Dave Theno: Remembering the Man behind the Headlines
By Barbara VanRenterghem, Ph.D.
What is the best way to honor someone whose life’s work shaped an entire industry? How do we as an industry ensure his legacy?
As the news of Dave’s death on Monday, June 19, 2017, after he was hit by a large wave while swimming with his grandson off the island of Lana’i in Hawaii, spread throughout the country, disbelief and shock, later replaced by heartbreak, shook an entire industry to its very core.
Whether you knew him at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or when he was the director of food safety at Foster Farms, it’s likely that you were witness to someone who had an amazing sense of how to connect the dots: how to take a program designed and developed by Pillsbury for NASA’s space program and install it at a meat or poultry production plant. But it goes much further. Here was someone who understood how to inspire and empower people. Line workers at Foster were given the authority to take product off the line if they thought it wasn’t right for any reason. He gave them a reason to care about the work they were doing.
Bob White, president of Foster Farms, embraced Dave’s holistic view of delivering safe, high-quality product to their customers. Dave took the lead and worked with the live production, the technical staff, the processing plants, the sales staff and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) to meet the expectations of consumers and Foster Farms management. When Dave saw the incidence of Salmonella rising on raw product, he quickly moved to develop a plan to characterize the risk. Dave organized a company-wide plan to survey the presence of Salmonella from live production to shipping. Being part of a fully integrated operation, Dave saw the value of working with USDA-FSIS to share the findings and discuss options to reduce Salmonella risk, which included one of the first poultry carcass antibacterial rinse programs back in 1986. Without question, Dave’s vision provided insight into resolving many food safety issues in concert with colleagues across the industry, regulatory agencies and consumer advocacy groups.
Later credited as “the man who saved Jack in the Box,” Dave was brought in as vice president of quality assurance and product safety in March 1993 by Jack in the Box management after the chain’s burgers were blamed for a massive foodborne illness outbreak in the Pacific Northwest. Escherichia coli O157:H7 (in ground beef supplied by Vons) was found to have caused the illnesses, and Dave responded by developing a comprehensive Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan for the chain, as well as a finished product testing protocol that initially irked his former meat industry colleagues.
But Theno’s lasting contribution to the meat industry was not only his leadership in responding to the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. He was also instrumental in demonstrating how the scientific community and the meat industry can work together to solve food safety challenges, seeing HACCP adopted by USDA in 1996 as the safety basis for the entire federal meat inspection program. But maybe even more impactful than these tremendous achievements were his oft-repeated mantras that would remind the entire food industry why food safety matters (and should make obvious why he was the inaugural guest on our new podcast of the same name): The U.S. food supply might be the safest in the world, “but it’s never safe enough,” and when giving a presentation post-Jack in the Box outbreak, he always talked about how he carried the photo of one of the little girls who died from eating an E. coli-contaminated hamburger at Jack in the Box, saying, “That’s who we work for. She was our customer.”
How will you keep Dave’s legacy alive in your day-to-day work? Will you give purpose to line workers, providing ownership to them in the importance of their work? Will you tell them that they have the authority to make decisions that have lifesaving consequences? Will you ask yourself, when making food safety decisions, whether you would feed the product your company makes to your own kid? If you wouldn’t, Dave would say, then don’t send it out. It really is that simple. But it takes a desire to do the right thing all the time. Without exception.
The words that follow are from Dave’s colleagues around the industry, written while still trying to wrap their heads and hearts around such a tremendous loss.
We have lost a good friend and advocate for doing things right.
—John Butts, Ph.D.
Dave’s passing is terrible news for the food safety community. But for us who knew him and worked closely with Dave, it is the devastating loss of a mentor, colleague and friend. Most importantly, we lost a man who always was a straight shooter and always kept his word. I shall always be proud of the fact that he chose me to replace him at his beloved Jack in the Box. We have lost a true friend.
—Ann Marie McNamara, Ph.D.
I have spoken to him recently as he sat in his Lana’i [Hawaii] office watching the whales. I know he is home now but he will be missed, and his legacy around food safety can live on in us all. My heart is very heavy.
Terribly sad news. He was a great man, human, food safety advocate, friend, mentor and hombre. No one can ever replace him, but we can all be better people by trying to emulate him.
I was very fortunate and honored to have met Dave and been given opportunity to chat about food safety. I’ve never met anyone as insightful: with common sense, good science and a unique gift for conveying them in language that was understandable by all. We lost a giant in the industry. He will be sorely missed.
—Robert W. Powitz, Ph.D., M.P.H., RS, DLAAS
I saw Jill (Dave’s wife) in Tampa [at the recent International Association for Food Protection annual meeting] and we spent some together talking—neither of us knows what to say at this point; we’re still just heart-broken that he’s gone.
Dave was a friend for 35 years that I spoke with weekly. I think of him every day with the constant reminder “Let’s just do the right thing in all that we do.” That’s just who he was.
I have known Dave, too, for 20 years, mostly because I spent several days deposing—he would say grilling/torturing—him over the course of the multi-year, multi-state litigation. However, a decade after spending such quality time—for me anyway—with him, I only recently learned a significant fact about Dave, one that made me admire him even more. It’s something that I think all leaders in corporate food safety, or any
position of authority, should emulate.
Last year, Dave and I shared the stage at the National Meat Association [NMA] annual “Meating” in Tampa as an odd pair of keynote speakers. The NMA is an association representing meat processors, suppliers and exporters. Dave spoke just before I did and was rightly lauded as someone who takes food safety to heart. However, it was his story about Lauren Rudolph and his relationship with her mom, Roni, that struck me in a physical way.
Dave told the quiet audience about Lauren’s death. He, too, knew the same autopsy report. Dave told the audience that the death of Lauren and his friendship with Roni had changed him also in a physical way. He told us all that he had carried a picture of Lauren in his briefcase every day since he had taken the job at Jack in the Box. He told us that every time he needed to make a food safety decision—who to pick as a supplier, what certain specifications should be—he took out Lauren’s picture and asked, “What would Lauren want me to do?”
I thought how powerful that image was. The thought of a senior executive of any corporation holding the picture of a dead child seeking guidance to avoid the next possible illness or death is stunning but completely appropriate.
I hugged Dave and we promised to get together again—sometime, someday.
—William D. Marler, Esq.
My wife and I worked with Dave at Foster Farms back in 1985. He was one of the first in the industry to acknowledge the growing Salmonella challenge with raw poultry. He and I conducted the first complete microbiological assessment for Salmonella across a fully integrated poultry company and shared it with USDA in an attempt to improve preventive controls and protect consumers. He will be greatly missed as a colleague and as a good friend. God bless Dave and his family.
—Craig Henry, Ph.D.
When I first met Dave Theno in 2004, it was after I called him at his office at Jack in the Box in California to ask him about restaurant food safety management help in my new job. Dave was so excited and gracious about helping me learn the business of food safety that he invited me to spend the day with him at his headquarters to show me how it’s done. We spent the entire day going over the food safety systems he developed for restaurant
operations and supply chain management, and I left with several documents he shared with me to implement
HACCP in restaurants.
Even after Dave had left Jack in the Box, he still answered my emails and calls for help, and he never charged me a dime even though he had a new business to help the food industry implement better food safety management systems in their business. This was the type of man Dave was—always putting the public health need to help others before the money. I never saw Dave speak in public (he rarely promoted himself, even for his own business) about food safety, but he was always speaking to many of us in the industry in his mission to save more lives by sharing food safety management ideas and methods.
Dave Theno was more than a food safety professional in our industry with an influential career: He was a national food safety pioneer and leader that influenced improvement in government food safety regulations and industry food safety actions to reduce food safety risk and prevent foodborne illness and disease.
The last words Dave said to me were on May 11, 2017, after an email I had sent him congratulating him on a food safety award he just received at the Food Safety Summit (where I had noted how many lives he helped save via prevention of foodborne illness and disease in the food industry through his storied career).
His reply was so typically Dave:
Well, my friend, you have done so too. Never forget that no matter what name is on the check, we work for 6-year-old kids and grandparents. I really appreciate the efforts you have put forth to save lives yourself. If I helped nudge you along in that direction at all, that’s my best reward. Hope our paths cross soon when we have more time.
Take care, amigo,
Dave said these same words to many people throughout his career, and I will continue to strive toward this in my own work due to his influence—he didn’t just nudge me along, but he shared his knowledge and passion for food safety with me as he did for anyone else who asked.
—Hal King, Ph.D.
Having served on many food safety advisory councils with Dave, I found that his greatest talent was being able to explain to senior company leaders, who often have little understanding of science but excel in business skills, some of the more sophisticated aspects of food safety. He was a pro at describing complex [issues] in a very direct and understandable manner. He will be dearly missed.
—Michael P. Doyle, Ph.D.
I was fortunate enough to work for Dave Theno since he began his amazing run at Jack in the Box in 1993 until he eventually retired. He was an amazing leader in the organization, wonderful boss to his staff and mentor to all who would listen. He was also a friend. Others smarter than me will write about his scientific knowledge and skills. Industry leaders will write about the impact he had and the changes he brought, not only to the beef industry, but to the safety of food in general. I will agree with all those comments completely.
Two aspects of Dave’s way will always stand out for me. When I faced a difficult decision, a challenge, a controversial topic or was in a place that getting out of was tough, Dave would look me straight in the eye and tell me, “Do the right thing.” It was obvious and simple but also took courage and was empowering. This is how I saw Dave take and defend difficult positions or establish his position in a challenging environment (and that happened frequently in the aftermath of our crisis in ’93). He consistently preached and sought what was right. With this he would not compromise. While he was at Jack in the Box and after he left, this became and still is the primary instruction to our food safety staff.
The second aspect, and closely tied to Dave’s mission to do the right thing, was his strongly held belief that food safety technique and information was not a point of competition. Dave openly shared his knowledge and our programs with whoever would listen. He encouraged his staff to share our information and techniques with restaurant chains (large or small), at industry meetings, with vendors and suppliers, and at other venues where we could get the message out. His underlying vision, of course, was that foodborne illness, especially to the degree that he had been involved, is not an acceptable option, and anyone who can influence that should be fully informed and equipped to be successful in defending the public. Never compete on the claim of being safer than the competition. For Dave, to openly share our (his) knowledge was to “do the right thing.”
Dave Theno (The Doctor) was extremely influential in my career as a food safety professional. For that I say thank you. He was a great friend and a person I will always point to as a bright light.
Thank you, Dave, and bless you.
Dave was a true gentleman. As a consultant, I had a chance to work collaboratively with Dave with the same customers on the same projects. One might think this would be a challenge—two consultants in the same space. Not so in our case; in fact, it worked splendidly. Dave was always great to work with, and we supported each other’s perspectives. Dave was always positive on ideas and different approaches. He was a scientist and a professional who was passionate about consumers but realistic, and pragmatic with bold ideas about possibilities. Dave also had gravitas and a presence. When he talked, he caught your attention and commanded an audience who stayed engaged and listened. He could make a compelling case for doing the right things for food safety and always did. He will be missed.
—Joe Stout, RS
We lost a wonderful person and a food safety giant with the passing of Dr. Dave Theno. When the food industry dialed 911, it was often Dave who answered the phone. Whether it was a call for help in a crisis or to proactively set up a state-of-the-art food safety system, Dave was the go-to person. He was second to none when it came to communicating with the media, regulators, attorneys, consumer groups and industry executives on food safety and the scientific basis for food industry practices. I’ve watched as many food industry executives were riveted by Dave’s food safety stories. I heard those stories many times, but each new executive hearing the tragic recounting of children and others who died or were sickened by foodborne illness was clearly touched and fully awakened to the importance of food safety. Dave often said that food safety is the one thing you bet your business on every day. And every day his food safety legacy will carry on with all the businesses he has helped, the people he has mentored and inspired (including me) and, of course, the lives he has protected as a result of sharing his food safety wisdom. He will be greatly missed.
—Scott Brooks, D.V.M.
Dave and I have been intertwined on food safety for 25 years, and I just spoke with him a few days before he died about a project we were working on together. It’s hard to put my feelings in writing because they come from both the professional and personal side of my life. Here are some thoughts.
Dave, of course, epitomized food safety commitment and professionalism, but it was his deep and passionate humanity that made him extraordinary. Dave treated us all as brother, partner, friend. And food safety was more than a profession for Dave. It was a deeply personal commitment. As many know, food safety was made personal for Dave through his relationship with Roni Rudolph Austin, whose daughter, Lauren, died in the Jack in the Box outbreak. Dave, who was brought in to fix the problems at Jack in the Box, carried Lauren’s picture in his wallet for the rest of his life. She was his inspiration, not only for pioneering microtesting and other preventive interventions at Jack in the Box but also for making it his mission to promote these practices across the meat industry. Dave was the industry instigator and leader for the massive shift in food safety practices and culture that is still underway in the United States and globally. His leadership was a huge part of what made it possible for those of us in government to build microbial testing into the FSIS meat and poultry HACCP program. He showed the way.
Dave’s work was not done when he left Jack in the Box. He was unrelenting in his passion for food safety and deep concern for people who are victims of illness, and he was very much still at it in his full-bore way through Gray Dog Partners and his relationships all across the industry and the consumer community. That’s why STOP Foodborne Illness, on whose board I’m proud to serve, had told Dave that he would be receiving STOP’s Food Safety Hero Award for 2017, and it’s why STOP has renamed it the Dave Theno Food Safety Hero Award. Dave’s inspiration will live on.
As a colleague, Dave was a joy—brilliant, honest and so generous with his experience and time. As a friend, Dave was a gift—supportive, engaged and always so funny.
It was my great honor to know Dave for over 10 years. We had worked together on some issues during my first few years at USDA, but it was during my wait for confirmation as undersecretary that our friendship really started to grow. My confirmation was stalled and I was discouraged and considering dropping out. Dave reacted to that with frequent calls and emails—each one full of encouragement and of wisdom about the value of public service—and of course, each one also containing a great joke.
During my time as the undersecretary, it was often Dave who I called when I needed honest perspective from outside of the Washington, DC, policy bubble. I knew that he would be frank with me, would ask me the tough questions and would remind me why I took the job in the first place. In recent years, since leaving USDA, I was so lucky to work with Dave on a number of projects, and to continue to learn from him and to enjoy our friendship. I miss him so very much, and I will always look to his lessons as I tackle the big stuff of the future.
—Elisabeth Hagen, M.D.
I nominated Dave Theno for the NSF Food Safety Lifetime Achievement Award.
I have known and worked with Dave for over 30 years. His body of work on behalf of the meat and the foodservice industry has been instrumental in making the food available in today’s marketplace the safest it has ever been in the history of our industry. Dave was an outstanding scientist who used his expertise and experience to lead the meat and food industry to developing solutions to some of the biggest food safety challenges of our times.
Dave Theno will be remembered by the world for the outstanding leadership he showed in driving better food safety standards that we all take for granted today. But I will remember him most for his friendship and contribution to the success of my career.
Dave and I met in 1978 when I worked under him. He gave me my first big assignment: I was to relocate to another city and manage a QC department that was in severe disarray. The QC standards at this facility were routinely not enforced, there were coolers full of product past its pull date, spoiling and shipping out the door, severe employment violations, disheartened staff, you name it. I naively accepted the challenge and moved to the new location. I was only on-site a few days when I realized how bad the situation was. I called Dave and said, “What have you gotten me into?”
His response was simple: “Nothing you can’t handle. Just remember that your first priority is to not allow our products to hurt anyone.” That was all I needed to hear. The decision points were easy after that.
In this age, when food safety is everything, that sounds like obvious advice, but in 1978, that wasn’t the case. Food safety wasn’t the priority it is now. Even 9 years later in 1987, when I went back to focus my master’s degree on food safety, there were no curricula for that. But Dave Theno already knew that was the most important responsibility for a QA professional.
Forty years later, we’ve been colleagues and friends ever since. It was easy to do with him; he was so professional yet fun and easy to be around. He had an uncanny way of boiling complicated things down to their essence, making it easy to find the path forward. It made all the difference in my career, and I know there are thousands of people he influenced in the same way. Just like me, they found the way forward because of how Dave Theno helped them set their compass early on.
His legacy will not only be the bold strides he made in food safety policy. In some ways more importantly, it will be four decades of food safety professionals trained with the mindset “First and foremost, don’t let your product hurt anyone.”
I will miss him and never forget him.
This was a tragedy and I’m still very saddened by it.
Here are some thoughts.
Food safety leader:
• Dave was, in my opinion, one of our era’s greatest food safety leaders. Food safety managers work in the system; food safety leaders work on the system. Following the Jack in the Box outbreak, Dave led the way in dispelling the “just cook it” paradigm that hindered continuous improvement in beef safety. He led improvements in the industry, along with supporting regulatory changes, which resulted in the dramatic reduction of pathogens in raw ground beef.
• Because of Dave’s leadership on this issue, I have no doubt that thousands of illnesses have been prevented and generations of consumers for years to come will benefit from his pioneering work.
• They say the mark of a leader is the legacy they leave behind. Dave leaves a rich legacy of being at the forefront of dramatically improving the safety of our nation’s raw beef supply, developing numerous future food safety leaders through his care and concern for people and improving the quality of life for consumers nationwide.
• Dave lived a life worth living, he made his mark and he left this world a better place. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on.
Those of us left behind have big shoes to fill: He would want us to continue the pursuit of food safety and the protection of public health. He would want us to have the moral courage to do the right thing. And that is not only a mantra for food safety and public health, but for living: to be able to look ourselves in the mirror every day and know we did our very best.
Aloha, Dave! May we all strive to keep your legacy alive by our commitment to food safety.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to send their thoughts and especially to Craig Henry, who supplied the Foster Farms information.
Barbara VanRenterghem, Ph.D., is the editorial director of Food Safety Magazine.