usher in FDA’s New Era for Smarter Food Safety. A registered microbiologist, he’s also taught as an adjunct professor at Michigan State University and received numerous industry awards, such as the 2015 Industry Professional Food Safety Hero Award from STOP Foodborne Illness.