Food Safety: We need more Heart as well as Head

I was at my favourite food safety conference in the US recently (IAFP – International Association of Food Protection) and was touched to hear tributes to Dave Theno, who had died in a freak swimming accident. Dave was brought in as the food safety guy to fix food chain Jack in the Box after the seminal E. coli 0157 outbreak in 1993. What particularly grabbed me was that Dave had a close relationship with Lauren Rudolph’s family, the 6 year old who was one of 4 fatalities in the outbreak and, although Dave was a technical person through and through, he often said that he referred to a photo of Lauren when making food safety management decisions, asking himself “What would Lauren want me to do?”.

That he did this, and the fact that the story has become a part of Jack in the Box’s narrative, has contributed to the company now being cited as a leading light in the area of food safety culture. This story has become food safety folklore, and while too many people still die each year from foodborne illness, others will be spared because of the awareness Dave has build up amongst food workers and managers, not just at Jack in the Box.  

The lack of such stories in the UK and frequent cases of poor practices, as exampled by the recent 2 Sisters exposé, makes me question the level of food safety culture in the UK. Some sort of measurement at a national level would be good, but frequent negative press gives the appearance that cost cutting and profits are valued more than building a culture that ensures employees are always trying to do the right thing.

If there is a real difference, between the UK and the US for example, what could some possible reasons be? In the US conference I often found myself talking to someone who was the company's ‘Head of Food Safety’, yet in the UK it is the ‘Head of Technical’. Some US figures even verge on celebrity status, such as Frank Yiannis from Walmart, who has authored books on food safety culture and often speaks on this topic.  The litigious nature of the US might also be a reason, but if this leads to a focus on food safety, maybe it is not altogether a bad thing. I’m not saying the US has a perfect food system, far from it. But a focus on food safety and the people who are impacted is one thing I believe we should learn from our friends across the Atlantic.

I see some good things happening, like the new BRC module of food safety culture excellence put together with Taylor Shannon International, but there is a long way to go. Lets start a discussion on how we can bring more positive stories and practices to enhance food safety for the benefit of all.