Sunday, September 21, 2008

Putting a face on food safety

You have to appreciate the above-and-beyond efforts of the food-safety specialists attending the Food Safety Symposium this weekend in Charlotte, N.C. They could’ve kicked back last night with an extra hot chocolate, or maybe declared it a wild night because they had the three-custard dessert at the local hotspot where we had dinner. Instead, they insisted on demonstrating the germ-killing capabilities of alcoholic beverages. Again and again and again.

I, too, had a few drinks at the post-dinner party, presented by our hosts, Ecolab. But that doesn’t change the impact of today’s event, a look at how the restaurant industry is trying to protect guests more effectively from foodborne disease. The first session of our two-day conference was crammed with practical advice on safeguarding the food supply. But what really sticks with me is how the effort to avert foodborne disease was personified.

Instead of talking in stark scientific terms about bacteria and viruses, speaker after speaker put a human face on the issue. Dave Theno, our keynote speaker, explained that he was driven to push for food-safety improvements by memories of a six-year-old girl who died during the E. coli catastrophe that almost destroyed Jack in the Box in the early 1990s. He characterized the girl, the first child to die in the epidemic, as “the angel” who inspires him to keep driving for greater safeguards.

“I think of my 2-year-old and my 9-year-old. They’re my 6-year-old,” said Angel Sanford of the McAlister’s fast-casual chain. “Quality is something I take very, very personally.”

Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association showed pictures of Kyle Algood and Ruby Trautz, two victims of the spinach contamination of three years ago. Dr. Bruce Chords of Ecolab mentioned how his grandchildren had brought home a norovirus infection—which he then caught. My NRN colleague, Robin Allen, mentioned that her daughter had been hospitalized with the pathogen. Patrick Sterling of Texas Roadhouse recounted how he called all 150 victims of a norovirus outbreak that was believed to be connected with one of that chain’s restaurants.

Clearly, despite all the problems they've seen or noted, attendees regard the victims of a contagion as people, not statistics.

Attendees also heard terms like virons, lateral flow immunosensors and bacteriophages. But they and presenters never let the meeting drift too far from the sensibility that they are protecting people in restaurants, not working with petri dishes in some lab.

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