Food Safety

Why Jack in the Box Still Matters

By ushering in audits, microbiological testing and HACCP, the chain’s E. coli O157:H7 poisonings continue to impact the industry.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

There is no doubt, the health and well-being of the people who consume processed products is a foods and beverages company's top priority.

The mask can safely drop at an industry event, as I was reminded at the 2017 Food Safety Consortium, which convened Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in suburban Chicago. In a recall workshop, one participant’s comments made it clear that her company’s well being was her top priority, and consumers who called with complaints about food-related illnesses or metal objects in products should be viewed with suspicion.

When the audience is food safety and quality managers and executives, that attitude is not the norm. Company loyalty is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of corrective action when there is a failure in delivering safe and nutritious products.

To that end, most food professionals are diligent and conscientious. Food safety specialists often are passionate about it. Their commitment was most evident in a panel discussion of a seminal event: the E. coli O157:H7 poisonings from Jack in the Box hamburgers.

The session originally was intended to fete Dave Theno, a microbiologist who was hired as the fast food chain’s first food safety director in the wake of the tragedy. Sadly, Mr. Theno drowned several months earlier. Former colleagues, associates and friends picked up the ball to provide context for the 1993 poisonings and their impact on the industry.

Leading food scientists and authorities populated the panel, including Michael Taylor, a former FDA deputy commissioner and FSIS administrator, and Ann Marie McNamara, who succeeded Theno at JIB when he retired. Emotionally wrenching commentaries were provided by Darin Detwiler of Northeastern University and Barbara Kowalcyk of Ohio State University.

Apart from their academic credentials in food safety and epidemiology, both were parents of very young children who became ill from pathogenic E. coli and succumbed to hemolytic uremic syndrome, which ravages the digestive tract. Twenty-five years later, “There are some that do not take this as seriously as others,” Detwiler ruefully observed.

The panelists credited Theno with demonstrating the effectiveness of biological sampling and a HACCP-based approach in restaurants to contaminant control. Left unsaid was his disruption of face-value acceptance of supplier assurances: He pioneered customer inspections of production facilities, an unusual practice in the early ’90s. That paved the way for the independent food safety audits that now are standard practice in all industry sectors, not just meat and poultry.

Before JIB, buck-passing and shrugs accompanied deaths and illnesses from adulterated meat, some panelists recalled. Beef processors foisted responsibility on USDA inspectors, while the agency put the onus on consumers who failed to adequately cook ground beef. “What’s evolved is an understanding that the interests of consumers are aligned with the industry’s interests,” noted Taylor.

His comment recalls the crisis of confidence in the safety of processed foods that emerged during high-profile recalls that reached a head with Peanut Corp. of America. Before that, melamine in pet food, milk powder and infant formula and E. coli-related recalls of ground beef (close to 35 million lbs. in 2007 alone) were seemingly daily headlines. The suspicion engendered by those events jump-started the wave of start-up companies that are chipping away at Big Food’s customer base.

Plaintiff’s attorney William Marler called the USDA’s war on E. coli O157:H7 “a huge success story,” in part because the cost of recalls and multi-million-dollar settlements forced beef processors to change their business model and invest heavily in preventive actions. Sampling of raw ground beef by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service for O157:H7 this year is producing positive results 0.09 percent of the time, down from 0.87 percent in 2001, pointed out William Shaw, FSIS’s food safety risk manager.

But FDA-regulated food companies lag behind. Incidents of foodborne illness are “stubbornly resistant to change,” noted Stephen Ostroff, a deputy commissioner at FDA, with Campylobacter and Salmonella cases unchanged since the 1990s. Better diagnostics and surveillance systems mask progress in processor performance, Ostroff suggested, though continuous improvement is needed.

“We have an administration focused on reducing regulatory burdens,” he allowed. “What are the implications” for FSMA’s preventive-control rules? To date, the White House has not requested any relaxation in enforcement, and the new commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, has signaled his commitment to food safety, according to Ostroff.

For food professionals, that commitment means erring on the side of caution. Part of the cost has been a four-fold increase in recalls in the past five years, at an average direct cost of $10 million per event, according to Julie McGill of the supply chain software firm Foodlogiq. Those costs are as likely to be borne by cereal manufacturers as fresh meat processors.

Marler, who has morphed from industry pariah to food safety lion, reminisced about his friendship with Theno, beginning with 21 hours over three days of depositions in the Jack in the Box case. Those settlements made Marler a multi-millionaire and cost the chain $120 million.

“Tragedies still happen,” he conceded, but while hamburger E. coli events accounted for 90 percent of his income in the 1990s, they now contribute zero.