Dave Theno gave us words to live by: It’s never safe enough

Dave Theno gave us words to live by: It’s never safe enough

When David Theno and I first crossed paths, we were young men in our 20s, still sorting out the ways we would change the world. He was not too long graduated from Glenn Schmidt’s graduate program at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and he had worked at Armour for a few years; I wasn’t too long out of journalism school. At the time I was a new assistant editor at what’s now called Meat + Poultry, and I knew zero about the meat and poultry industry.

When we met in 1980, Dave was the new food safety director at Foster Farms, the California poultry processor. While the industry in those days had been upended and fundamentally changed by the innovations of boxed beef and boxed pork, in many ways it was still the same industry it had been in the 1950s. There were still meat plants operating where the food safety program consisted of changing the sawdust on the floor.

Dave Theno

Dave Theno

That day 37 years ago we were at Foster’s Livingston, CA, plant, and Dave was showing me around while I asked dumb questions. He eased through the plant like it was his backyard, greeting everyone by name, and introducing me like I was a wunderkind winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I took notes, snapped photos — “take anything you want” — Dave chatted and joked. He pointed to the boning lines.

“See all those people over there?”

Dozens of workers, it seemed like hundreds, most of them Latina and Southeast Asian women, were working furiously at the long, conveyored tables, breaking apart whole chickens into breasts, thighs, wings, and other retail portions.

“Every one of them has the authority to take any piece of chicken off the line that they don’t think is right for whatever reason,” he said. It was an obvious, common-sense idea, I thought, but I quickly learned that in the industry at the time it was unheard of. No company except Foster was giving hourly employees authority to do much of anything back in those days. Dave didn’t care what other companies were doing, though. He cared about doing what was right.

We struck up a casual friendship, getting to know each other across the years at industry meetings and functions. We became better friends when Dave became the cheerleader for the industry’s adoption of the HACCP food safety protocol; he became a key source for me in Meat + Poultry’s coverage of HACCP.

Though I wasn’t at the meeting, I still remember thinking how truly remarkable it was when the then-director of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Donald Houston, the highest ranking food safety official in the country, traveled to Foster’s plant in Livingston in the mid-1980s to see for himself how this new idea called “hassip” was supposed to work. Dave was the first person to install a HACCP protocol, which had been developed by Pillsbury for NASA’s space program, at a meat or poultry production plant. Houston was impressed, and though he didn’t live to see it, in 1996 HACCP became the safety basis for the entire federal meat inspection program.

A few weeks before his death, Dave Theno received the NSF Lifetime Achievement award for his work in the field of food safety.  Photo courtesy of Food Safety Summit

A few weeks before his death, Dave Theno received the NSF Lifetime Achievement award at the 2017 Food Safety Summit for his work in the field of food safety. Photo courtesy of Food Safety Summit

Dave by then was well-known as “the man who saved Jack in the Box,” and it would be easy to describe the many truly revolutionary changes Dave brought to the industry — often, in the early going, over furious criticism, even scorn, from meat executives — especially in the wake of what he did at Jack and the Box and for the industry. He could just as easily be called “the man who saved the meat industry.”

But when I think about Dave now I remember his wit, his easy charm, his wonderful sense of humor, his great storytelling, his country-born common sense. He had grown up on a farm in Illinois, and that bit of his wild side he sometimes hid, sometimes didn’t.

When we were still young he and I shared a couple of adventures together that will forever remain unspoken, and god knows I’m hardly the only person who can say that about Dave. We shared a fondness for quirky little sausage companies, and at one point Dave, on a lark, invested in a kebab company. He loved flying small planes and drinking good wine and the company of his friends and family. He was as loyal to his friends as anyone I’ve ever known; no one ever fell from grace with Dave. And he loved the strange, noisy, contentious, vastly productive industry he worked in. He was everything everyone says about him, and he was more: he was a great man. It’s been one of the thrills of my life to know him.

During the heated debates over HACCP in the aftermath of the Jack in the Box E. coli crisis, many industry spokesmen and executives asserted, rather defensively, that even with the tragedies of dead children, “we have the safest food supply in the world.” That may be true, Dave would respond, “but it’s never safe enough.”

Lauren Beth Rudolph

Lauren Beth Rudolph died from an E. coli infection contracted from a hamburger from Jack in the Box. Dave Theno carried her photo as a reminder of the importance of food safety.

After the mid-90s, whenever he gave a presentation to a food or meat industry audience, which was often, Dave always began it with a photograph of one of the little girls who died from eating an E. coli-contaminated hamburger at Jack in the Box.

“That’s who we work for,” he always said. “She was our customer.”

I heard him say those words many times, and they never failed to hit me hard in the chest. Always, the room fell into rapt silence. Dave reminded his audiences that no matter what people in the industry thought they did, no matter what they raised or ranched or slaughtered or processed or shipped or sold, the person who ate the end result might be a little girl — or an old man, or a mother, a father, a brother, a family — and their lives were, at that moment, the industry’s responsibility.  “We cannot fail,” he said.

In recent years Dave invited me several times to visit him at his place near San Diego. “You’ve got to come out, Steve, and spend some time with the buffalo,” he said. He meant his pet, Cheyenne. Other people have a dog roaming their property, Dave had an American bison. Why he did, I have no idea, but it did seem like a Dave thing to do. And, boy, I did want to visit Cheyenne. By then, however, I had settled in rural New Hampshire, raising goats and chickens, making maple syrup and cutting firewood out in the woods — changing the world one hardwood at a time — and my connection to the meat industry had grown thin. I never made the trip, dammit.

The loss of David Theno is beyond tragic; it’s incalculable. This one really hurts. To be honest, it is still unimaginable to me. His family’s hearts are broken, an industry’s heart is broken, and the hearts of everyone who knew and loved him are broken. In the coming months there will be tributes from the industry, naturally, and perhaps a scholarship or two named in his honor and maybe a food safety award. There should be all of these, plus a statue. But we are consoled to know that the true legacy he leaves — food that’s safer now than ever before, though it always could be safer, will not only endure, it will save many, many hundreds if not thousands of lives. My old friend and hero Dave Theno achieved what the young dream of and the experienced strive for and the old admire. He changed the world, truly and for good.

About the author: From 1980 through 2005, Steve Bjerklie covered the meat industry as a journalist and editor, first for what’s now called Meat + Poultry and later for Meat Processing. From 1996 to 2010, he was a North American correspondent for The Economist magazine, published in the United Kingdom. He lives in New Hampshire. 

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