It’s a somber moment whenever a familiar name appears in the obituaries. It’s a tragedy when someone who built an admirable career dies way too soon.

Such is the case with the news of the sudden death of Dave Theno, who was reported to have drowned while on vacation in Hawaii earlier this week.

Theno was one of the leading food-safety experts in the meat and poultry industries as the CEO of California-based Gray Dog Partners. A talented scientist, a strategic thinker and a business-savvy consultant of the highest order, the companies where he managed food-safety and quality-control programs includes such A-listers as Foster Farms, Kellogg’s, Armour, and Peter Eckrich & Sons.

But throughout his career, he earned a much higher accolade than successful senior scientist: He was genuinely gracious, someone who treated even clueless reporters such as the younger me with respect and consideration.

Thanks to his achievements and his professional stature, he didn’t have to be accommodating to a bunch of writers and editors who just wanted his time and his expertise to punch up their bylines. Yet I can guarantee that there’s not a single journalist in the business who’d have anything negative to say about the man and how he handled himself at the innumerable conferences and conventions he often headlined.

Ultimately, that’s one of the finest tributes anyone can earn.

 

Corporate savior, industry advocate

Of course, in addition to his talent and his generosity, Dave Theno leaves behind one of the singular accomplishments of the last 25 years in the food industry. For those who were there, the 1993 outbreak of a massive foodborne illness event in the Pacific Northwest caused by the then-unfamiliar E. coli O157:H7 was a watershed event.

The incident occurred at a dozens of Jack in the Box restaurants and resulted in four deaths of young children and many more left with permanent damage from that insidious pathogen that was present because the fast-food chain was undercooking its hamburgers.

Most business analysts predicted that the fallout from the food-safety disaster would be the death knell for Foodmaker, Jack in the Box’s parent company. In fact, when Theno accepted the job as senior vice president and chief food safety officer for the fast-food chain, most people assumed his role was to help wind down the firm’s journey through Chapter 11.

Damage control, in other words.

What happened next was anything but.

First of all, Theno openly advocated a policy of strict honesty and accountability about all aspects of the disaster. Originally, Foodmaker tried to blame its supplier, the Von’s grocery chain, for supplying contaminated ground beef. The company’s finger-pointing abruptly ceased.

Next, he instituted what was then a novel program of safety assurance, which is now universally known as HACCP, Hazard Analysis Critical of Control Points. It seems obvious now that any processor should want to identify potential problem areas in its manufacturing process — and then develop interventions that negate the threat. That seems like it would be filed under “Corporate Self-Preservation.”

At the time, however, Theno’s insistence on a finished product testing protocol caused widespread, if often anonymous, complaining in many quarters of the industry. But he never backed down from saying that business as usual was no longer acceptable in the foodservice industry, not when lives were at stake.

That’s what I admired most about the man: His principles. He didn’t preach the gospel of HACCP because it could be justified on the basis of some cost-benefit calculation. He never wavered from a belief that the multi-millions in food-safety interventions he insisted food companies needed to make were about protecting the public, about building trust between processors and consumers.

In the wake of the Jack in the Box outbreak, and in large measure as a consequence of Theno’s activism, a series of regulatory measures were enacted that have permanently and dramatically changed the food industry landscape, including:

  • E. coli O157:H7 was declared a reportable disease for all state health departments.
  • FSIS introduced mandatory testing for E. coli O157:H7 in ground meat.
  • FDA increased the designated internal temperature for cooked hamburgers from 140 to 155 degrees F.
  • FSIS reclassified E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant in ground beef and introduced safe food-handling labels for retail-packaged fresh meat and poultry.
  • HACCP became the law of the land for all meat and poultry companies.

In the end, Theno’s most lasting contribution was his advocacy and leadership that provided a model for how the scientific community and the meat industry could collaborate to address food-safety issues. He received numerous awards and citations for being “the man who saved Jack in the Box” — including induction into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame — but I will remember him as someone who was caring and compassionate, someone who, despite his formidable acumen and lofty accomplishments, never put himself above any of the people with whom he interacted.

He leaves behind a larger-than-life legacy, one that isn’t at all dependent on the professional milestones he achieved.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.