Rejecting retirement

by Steve Bjerklie
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Food safety expert David Theno became “the man who saved Jack in the Box” after he revolutionized food safety at the fast-food company and across the meat-supply chain.

When exceptional people retire, it’s often less an ending and more often a new beginning. Derek Jeter retired a few months ago from the New York Yankees and his on-field baseball career, but already he’s involved in several new baseball projects. When Jimmy Carter was voted out of office in 1980, he invented an entirely new job: active post-president. And though David Theno, Ph.D., retired from his food-safety position at Jack in the Box in the fall of 2008, he hasn’t stopped following his passion to make meat, and food, in general, safer.

But he had every intention of truly retiring, he says. He bought a small American bison calf, named it Cheyenne and planned to spend a lot of afternoons watching Cheyenne graze peacefully on acreage Theno owns in southern California.

His had been a singular, remarkable career, one of the most distinguished and consequential in meat-industry history. In the mid-1980s, while working for California-based poultry processor Foster Farms, Theno installed the first Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) program in an animal protein production plant, an accomplishment so revolutionary that then-director of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the legendary Dr. Donald Houston, took the highly unusual step of flying to California to see HACCP up close and in operation for the first time. He was among the first in the industry to recognize that line workers are key to product integrity, and at Foster he took the unprecedented step of giving every employee, regardless of job title or job description, authority to remove any product or package from the production line if they thought it didn’t look or otherwise seem right.

Later, Theno became “the man who saved Jack in the Box,” as the media dubbed him, after he revolutionized food safety, not just at the fast-food company but across Jack in the Box’s entire meat-supply chain following the tragic deaths of four children who ate E. coli O157:H7-adulterated hamburgers at Jack in the Box outlets. Just one of the fundamental changes he instituted at Jack in the Box is finished-product testing, a protocol that was wildly controversial at first – Theno remembers it being called “heresy” by some well-known industry leaders – until its proven results made finished-product testing the industry standard.

Theno and Jack in the Box were crucial first supporters of the test-and-hold protocol for ground beef that Dr. Dell Allen had developed at Excel, which was also resisted by much of the ground-beef industry until the evidence of its effectiveness was too overwhelming to ignore. And the advice and counsel he gave as a member of the US Dept. of Agriculture’s National Advisory Committee on Microbiology Criteria for Foods changed the way the department, as well as the industry, looked at food safety.

An illustrious career

A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois, where he trained under Dr. Glenn Schmidt, Theno’s career began when “food safety” at some meat plants meant sweeping out the sawdust on the floor at the end of the day. When he retired as an industry executive 30 years later, producing microbiologically safe products had become the first priority of virtually every leading meat company in the world. So, after he packed up his belongings and left his Jack in the Box office for the last time six years ago, Theno breathed a sigh of relief and prepared to take his wife, Jill, on a long-overdue six-week vacation to Europe. “It wasn’t a head fake. I really meant to retire,” he says.

Before he left for the Continent, he got a few requests from food companies to assess their food-safety plans, nothing unusual. “So, I looked over their operations, wrote reports and left it at that. I wasn’t feeling sucked in or anything,” he comments.

Theno has become a proponent of creating a law that makes food safety a fiduciary responsibility.

He came home from vacation to three Federal Express envelopes on his desk, all from people he knew who wanted his help. “I talked to Jill, we discussed what it would mean if I got back into it and she said, ‘Go for it,’” he says. “And, you know, there was also this long vacation to pay for.”

Five years later, Theno’s Gray Dog Partners, based in Theno’s home in Del Mar, Calif., is one of the leading food-safety consultancies in the business. It manages Subway’s food-safety program all over the world. It partners with Costco to develop new methodologies for protecting produce. Gray Dog, which has 20 consultants out in the field, is developing an in-restaurant HACCP program for Outback Steakhouse, and more partnerships like this are in the works.

“These are the kind of people I enjoy partnering with. They are committed to what I’m committed to – producing safer food,” he says. He notes change doesn’t have to occur overnight and adds, “You can make fundamental, effective change in increments, and you can save yourselves a whole lot of money and trouble in the process.”

Future of food safety

He has become a proponent of creating a law that makes food safety a fiduciary responsibility in the way the Sarbanes-Oxley Act set standards for corporate financial responsibility. “You should treat food safety just like you do your fiscal responsibility,” he says.

At Subway and other chains, Theno and Gray Dog have been focusing on improving the safety of fresh produce. He is also working with Costco and Taco Bell, helping develop supplier initiatives to improve fresh produce safety. “The produce business is where the beef industry was 25 years ago in terms of food safety,” Theno comments. “You’ve got a lot of variables you have to get under control and a lot of points where things can go wrong. But it’s doable.”

If he has a disappointment in his second career as a freelance food-safety guru, it’s that USDA is less of a partner in food safety than it used to be. “It’s a resource problem for them. They just don’t have the manpower like they used to have,” he says. “I hope that changes because the department has a very important role in all this. In the past, they helped lead the pack in developing food-safety methodology and technologies. Without Dr. Houston’s support in the early days, I’m not sure HACCP would have ever become what it is now.”

Theno has lost none of his enthusiasm for finding the best way to produce the safest food. His passion and expertise have changed the course of food safety. “It’s been fun,” he says.

Meanwhile, Cheyenne, who still grazes peacefully on Theno’s property, now weighs 2,800 lbs.

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