modern meat
is your meat safe?
industrial meat
photo of thenointerview: david theno

What did the E. coli outbreak of 1993 that Jack in the Box was involved with do to the company?

The event changed the company -- and to some extent, food safety in this country -- forever. And while we barely survived the early days, one of the things that the company resolved to do was to be a leader in food safety, and to set standards in food safety, and then to share those with people, to help, if we could, avert things like this from happening again.

So what sort of things changed? ... Somebody said to us, "You cannot underestimate the importance of that event."

That would be an absolutely true statement. After the event, some of the things that we did right away is, we changed a number of practices and procedures in restaurants. We installed something called a HACCP system, ... Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. It actually is a food safety management system that, prior to that time, had never been fully installed in a restaurant. They were in place in manufacturing plants.

David Theno is vice president of technical services at Jack in the Box. At the height of the E. coli crisis in 1993, in which 700 people became ill and four children died after eating at Jack in the Box restaurants, the company hired Theno away from his consulting business in Modesto, Calif. He changed the company's entire food-safety program, and some credit him with saving Jack in the Box from dissolution.

We instituted microbial sampling in ground beef for E. coli O157:H7. People said it couldn't be done, said that you would have to do too much sampling, too expensive, not a control system, not effective. We put it in, and it's been running terrifically since mid-1993.

Jack in the Box today has the highest quality ground beef that I believe is available in North America.  But our products, I will not guarantee, are free of pathogens in the raw state.

We instituted supply chain differences. ... People said suppliers would never do these kinds of things, [that] no one in their right mind would do that. Well, today, those are the way business is done in food safety and in protein products.

And all of these things stemmed from the event in 1993. ... Today, as I said, that's largely the way things are done. Not everyone follows the procedures that we do. But you'd be very surprised to see the amount of things that are being done out there that have very close similarities to what we do everyday.

What was the incentive for the other companies, the suppliers, to make the changes you were asking -- if not demanding -- of them?

When we discussed these changes with people, one of the things that came up was, what is the future going to look like in food safety? Everyone could see food safety and quality were moving. So I would tell you, the more progressive people took a look and said, "The world is more likely to be where Jack in the Box wants to go than where we are today." Those are the people that moved along. ...

You came from a background of food safety and the food business. But you sort of took on a new job when you came to Jack in the Box. Were you surprised by the conditions out there at the time?

... Oh, no. I came from the manufacturing world; I pretty much knew the gamut. And frankly, many of the industries had leaders. They had kind of what I'm going to call followers, and then they had resisters. That's how technology changes. The adopters and leaders would pick the stuff up. And once they approved it, the middle guys would get it. And some people just never changed. ...

Leaders and followers and resisters are one way of describing it. But are there good plants out there and bad plants out there? ...

Oh, of course. ... And part of the reason we have the systems that we do is to make sure that the people that are partners are continuing to do a good job. And we're always assessing new people. ... And really, there are people that are exceptional; there are people that really don't perform well. The people that are exceptional have very good employee practices. Their food safety systems are well managed and organized. They understand microbial control. ... The idea is you select people that do well over here because they're going to create less problems for you. ...

Does that mean that there would be one packing company, for instance, that's good, and one that's not good? Or does it break down even further than that?

It actually breaks down even further than that. We will find, for instance, sometimes in a large company, that most of their plants are terrific, but a couple of them are old, or for some reason are not managed as well, and won't perform as well. And they won't be part of our supply base.

But the only way to know that is to measure them all, and to assess them microbially. Visit, audit, if you will. See what their practices are, and what their performance looks like.

... So what sort of criteria are you looking at when you're trying to select a [meat] supplier?

... First of all, their microbial performance. We do audits of the plants. We go in and visit them. We look at their records and how they do. And then we look at what they really do. We audit their behaviors and practices, things in the plant like the use of foot dips and sanitizers. Do people use gloves? How do they interact on the line? ... Are the temperatures right? Are the products protected from things? Are people leaving boxes of screws or something up on machines? Are metal detectors working right? ... To audit a plant takes about a day and a half. ...

You don't own the suppliers. You don't even own the grinding plant. So how can you guarantee that the raw materials coming in to the grinder are safe?

The only way to guarantee that these products are safe is that our suppliers and ourselves work as total partners. And that means controlling together, from source all the way through production in their plants. ...

Collectively, we go back to people that supply meat to us, or chicken to us, with the people that do the processing, back to the slaughter plants. And we make sure those plants are OK. Then we audit those plants together. Then we have agreements about how the testing will be done and what happens in their plants.

While we do not own those plants, we have a very good relationship, and it is like we are partners in that plant and that production. ...

How has the hamburger changed? ...

The hamburger that's available today in restaurants has changed a vast amount in the last nine years. The level of microbial testing that's going on, how animals are slaughtered, microbial interventions -- virtually all of this has happened since 1993. ...

I think in our last conversation you mentioned something about IBP. You buy from some of the plants and not from other plants?

Yes, IBP is a terrific supplier. They are one of our primary suppliers. But they've got some plants that we don't buy from today.

And what does that mean, that you wouldn't buy from them? Why wouldn't you?

There could be a number of reasons. But most likely is, as we've surveyed them, we've found that their microbial performance isn't as good as some of their other plants. Whether that's in employee practices or something, I don't know. But IBP has good systems and good plants. And they are our primary beef supplier.

... You do all this research to find the best plants, and you monitor them very closely. For the average person out there, how do they know whether they're buying safe meat or not?

... If you're going to go to a grocery store, look at the freshness of the product. Look at the shelf life on there and ask them about their food safety systems. Ask them who they buy from. The butcher might not know, but they'll probably put you in touch with someone you can call. But just as Jack in the Box doesn't know if they don't ask, neither can you as a consumer. ...

What do you do when you go to the grocery store looking for ground beef?

I have certainly an advantage in that I know where people buy, and I know the products, the people that they use. And I frankly buy from people that I know have really good programs.

So you actually can read the bar code and determine what plant it's coming from?

I don't do that. But I actually know what the supply bases look like for most of the major chains.

This is a complicated problem for most consumers, because they don't have the same access to information that you do, nor are they in the field of studying it. So it becomes very difficult.

That's true. Although, you know, it's easy to over-complicate this for a consumer. Frankly, [for] all ground beef today, our programs control microbial threats to the greatest extent technically possible. ...

[Consumers] can do the same things we do: make sure the products they get are fresh, look good, are cold, not discolored or things like that; keep them refrigerated and cold; follow shelf life information, coded information. And then when you cook them and prepare them, make sure you wash and sanitize your hands. Clean your utensils. ... Ground beef should not be served medium rare or rare. Juices should run clear. Internal temperatures should be over 155. ... Rare hamburgers need to be a thing of the past.

Why is it a thing of the past? What's changed that makes it impossible or unsafe to have a rare hamburger?

Today we know that there are pathogens in these products that can cause illness, injury, and even, conceivably, death. ... There's a number of bacteria that can be present, and no testing program in the world today can guarantee that there's none in there. That's just not possible.

What can a testing program do? A testing program can make sure that if it's there, it's at a very low, manageable level. But what can a consumer do to make sure that they're not exposed to that? By thoroughly cooking [meat], all those bacteria are killed, and that hazard or that risk is controlled. And that's why it has to be done.

Jack in the Box today has the highest quality ground beef that I believe is available in North America and, conceivably, in the world today, from a microbial standpoint. But our products, I will not guarantee, are free of pathogens in the raw state. So if I gave you a box of Jack in the Box hamburgers, raw hamburgers, and you said, "I want to have these medium rare because of your testing program," I'm going to tell you, "No, you won't. You're going to fully cook those."

We've learned what these pathogens can do. But is there something that has changed in the industry that has made these pathogens more prevalent in our meat?

I don't think they're more prevalent. As a matter of fact, I think that these pathogens have always been out there, to some extent. Certainly our detection capabilities are greater than they've ever been to find them. People said, "Well, E. coli O157 is a new pathogen [that] sprang on the scene." Well, there was an outbreak in 1982. In Canada, it's been called "the hamburger disease" for quite a long time.

Now, it was a very difficult organism to culture and to find. But as detection capabilities have come along, we've found that it was a lot more widespread than we thought it was. And in fact, that's the case with most of these pathogens. We've found that they're there. ... Bacteria preceded us on this planet, and will probably be here after we're gone. ...

Explain in a concrete way that we can understand why it's so hard to get these little guys.

Controlling bacteria in a restaurant or in a plant or even in the home is problematic because you can't see them. They're microscopic. They're not visible with the naked eye. ... They are single-celled.

They have adapted to life in the world as we know it for a long time. They're easy to spread. You can't see them. Every one of us has them on our hands and bodies today. And the secret to it is, the ones who are with us today are probably OK for us. They're benign, and in fact, they may even help us live, synthesize vitamins and digest food. Pathogens -- like salmonella and E. coli and campylobacter, and some of those guys -- those are bad actors. And they can make us sick and cause illnesses and even kill us. So the secret is making sure that we control these bad guys. And the problem is, you can't see them. ...

Some people have said to us that [pathogens are] in part a result of the huge centralization that we have now in the preparation and production of the meat. Do you see that as an issue? ...

Well, it can broadcast these pathogens. If you get a number of animals in a feedlot and one of them has a pathogen -- it's a shared community, you know, water troughs and everything -- they can be spread within the animals. The larger plants produce more product, and consequently, if a problem gets in, it can be broadcast to a bigger spectrum of people.

Although today I would also tell you that another piece of this is that we have better detection capabilities. So we can look at levels way better than we used to. What does that mean? It used to be it took a lot of organisms, a lot of bacteria, to be found. Today, one of those little guys is findable with some of this technology that we have. ... We have gene probe analyses that we can look for genetic material from these bacteria, like DNA testing.

In the old days, you had to take some stuff out and put it on a plate and grow it, and see what grew, and maybe pick a few off and isolate them. It's a very analytical, bench-driven system. Today we've got terrific technology that enables us to find things at very low levels.

We can see them more, sure. But also, before, food-borne illnesses made you sick; now we find with some of these that they can actually kill you.

... People often say, "They're causing illnesses today, and they never did before." Well, that's just not true. There were illnesses before; we just didn't have a good way to find them. Today, we have ... a food-safety net that looks at all food-borne illnesses around the country and starts to look for patterns. In fact, it uses genetic fingerprints to see who belongs to who. So the reality is, we were having food-borne illnesses, serious illnesses and deaths, before we had this level of sophistication. We just many times didn't know what had caused it.

But at the same time, if you had a diseased cow, the 10 people who ate it got sick. Now, because of the way the food system works, that cow may end up in far more products sent out to 30 states in a week.

That's true. So it's the case of one animal that's problematic creating a larger problem. That's why the up-front control systems are all the more important. If you are going to bring these animals to a larger venue where it can be spread more widely, you need to control their access, make sure that there's not a problem. And then you need to monitor to make sure you haven't created that problem, which is what our microbial testing programs do. As I said, they can't guarantee zero. But they're designed to make sure that waves of problems do not enter our food supply. ...

Isn't there ... an inherent risk in such a centralized food system? We certainly see it now in terms of the bioterrorism threat and concerns about that. The fact that we have consolidated so much makes it so vulnerable. In the old days, the smaller plants, the food could have been safer.

That's a widely held notion, ... that the small plants were safer, slower, and that the old days were better, and that now it's riskier. That's actually not true. ... The reality is the new plants, and the big plants, and larger people, have more money to spend on technology. And I'm not saying small is bad. There are people that have small plants [who] do a great job, but it's harder to do it without these technologies that are available to you. ...

One of the effects of 1993 -- not specifically here at Jack in the Box -- is that it led to an entirely new inspection system in the country in some ways, or it was connected to that. Has that been a good change?

I believe that the changes to the inspection system have been long in coming. The USDA today and FDA have also mandated the use of HACCP-based food-safety systems. Interestingly enough, before 1993, HACCP-based systems were used in many food-manufacturing plants already. ... The leaders were already using HACCP-based systems. By the USDA and FDA going there, it said [that] everyone else has to go there, too. We know that these risk-based control systems are better. So if it helped move more people into those systems, it has improved and helped food safety.

Now, with HACCP, you're looking at these critical control points. But one thing that I was struck by in your plant and from talking to you is that you do a lot of testing to make sure that it's clean, more than any other fast food company, certainly. And you test at the end of the line. How important is that testing for the microbes in the process?

The testing for microbes is actually the report card on how you're doing. If you don't test, you don't know how effective you've been in doing these things. Testing has to be kept in perspective. Testing is very difficult as an online real-time control system. But you have to test to make sure that your systems have been effective. It's a verification system that the other systems are working.

If it's so important, why have we seen the meat industry fight these minimal tests as aggressively as we've seen them fight it?

Many people believe that the government might not do a good job with the testing, that it might not be done correctly. ...

There is not a progressive meat company out there today that is not doing more and more detailed microbial sampling than the government is requiring. They're doing it themselves to control their plant.

Now, do they say, "We don't want the government doing it"? Some of them do. But they already, all the progressive people -- in fact, virtually all people today in the meat industry -- are doing some kind of microbial sampling themselves to gauge how they're doing, partly because they're being measured by the government.

But if you don't have those standards, the best actors are going to do above and beyond what the government standards are anyway, because they care to do so. The testing seems to be there for the ones that aren't doing that. It just is somewhat alarming to see the significant players within the meat industry fighting those standards. ...

Well, there's always resistance to change; just to be clear, not where we are, as Jack in the Box. We're strongly supportive of these standards, and don't really understand fully ourselves where that resistance is coming from.

What does it tell us about the meat industry?

The meat industry is not one voice, first. And there's a common perception that the whole meat industry is either good or bad or something. But we would not be where we are in food safety today were not a number of people in the meat industry leading and setting new standards and raising the bar. Most of the technology that's enabled us to get where we are today has been driven by the meat industry.

However, remember, this is an industry that's been around for 100 years-plus in this country, organized. And there are some people that say, "How we've done it up to this stage is fine. Why should we change? It's been good enough so far." ...

Many people are concerned that the meat industry and players within there have made an effort to fight minimal controls. It tends to lend credence to the argument that HACCP is letting the fox guard the chicken coop.

Yes, I've heard that kind of thinking. HACCP is a better system. Anyone in the food-safety world that I live in will tell you that HACCP-based systems are the best food-safety management tool that we have today. ...

But there are some companies that haven't bought into the system?

Yes, there are.

One of the other things you hear about HACCP when you talk to some of the inspectors is that they feel that in some of these companies, potentially, that the inspection is not being done right, and that they are not in a position to make it happen in the way they once were. What do you make of these inspectors' complaints?

I certainly understand their concern. But if you really take a look at it, the reality is, their responsibility for food safety in the plant has not changed. In fact, I would make the case that by taking some of these tasks and putting them on someone else, we have released that guy from an online inspection system and allowed him to take a broader view to make sure that the whole system is being operated properly. And if anything, it should give our inspection staff broader latitude to say the process is on control or it's not. ...

Do you think that the USDA has done a good job of training the inspectors for this new inspection system -- that there is a clear understanding, both by the inspectors, and by the people in the company, about how to implement the system?

That's a good question. And from some of the questions I've heard from inspection personnel, I think the training has been done better in some places than others. I happen to know that there are a number of inspectors that have signed up and said, "This is a great system." I've also heard people loudly complain, "This system is nothing but a sham," and gives, as you said, the fox control of the henhouse.

I've successfully used HACCP systems for most of my career. And to have a guy say that certainly goes right across from what I know and believe. I just have to believe that they just don't really understand the concept, or have not been fully apprised of how these systems work.

Some of the problem may be that HACCP as a system is a very good one within a company, within a defined space. But is it an appropriate regulatory system? Because not only are these inspectors' complaints that they don't know what their job is, or they can't do their job, or they're prevented from doing their job, or whatever it is. But you also hear that companies submit to the USDA their HACCP plan, but the government never has to sign off on it. ...

Yes, there is a gap here. And it's actually talked about in the industry. You're describing something that's well known. There are companies called operational or corporate HACCP programs. And then [there is] regulatory HACCP. ...

One of the fundamentals of a HACCP system, it says that you're going to manage your own world. You're going to say, "This is what's important," and you're going to systematically make sure it stays in control. Well, that means that sometimes you're going to find that your system is out of control. Part of HACCP is that when you do that, you correct the problem. ... You do a corrective action, and then you monitor to make sure you've fixed the problem, and you go on.

That works well on just a management system. But where we've tried to interact that with regulatory HACCP -- where now that you're out of control, you have to take some action and record it -- and that's a regulatory thing. Those systems have had a very difficult time merging. ... And I'm not sure that that process is complete or sorted out yet.

Do you find an irony in the fact that a fast-food company has higher safety and quality standards than the U.S. government inspection system?

Oh, I don't find that ironic at all. ... The agency has moved slowly with advancing technology, but they're moving more rapidly. And I think that [with] the HACCP initiatives and some of the other things that are going on, the agency is actually raising the bar [and] is following the progressive people in the industry. Most of the resistance to that change is coming from people who don't feel like the bar should be raised. ...

The meat industry is a particularly hard one to change?

Well, it's shown remarkable resistance to change. Yes, I'd agree with that. ...

Does it bother you that food has become more a process like Henry Ford than the farm?

Well, I grew up on a farm, and in that kind of environment, outdoors. And frankly, Henry Ford did a lot of things right. And I think having that capability will enable us to raise the bar.

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