Roehl says the NRA has had “positive dialogue in the Senate” and is confident it will sway legislators to keep the provisions out of the final bill. In another favorable sign, Taylor says the FDA intends to work “very closely with the restaurant industry” in crafting food-safety legislation.
A few reservations aside, the restaurant industry has largely given its blessing to the direction food-safety policy is going under the Obama administration. There is, however, at least one notable dissenter.
David Theno gets much of the credit for saving Jack in the Box from its E. coli disaster in 1993, in which four children died and hundreds of people got sick from eating undercooked meat contaminated with the bacteria. He went on to serve at the San Diego–based company for 15 years, during which he was known as an innovator in the realm of foodservice safety procedures.
Now working as a consultant to the government and the foodservice industry, Theno has concerns about the Obama administration’s ambitions on the food-safety front.
“We’re in a government mode today where the reigning authority seems to think that government is going to fix everything,” Theno says. “I’m not sure the government should be overseeing much of anything.”
As for the Modernization Act, Theno characterizes it as a power grab, a way for Washington to be able to tell food companies how to run their plants. He says the government already has the authority “to do what it needs to do.” For example, the FDA’s ability to recommend recalls shouldn’t be turned into a mandate, Theno says, because companies “would have to be mentally insane” to ignore a recall recommendation in light of the ensuing legal liabilities. When asked about the New York Times article, “The Burger That Shattered Her Life,” a 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner describing how food giant Cargill ignored federal recommendations, Theno says the article contained “about 1,000 misstatements of fact.”
Rather than the government increasing its oversight of the foodservice industry, Theno would like to see companies that already do a good job with food safety—the “good guys,” he calls them—helping government establish a set of best practices to which all companies would have to adhere. In fact, Theno believes such a public-private partnership is the future of food-safety policy.
“The new world will be a collaboration of people who have a goal to make the food supply safer working together to get to better practices,” Theno says.
Despite his general wariness of the government’s approach, Theno is confident the nation’s food supply will continue to get safer—good news for a restaurant segment that knows all too well how a single outbreak can spell disaster.
“In the next 10 years, we’re going to find ways to keep pathogens and threats away from the food supply more systematically and in a better way than we do today,” Theno says. “And while I don’t know that there will ever be zero risk, it will be so low that it will be inconsequential.”
Taylor has similar expectations for the near future, though not surprisingly his outlook includes a bigger role for the FDA, and government in general, in ensuring food safety.
“We’re going to see … continued improvement in the government’s ability to detect problems sooner and contain them sooner,” Taylor says. “We’re going to see much stronger oversight of imports. And I think we’ll see reduction of food-borne illness.”
Perhaps all too aware of the massive task at hand—reducing 76 million to as close to zero as possible—Taylor is quick to stress the need for patience.
“It’s important to see this in a long-term way,” he says. “The transformation we’re talking about is so fundamental, but we’re on a track to see real progress.”