Dr. Robert O’Connor
Senior Vice President of Technical Services, Foster Farms
Food Safety and Quality Assurance (FSQA) Team, US Foods:
Dr. Bob Whitaker
Chief Scientific Officer, Produce Marketing Association
Peter J. Fulgenzi
Executive Chef, Indiana University Health – North and Saxony Hospitals
The NSF Food Safety Leadership Awards recognize individuals and organizations for real and lasting improvements to food safety. NSF created the awards program in 2004 to encourage innovation in educational programs, processes and technologies to advance food safety.
Each year, an independent panel of food safety experts from academia, industry and the regulatory community reviews nominations from around the world to select the recipients. Nominations are evaluated on the basis of innovation, design and contribution to the advancement of food safety.
“In presenting these awards, we honor the winners for their contributions to food safety and the protection of public health. The work of Robert O’Connor, Bob Whitaker, Peter Fulgenzi and the US Foods team has contributed to important advances in food safety innovation, research, education and training. Their leadership and enthusiasm in applying science-based methods, information sharing, collaboration and training to solve vital food safety issues embodies the spirit of NSF’s Food Safety Leadership Awards,” said Kevan P. Lawlor, NSF President and Chief Executive Officer.
Robert O’Connor, D.V.M., M.A.M., Dip. A.C.P.V, with 20 years of experience in the poultry industry, is dedicated to advancing the quality of U.S. poultry production and ensuring the care of poultry flocks. Whether in the control and reduction of pathogens in poultry processing, advances in the care and welfare of animals raised for food or interventions at company ranches, Dr. O’Connor develops and implements industry-leading, high-impact food safety practices. Recently, he spearheaded efforts at Foster Farms to reduce food safety risks in raw poultry. In response to Salmonella issues and a July 2014 recall, he directed the implementation of a $75 million, multi-hurdle food safety program that is one of the most robust Salmonella control programs in the U.S. poultry industry.
Under Dr. O’Connor’s Salmonella control program during the last 10 months, Foster Farms consistently performs to an internal standard of 5 percent or less Salmonella prevalence in raw poultry parts. This rate is three times lower than the USDA’s proposed prevalence standard of 15.4 percent and five times lower than the previous industry average of 25 percent.
Dr. O’Connor worked closely with the USDA, CDC, poultry industry and retailers to share Salmonella control lessons to create a safer national food supply. He formed and recruited a Food Safety Advisory Board (FSAB), an independent group of nationally-recognized food safety experts with backgrounds in microbiology, public health, animal sciences, food safety operations and regulatory standards. The FSAB collaborates with Foster Farms to assess best practices and evaluate emerging technologies to help guide the company’s ongoing food safety systems.
“Dr. O’Connor uses science and innovation to address food safety, implementing multi-faceted solutions never before used in the poultry industry. He recognizes the importance of sharing this hard-won knowledge, truly exhibiting the mantra of food safety being a non-competitive issue,” says Barbara J. Masters, DVM, Senior Policy Advisor, OFW Law.
US Foods decided to pursue Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certification for its 60+ distribution centers not only to promote food safety in its own operations, but to encourage certification throughout the industry. During and after the IFS Logistics certification process, the Food Safety and Quality Assurance Team gathered data to identify the benefits and cost savings of certification.
US Foods conducted an independent study through the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business to identify pre- and post-certification processes from a cost perspective. The goal was to provide customer and sales benefits that others in the food distribution industry can use to talk dollars with their company leadership to prompt continuous improvement in food safety and quality by committing to GFSI certification. The study collected and analyzed multiple facility non-conformances and process breakdowns pre- and post-certification, and determined the financial impact of each incidence to establish the total cost savings of correcting these items to achieve certification.
The study identified a 23 percent drop in complaints per division post certification, which equated to cost savings of $3.5 million per year. The team also provides guidance to other distributors, certification bodies and standard owners, and actively shares lessons learned at industry meetings. Team members Jorge Hernandez and Frank Ferko share their industry knowledge through involvement with the GFSI Consumer Goods Forum, GlobalGAP, the Food Safety Summit Educational Advisory Board, the International Foodservice Distribution Association and IFS International.
“US Foods certified over 60 facilities to the IFS Logistics standard at a time when certifying food distribution facilities to a globally recognized standard was uncommon,” says George Gansner, Director, Marketing & Business Development
Manager, Americas, IFS. “Through a ground-breaking initiative, US Foods has encouraged others to follow suit by demonstrating the business value of certification.”
Bob Whitaker is an advocate for advancing the fresh produce industry’s food safety knowledge, who for the last 25 years has worked side by side with members of the global produce industry to overcome food safety challenges. He takes technical food safety information and research findings and translates them into easy-to-understand education that industry can readily apply to its day-to-day operations. He reports on topics with an immediate impact on production operations through his LinkedIn blog, and his publications are often referenced in meetings and public comment.
Dr. Whitaker has been instrumental in the development and success of the Center for Produce Safety’s (CPS) research program, which undertakes research with practical applications and is inclusive, responsive and accessible to industry. Under his supervision, the CPS has become a respected resource for the fresh produce industry and has funded 85 research projects since 2008. Currently serving on the CPS Executive Advisory Board and Technical Committee, he helps define research priorities and plan annual research symposiums.
Dr. Whitaker was appointed to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) National Research Council in 2014 to investigate the impact of genetically engineered crops. He created and leads PMA’s Science and Technology Committee, an industry group that provides strategic guidance to PMA’s Board of Directors on food safety education and policy. He also serves as a liaison, bridging the gap of understanding between government agencies and the produce industry with the goal of finding the best food safety solutions.
“Bob has always been a steady source of reason for the produce industry during uncertain times. He has a unique ability for translating complex scientific concepts into practical and useful everyday practices. He has been a driver and leader for the betterment of the produce industry and his impact will long benefit farmers and consumers,” says Joe Pezzini, Chief Operating Officer, Ocean Mist Farms.
In a hospital restaurant where bacteria can easily spread to patients, Chef Peter Fulgenzi went beyond food handling best practices to employ a custom electronic process control system to improve staff handwashing. Handwashing is the most important way to prevent spreading infection, but Fulgenzi’s research found that training, posters and pep talks were not effective in increasing handwashing. He also sought a way to monitor compliance beyond observation.
Fulgenzi and colleague Pete Kachur evaluated electronic data collection systems and set a safe level for handwashing: using soap, water and friction for 30 seconds for all handwashing events, and washing hands within 3 minutes of entering kitchen areas. He chose video and RFID to monitor all handwashing sinks, soap usage and entry and exit to monitored areas. He specified his team’s work patterns to the software developers to make sure the tool was effective in his specific setting. The tailored electronic data collection system provides dynamic, reliable and objective information about the frequency, duration and timing of handwashing. As a source for motivation and continuous improvement, real-time handwashing rates are displayed electronically.
Handwashing rates more than doubled and standards have been met consistently for over two years. Fulgenzi continues to evaluate new technologies and share his experience. His methods have been adopted in other facilities and a British software firm incorporated new features based on his recommendation.
“Peter’s work has proven to be a model, lighting the path for both operators and new technology developers,” says William V. Eaton, FFCSI, Chairman of the Board, Cini•Little. “His implementation of electronic data gathering is a first in the food industry. He has full 24/7 documented control of the handwashing process. This chef has proven that the most elusive factor, that of handwashing, can now be controlled as a process.”
The NSF Food Safety Leadership Award nominations are judged by an independent panel of jurors. The 2015 jurors included: