Harvard Biz: How Wegmans became a leader in improving food safety

Notes from a podcast by Ray Goldberg of the Harvard Business School drawn from his case study, Wegmans and Listeria: Developing a Proactive Food Safety System for Produce

The agribusiness program Goldberg developed in 1955 continues to bring business leaders and policy makers from around the world together each year. Throughout his tenure, Ray has written over 100 articles and 24 books on the business of agriculture, including his very latest, Food Citizenship: Food System Advocates in an Era of Distrust.

He was interviewed by podcast host, Brian Kenny: Did you coin the term agribusiness?

Ray Goldberg: I did, together with John Davis. He was the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, and he became the first head of the (HBS) Agribusiness Program.

Brian Kenny: The case cites examples of foodborne illness outbreaks in the US. We’re coming on the heels of the recent romaine lettuce issue in the US, which has now occurred, I think, twice in the last few months.

Ray Goldberg: I can describe the romaine lettuce [event], because I talked to the produce manager this morning, and he tells me the cost to the industry was $100 million dollars.

The problem is that romaine lettuce itself, when cold temperatures occur, begins to blister, which make it more susceptible to listeria. When they tried to find the location of that listeria, it came from a dairy herd about 2,000 feet away from where that lettuce was grown. We have a rule that 1,200 feet is far enough, but they actually found listeria a mile away from where that lettuce was concerned, so he feels very strongly that they have to change the rules.

(They seem to be confusing Listeria with E.coli O157 in Romaine, but that’s Haaaaaaaaarvard.)

Brian Kenny: Which gets to another issue that the case raises, which is has the industry done well enough trying to regulate itself? What are some of the things the industry has tried to do?

Ray Goldberg: Under Danny Wegman’s leadership—he was the person in charge of food safety of the Food Marketing Institute that really looked at the whole industry—he got several members of the industry to sit down and create new rules with the FDA, the EPA, the USDA, and CDC, all of them saying we have to have better rules. Produce, as you know in the case, is the most valuable part of a supermarket but also the most susceptible to problems.

Brian Kenny: This gets a little bit to the topic of your book, Food System Advocates in an Era of Distrust. [What[ are the big ideas coming out of your book?

Ray Goldberg: The big ideas are two-fold, that the kind of men and women in the industry have changed from commodity handlers and bargaining as to how cheap they can buy something, or how expensive they can make something, to finally realizing that they have to be trusted. And because they have to be trusted, they have to start working together to create that trust. In addition to that, they realize that the private, public and not-for-profit sectors really need to work together. That’s why I tried to write a book to give people an inkling of the kind of men and women in this industry who really are the change-makers, who are changing it to a consumer-oriented, health-oriented, environmentally-oriented, economic development-oriented industry.

Throwing stones from Haaarvaaard: The cost of a sick customer

Harvard picked an easy target, offering its management insight to Chipotle, but I’ve yet to see a paper about how the venerable Haaarvaaard Faculty Club managed to sicken patrons not once, but twice with Norovirus in 2010.

simpsons.harvardAccording to PR from Haaarvaaard, Chipotle has seen its shares tumble and recently reported its first-ever quarterly loss after the incident, which began in October when more than 50 people in 11 states were sickened by an initial E. coli outbreak.

The chain restaurant, which uses the tagline “Food with Integrity,” has prided itself on avoiding artificial ingredients, opting instead to use a relatively short supply chain of local growers for many of its ingredients.

That strategy just might have been part of its problem, says John A. Quelch, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and Professor in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Quelch, who teaches a course to Harvard business and public health students called Consumers, Corporations and Public Health, says food safety is more challenging than ever for three reasons:

  • the globalization of the food business;
  • global food safety standards are lacking; and,
  • food safety problems can be quite costly.

Thanks for the insight. Back to hockey.

Seattle Yacht Club closed because of norovirus; 150 sick

Last May the Haaaaaaaaaarvard Faculty Club was shuttered after a norovirus outbreak sickened a few hundred guests and up to 40 per cent of the staff.

Yesterday the Seattle Yacht Club announced it was closing until March 15 after an outbreak of norovirus made about 150 guests and employees ill since March 1.

Club General Manager Steve Hall said the club voluntarily closed in order to sanitize its facilities.

Hall said the first sign of an outbreak was on March 1 and the club contacted Seattle & King County Public Health for guidance on how to manage the situation. The outbreak seemed to be under control until Saturday when several people who attended a function the previous night became ill.

The yacht club, which is located in the Portage Bay neighborhood and has 2,750 members, has hired two cleaning firms to sanitize the club and its food preparation and service facilities during its closure.

Harvard club to reopen after sickening 300; norovirus in staffers still suspected

When did the Harvard Crimson turn into the Harvard Lampoon (which begat National Lampoon in 1970)? In all seriousness, this is some funny stuff.

The venerable Harvard newspaper, the Crimson, reports that “after closing for more than a month due to a norovirus outbreak that sickened over 300 people, the Harvard Faculty Club will reopen for private events on Monday.

“The Club, which had been undergoing inspections for food safety, reopened for overnight guests on May 6. The restaurant portion of the Club will officially reopen in early June.”

Sure all the food has been thrown out and every surface scrubbed, but nothing was said about allegations that first aired Saturday that up to 14 staffers worked while sick – a food service no-no (at least on paper).

Samuel D. Stuntz ’10—who plans to hold his wedding reception at the Faculty Club at the end of May—said that he and his fiancee, Elizabeth A. Cook ’10, are not concerned about the virus outbreak, adding,

“The fact that they were closed for so long shows that they were obviously really devoted to not doing anything unless it was absolutely safe. It’s a really popular place so that obviously means we assumed they were working really hard to get it fixed. I’m not worried about it at all,"

Rooms at the Club during Commencement week start at $429 per night for a three-night minimum.

Is the norovirus extra?

14 employees worked sick leading to norovirus outbreak; Harvard Faculty Club restaurant to remain closed during commencement

Manhattan (Kansas) is all abustle this morning as parents stream in from around the state and elsewhere to watch their children graduate after four years of college. It’s Commencement Day.

Over at Harrr–vard University, not only do they have to deal with one of the most embarrassing collapses in hockey history as the Boston Bruins were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers last night, the restaurant at the venerable Harvard Faculty Club, shuttered for weeks because of a norovirus outbreak that sickened more than 300 people, will remain closed through commencement, the height of the university’s social calendar.

On Friday, the Cambridge Health Department said an investigation found that before the club closed for the first time, 14 employees were working while they were sick and an undetermined number of employees were working less than 72 hours after they had become free of norovirus symptoms.

Louise Rice , director of public nursing for Cambridge, told the Boston Globe that state law requires that restaurant employees who become sick can not return to work until their symptoms have been gone for 72 hours.

I guess Harrr—vard has its own rules. And it must be hard to find good help for Harrr—vard, which may explain why they are advertizing for a Environmental Health Safety Officer to provide routine HACCP-based and food-code compliance inspections at university dining facilities (thank-you, barfblog reader).

Rice further said the city’s investigation found that approximately 308 people became sick at the club, and 33 of them were employees—which is about 40 percent of the club’s staff, adding,

“Having so many sick employees probably drove the contamination of the space.”

One of those sickened was 80-year-old Robert Cogan, a professor at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

After an ill-fated Easter brunch put him in the hospital for almost a month, he finally returned home last week. The gastrointestinal ailment led to a string of complications that put Cogan in intensive care for four days and extended stays at Massachusetts General Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Cogan said he’s “very disappointed” that before he ate his Easter brunch on April 4 no one at the club informed him that the restaurant had just reopened after a norovirus outbreak.

“If we’d known that, we certainly wouldn’t have gone,” said Cogan, who said he used to frequent the club for brunch.

Harvard Faculty Club still closed after norovirus sickens over 300

The Harvard Faculty Club, home of a norovirus outbreak that sickened 308 people in late March and early April, remains closed and no one is sure when it will reopen.

Louise Rice, senior director of public health and school health nursing for the Cambridge Public Health Department, told The Cambridge Chronicle,

"They’ve done a very thorough cleaning at this point and they have done retraining of their staff.” Rice also said the city’s Inspectional Services Department recently toured the facility and gave the club a passing grade.

Norovirus sickens up to 200; Harvard club closed again

Don’t them Harvard boys know nothin’?

Never reopen a place until you’re sure the norovirus has been taken care of and all employees are healthy.

Following reports of a small norovirus outbreak linked to the Harvard Faculty Club last week, the Boston Globe reports this morning that as many as 200 people may have been affected by a norovirus outbreak, forcing the restaurant and lodge to close for a second time.

The club, which closed last week because of concerns about the virus, shut down again Tuesday as about 100 people reported becoming ill after eating at the club between Easter brunch Sunday and Tuesday morning.

To be fair, everyone is saying the right things, but noro outbreaks are often far more serious and insidious than people realize.

Louise Rice, director of public nursing for the city, explained Harvard voluntarily closed the club when the first wave of illnesses was reported last week, and the club brought in an outside cleaning crew to scrub the building down, The city inspected the club, and Rice said the building was “spotless.’’

The city also screened full- and part-time employees at the club, about 100 of them, before it reopened Sunday, she said.

But by Tuesday morning, Harvard notified the city that a number of people had reported becoming ill after eating at the club between Easter Brunch and Tuesday morning.

There seems to be some sort of disconnect between words and actions.

A Welsh pub or The Fat Duck or the Harvard Faculty Club – norovirus doesn’t care

The occasional appearances by the maniacal Sideshow Bob on television’s, The Simpsons, are among the best of the long-running series.

As noted on one blog, many writers for The Simpsons are Harvard alums. This group of writers takes many opportunities to mock their favorite rivals, Princeton and Yale, and occasionally themselves. Some examples:

-During the Sideshow Bob and Cecil episode, Bob and Cecil have and argument, during which Bob points out Cecil’s "four years in clown college", to which he replies, "I would prefer it if you not refer to Princeton in that manner"

-At the end of one of the Sideshow Bob episodes, Bob is returned to his minimum-security prison, where a boatful of rowers calls out to him to help row against "the alums from Princeton", causing him to say "[shudder], Princeton", and hop in.

Making fun of any uppity place came to mind when I read yesterday the Harvard Faculty Club had been closed earlier in the week after a possible norovirus outbreak.

Crista Martin, a spokeswoman for the school’s hospitality and dining services,
said several guests first reported feeling ill on Saturday, and that a response team along with the Cambridge Department of Public Health, on Tuesday believed that a person or persons with the virus passed it on to people at the club.

Louise Rice, director of public health nursing for the city of Cambridge, said more than 10 people became ill after eating at the Faculty Club. But, she added, officials have not yet determined whether they were infected with a norovirus.

Jennifer Manley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health, said the school and the Cambridge Public Health Department are investigating a possible norovirus contamination at the club.

Top 5 food-safety questions journalists should be asking

The editor of Nieman Watch at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University tracked me down in Florida a couple of weeks ago — it’s not hard, I’m always plugged in, zing — and asked me to pen the following, which he greatly improved with some editing. Below, Powell’s take on the top-5 food-safety questions journalists should be asking.

Food safety is not a trivial issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that up to 30 per cent of individuals in developed countries acquire illnesses from the food and water they consume annually. Active disease surveillance by U.S., Canadian and Australian authorities suggests this estimate is accurate.

WHO has identified five factors of food handling that contribute to these illnesses: improper cooking procedures; temperature abuse during storage; lack of hygiene and sanitation by food handlers; cross-contamination between raw and fresh ready-to-eat foods; and acquiring food from unsafe sources.

There has been some excellent media coverage of microbial food safety issues since the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to Jack-in-the-Box that killed four and sickened over 600; there has also been some terribly misleading coverage.
Reporters interested in covering this important story should be asking these five questions:

1. Will more government involvement mean fewer sick people?

While the Internet and the mainstream media were all excited about the potential passage of new food safety legislation by the U.S. House in early August — it passed — I was hanging out with some food safety dudes at Publix supermarkets HQ in Lakeland, Florida. And I saw far more in Lakeland that would impact daily food safety than anything the politicians, bureaucrats and hangers-on were talking about.

When it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore the chatter from Washington, as well as the Internet commentaries and conspiracy theories. If a legislative proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency, or the bill that passed the House – and just the House –  I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

As the Government Accountability Office pointed out in a report a year ago, “The burden for food safety in most … countries lies primarily with food producers, rather than with inspectors, although inspectors play an active role in overseeing compliance. This principle applies to both domestic and imported products.”

Publix, with over 1,000 supermarkets, its own processing plants, and thousands of food products moving through its shelves, can’t afford the luxury of chatter. After a  visit to headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., I went to the local Publix in St. Petersburg Beach to verify what I’d heard at HQ. Sure, the bosses know food safety, but do the front-line staff?

I ordered some shaved smoked turkey breast from the deli, and the sealable bag the meat was delivered in bore the following message:

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses; Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase; And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase.”

This was the first time I’d seen a retailer provide information to consumers on the accurate shelf-life of sliced deli meats. It didn’t require Congressional hearings; it didn’t require some hopelessly-flawed consumer education campaign; it required the company’s food safety officials to say, this is important, let’s do it.

Same thing with fresh fruits and vegetables — the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. for the past decade.

Late last month, U.S. regulators announced plans to strengthen safety protocols for fresh fruits and vegetables — except those plans are simply extensions of plans published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998. Plans and guidelines don’t make food safe: people do.

It’s nice that food safety is once again a priority in Washington and that politicians are trying to set a tone. But chatting doesn’t mean fewer sick people — actions do.

Journalists can hold politicians, producers and industry accountable. There are lots of plans and proposals, but will any of them translate into fewer sick people?

2. Is local/natural/sustainable/organic/raw food really any better than other types of food?

A U.S. government extension agent with a PhD and at a prominent university e-mailed the other day to ask if I had any data on foodborne illness from farmers’ markets because she was preparing for a presentation and was, “trying to make the case that there are very few cases of foodborne illness from local foods relative to our globally based food system.”

But the idea that food grown and consumed locally is somehow safer than other food, either because it contacts fewer hands or any outbreaks would be contained, is the product of wishful thinking.

Barry Estabrook of Gourmet magazine recently invoked the local-is-pure fantasy, writing: “There is no doubt that our food-safety system is broken. But with the vast majority of disease outbreaks coming from industrial-scale operations, legislators should have fixed the problems there instead of targeting small, local businesses that were never part of the problem in the first place.”

But whenever you hear someone say there’s “no doubt” in this field, you should be filled with doubt. Foodborne illnesses are vastly underreported. Someone has to get sick enough to go to a doctor, the doctor has to be bright enough to order the right test, the state has to have the known foodborne illnesses listed as reportable diseases, and so on. For every known case of foodborne illness, there are an estimated 10 to 300 other cases, depending on the severity of the bug. Most foodborne illness is never detected. It’s almost never the last meal someone ate, or whatever other mythologies are out there. A stool sample linked with some epidemiology or food testing is required to make associations with specific foods.

Maybe the vast majority of foodborne outbreaks come from industrial-scale operations because the vast majority of food and meals is consumed from industrial-scale operations. To accurately compare local and other food, a database would have to somehow be constructed so that a comparison of illnesses on a per capita meal or even ingredient basis could be made.

Then there are the whoppers that are repeated daily, somewhere, like this one by raw milk advocate Sally Fallon, who said, “Raw milk is like a magic food for children. … Without the green grass, you’re missing a lot of vitamins. Also, it’s much safer. When cows are eating green grass, you don’t find pathogens in their milk.”

With such statements, public advocacy becomes public health risk.

The natural reservoir for E. coli O157:H7 and other verotoxigenic E. coli is the intestines of all ruminants, including cattle — grass or grain-fed — sheep, goats, deer and the like. The final report of the fall 2006 spinach outbreak identifies nearby grass-fed beef cattle as the likely source of the E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 200 and killed four.

A table of raw dairy outbreaks is available at http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/articles/384/RawMilkOutbreakTable.pdf. Kids are often the ones that get sick.

And be wary of claims that food is local.

3. Is that food safety advice really accurate?

Everyone eats, so everyone’s an expert when it comes to food. Food, Inc. may be a popular movie among the foodies, but has some terrible food safety advice. Microorganisms that make people sick exist in whatever kind of food production and distribution system we smart humans come up with. But government, industry and academic advice can often be of limited use — or wrong. Do people really need to wash their hands for 20 seconds — or will 10 seconds suffice? It will.  Does the water have to be warm? No. Are paper towels better than blow driers at removing pathogens? Yes, it’s the friction that counts. Food safety types argue about these things all the time. If someone says, “food safety is simple, just follow this advice,” don’t believe it. Question everything.

4. With all of the attention, resources and talk, why hasn’t there been a reduction in the estimated incidence of foodborne illnesses in the past five years?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported in April 2008 that foodborne illness remains a significant public health issue in the U.S., with Salmonella infections increasingly problematic: “Although significant declines in the incidence of certain foodborne pathogens have occurred since 1996, these declines all occurred before 2004,” the CDC reported.

“Outbreaks caused by contaminated peanut butter, frozen pot pies, and a puffed vegetable snack in 2007 underscore the need to prevent contamination of commercially produced products. The outbreak associated with turtle exposure highlights the importance of animals as a nonfood source of human infections. To reduce the incidence of Salmonella infections, concerted efforts are needed throughout the food supply chain, from farm to processing plant to kitchen.”

The CDC data show existing efforts to reduce foodborne illness have stalled. Signs stating “Employees must wash hands” may not be the most effective way to compel good food safety behavior. New messages using new media should be explored to really create a culture that values microbiologically safe food.

5. Why don’t producers, processors, and retailers market microbial food safety directly to consumers?

There’s lots of marketing of food safety, but it is done indirectly. One of the reasons people buy organic/natural/local/whatever is they perceive such food to be safer — in the absence of any microbiological data. Grocery stores say all food is safe, yet the weekly outbreaks of foodborne illness — the ones that consumers hear about — suggest otherwise. The best farms, processors, retailers and restaurants should brag about their microbial food safety efforts and accomplishments. With so many sick people each year, there’s an attentive audience out there.

Dr. Douglas Powell is an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University. He also runs barfblog.com, a blog about food safety.