A Food Safety Focus: Jack in the Box

Jack in the Box, a HACCP pioneer, has set food safety initiatives that it hopes will set a benchmark in the industry.

Jack in the Box initiated a number of firsts in the fast-food industry. For instance, it was the first major chain of its kind to start as a drive-thru. This operator also was the first to introduce fast-food menu items that are now staples for many chains, including a breakfast sandwich and portable salad.

But most notably, San Diego-based Jack in the Box was the first quick-service chain to adopt HACCP or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point principles. This food-handling program, developed by NASA in the 1960s to sterilize astronauts' food during space missions, tracks food from the supplier to the restaurant by monitoring temperatures in delivery trucks and providing restaurant employees with priority checklists to ensure food safety.

Jack in the Box's food safety initiative was instituted in 1993, after it suffered a major crisis involving E. coli bacteria. Four people died and hundreds of others became sick after eating undercooked hamburgers contaminated with the bacteria at restaurant locations in the Seattle area and other parts of the Pacific Northwest. Consequently, the chain was faced with several lawsuits, each of which was quickly settled.

For some chains, this situation could have spelled the beginning of the end. But Jack in the Box, founded in 1951, has bounced back. The company, which now operates and franchises 2,000 restaurants in 17 states and employs approximately 45,000 people, has become a model for many in the food safety arena.

It started immediately following the outbreak, when the chain enlisted the expertise of Dr. David Theno, then an independent food safety consultant from Modesto, Calif., to serve as Jack in the Box's vice president of quality assurance and product safety. He instituted the new HACCP program, which was previously thought to be too time consuming and costly for fast-food chain use. Now, restaurants across the country use this strict protocol, which is common practice in food plants.

Currently serving as senior vice president, quality and logistics, Theno is responsible for the company's product safety and regulatory compliance. In the last 13 years, he has been instrumental in putting Jack in the Box on the map as an exemplary model of a chain that is dedicated to food safety. “Ten years ago, most people's food safety systems were in bits and pieces, interwoven with other operating systems,” Theno says. “If you asked an operator 10 years ago how food costs were yesterday, they could tell you to a tenth of a point. The same was true with labor and other operational information. But if you asked an operator how their food safety was back then, they would just say ‘OK.' It was indistinct. The fact is you can't manage what you can't measure.”

He says the HACCP system takes a food safety program and packages it like other operational control systems. “HACCP makes food safety quantitative and translates it into a management tool. With all of the other operational programs, if you don't execute them well, it may cost you a few bucks or there may be a small financial penalty. But what happens when you have a food safety crisis? An operator's priorities are upside down if they're not managing food safety like their other programs,” Theno says.

Its commitment has paid off in more ways than one. In 2004, Jack in the Box was recognized by NSF International (National Sanitation Foundation) as one of four winners of its inaugural Food Safety Leadership Awards, a program recognizing groundbreaking achievements in foodservice safety that helps protect the public from foodborne illness. NSF developed the program to recognize the extraordinary efforts of individuals and organizations that have demonstrated outstanding dedication and achievement in foodservice safety. Jack in the Box was recognized for accomplishments in Systems Improvement for developing and implementing the industry's first HACCP food safety system.

Jack in the Box Equipment List
1 6-foot grill 4 Fryers 3 Toasters 2 Microwaves 3 Refrigerators 2 Freezers 1 Walk-in refrigerator 1 Walk-in freezer 2 Patty stagers 1 Coffee brewer 1 Shake machine 1 Assembly holding unit

In addition, Jack in the Box is a member of the International Food Safety Council, a coalition of industry members of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) that has demonstrated a corporate commitment to safe food through food safety training programs. The chain also works with state and local regulatory officials to measure how its restaurants are meeting all health- and food safety requirements.

With HACCP-based food safety systems, products and procedures are designed to minimize restaurant food safety risks, such as annual monitoring of processing plants and distribution centers, temperature-monitoring systems for ingredient shipments, in addition to risk-based microbiological, chemical and physical sampling. “The function of HACCP is to identify critical control points, or the most important events that determine whether food will be produced safely, and manage them,” says Theno, adding that Jack in the Box has instituted a zero defect program.

Since outside vendors supply Jack in the Box's food products, the program begins with its suppliers. They must maintain a HACCP system within their facility, which includes proper cleanliness and food safety procedures. The chain also employs a comprehensive system to check the quality of all foods it receives as well as the facilities that produce the food.

This is no easy task with Jack in the Box's diverse menu, which targets adult fast-food consumers. Although hamburgers, including the chain's signature Jumbo Jack, Sourdough Jack and Ultimate Cheeseburger, represent the core of its menu, other items, such as specialty sandwiches, salads and ice cream shakes, are available. The company also offers value-priced products on its Jack's Value Menu, including tacos, a chicken sandwich and Breakfast Jack. Approximately 85 percent of the chain's half-billion guests served annually buy food at the drive-thru or for take-out.

As part of the HACCP program, restaurant employees receive priority checklists for everything from scrubbing equipment to handling food. Timers determine how long food is cooked on each side. And when cooking burgers, the chain's plan requires chefs to pierce the center of patties to check the color before taking the meat off the grill. Today, Jack in the Box requires its hamburgers be cooked well done instead of rare, which was the case before the E. coli outbreak.

Separate inspections cover activities that occur during every shift, every day and every week. At the beginning of each shift and throughout the shift, management personnel must verify that all workstations meet cleanliness standards and adherence to established safety and quality procedures. These checks verify such critical items as correct equipment temperatures, proper use of tools and procedures to prevent cross-contamination, proper product temperatures and continual practice of proper employee hygiene requirements.

Theno says the chain's food safety program focuses on five key areas. “The first concern is that there are no ill employees working and that all wounds are properly bandaged. Second, we make sure that cross-contamination is prevented so there is no possibility that bacteria and pathogens from raw foods will be transferred. Third, we monitor equipment, checking that proper temperatures are maintained at all times. No food should be in the danger zone,” he says. Bacteria growth occurs when food temperatures are between 41 °F. and 140 °F.

“Fourth, we make sure that all cooking equipment is calibrated properly and working to its specification. We do this with a visual inspection, but also by checking cooked products and testing temperatures. The last area is a holistic view of the facility to confirm that it is sanitary overall. This includes controlling rodents and insects, proper surface sanitation, making sure the dishwasher is working properly and things of that nature. These are big things,” says Theno.

Theno says the role of equipment in Jack in the Box's food safety program is vital. “We want to use equipment that is suitable, NSF-approved and easily sanitized,” he says. “We work very closely with equipment manufacturers, some who have told us that we know more about their equipment than they do.”

He says this is because the chain is on top of equipment calibration. “If a controller says the grill needs to be controlled at plus or minus 25 °, we will know the design criteria to be sure the unit accomplishes this,” Theno says.

All new equipment at Jack in the Box is calibrated to ensure that it adheres to the company's specifications. “We calibrate equipment a couple of times a day to make sure it is maintained properly. If it starts to drift, we notice it right away,” Theno says.

While some operations count on restaurant employees to tend to equipment, Jack in the Box prefers to dispatch support facility personnel who will visit each site and tend to the care and maintenance of equipment. “These people make sure that our equipment is operating as it is designed. We put our trust in people who are the most qualified and responsible, rather than holding our restaurant employees accountable,” Theno says. “If I have a grill acting up, I want someone who knows all about grills to take care of it, rather than someone who works with it intermittently as part of another job. If equipment is malfunctioning, we will completely shut the station down until we can properly address and take care of the problem.”

Although Jack in the Box uses a rotation schedule for preventative maintenance, the company does not employ one for equipment replacement. “The reason is, if you care for equipment, it will last a long time. We have some grills that are 20 years old and still going strong. As long as the units are operating properly, we will continue to utilize them,” Theno says.

He emphasizes that preventative maintenance and the fact that each restaurant calibrates equipment regularly are key elements to its food safety procedures. “New equipment is getting better all the time. Many units provide diagnostic information before they fail, reducing downtime,” Theno says.

If he could design a piece of equipment, Theno says it would be self-diagnostic. “We would like to see the development of Smart Equipment that can tell operators what is needed, such as maintenance or cleaning, before it fails or is compromised. Remote diagnostics would be ideal, so our facility service leaders can receive automatic alerts when equipment needs preventative maintenance. This way, we could then dispatch people before there is an issue,” he says.

More robust equipment that is easily calibrated with accessible controls would be ideal, Theno says. “Square footage is valuable, so the more versatile equipment is, the better.” Easy maintenance also is key. “Any features that make a unit easier to maintain from a food safety standpoint are important. We like surfaces that don't pit and mar easily, so they don't harbor bacteria. Surfaces that have bacteria-resistant coatings are ideal.”

Jack in the Box works closely with its equipment reps and manufacturers. “We routinely have reps come into our locations. We walk them through our procedures with new and existing equipment, showing them how units are calibrated,” Theno says. “We see this as a shared responsibility or partnership, where we help educate equipment manufacturers about our expectations. In turn, they may have suggestions on how to better accomplish a task or provide us with more insight on what their equipment is capable of doing.”

Theno would like to see more equipment manufacturers lead the way in the development of features that help improve food safety in the back of the house. “There are some companies that are doing this, but many others are waiting to be told what to do by operators.”

Along with paying close attention to its equipment needs, Jack in the Box audits its restaurants often to ensure that operators follow proper food safety protocol. The company has two internal auditing groups — one that keeps an eye on the operational side and a foodservice facility group that spot-checks equipment and processes. “We have an internal field group called Guest Services Systems, that is made up of food safety specialists,” Theno says. “This group visits each restaurant at least once a quarter, conducting a full-on review of food safety systems.” Each group is regionally deployed and focuses on the adherence and management of Jack in the Box's program. “We have zero tolerance when it comes to food safety problems.”

Third-party, or outside, auditors monitor the chain's food and equipment suppliers. “We only use third-party auditors that we are comfortable with and that we know will provide us with valid assessments. We don't use outside auditors at the store level, because it is too difficult to train them properly. This is something that is better accomplished in-house,” Theno explains.

Jack in the Box conducts store assessments the old-fashioned way: with paper and pencil. But the chain is testing an electronic system it plans to employ in the near future. “These audits are a part of our Management Surveillance and Control System. Once the assessment is completed, it is entered into our central database, where it is stored. A copy of the results also is provided to each restaurant operator,” Theno says.

There are a number of incentives for restaurants that execute food safety protocol at exemplary levels. “One we are especially proud of is called the Circle of Excellence, which we've had for eight years now,” Theno says. “Locations are scored on food safety and quality parameters. Operators have to do well on both. We reward the top 10 to 20 percent.”

Honorees receive the Jack trophy featuring Jack in the Box's mascot, which Theno compared to the entertainment industry's Oscar from the Academy Awards. “The only way to get one is to attain the Circle of Excellence designation,” he says. “Our chairman and CEO don't have these trophies. The only way to earn one is through exemplary operations. They are so coveted, that the people who have earned the trophies proudly display them.”

Franchisees and managers from locations that score exceptionally well are rewarded with a trip. “We take them to a vacation location, wine them and dine them for two to three days to thank them and celebrate their success,” Theno says.

The chain also presents other awards on a monthly, quarterly and yearly basis to recognize operators who excel in the area of food safety. An internal company newsletter also helps celebrate food safety successes.

Where food safety is concerned, the program is consistent throughout its locations, whether the restaurant is company-owned or franchised. “About 25 percent of our locations are franchised,” Theno says. “But every restaurant has the same food safety program. Our franchise community has been beyond a full partner with this. There has never been a line between the two.”

In fact, franchisees have played a big part in helping to shape, guide and execute the program. “In some operations, establishing a consistent food safety program in franchises could be problematic, but that is not the case with us,” Theno says. “This is an area where disputes should not arise.”

This is another reason why, for practical purposes, Jack in the Box's food safety program serves as an operating system rather than a separate initiative. “Our franchise agreement says that our operators need to follow the system. Philosophically, the program is run as a management system in every restaurant. Everyone, from the manager, assistant manager and crew, is charged with executing the program every day,” Theno says.

In addition to its management training programs and food quality and safety system, Jack in the Box uses ServSafe, a nationally recognized food safety training and certification program administered in partnership with the NRA. All of its management personnel, as well as shift leaders, are certified. In addition, the chain requires every restaurant manager and grill employee to receive special grill certification training and be re-certified annually.

All Jack in the Box employees receive computer-based training upon being hired, but before starting their job. “New hires receive basic food safety training from crew members, along with HACCP training in all of our workstations. This is because HACCP is a big part of our workstation procedures,” Theno says.

Continuing education also remains an essential part of the training process, particularly where food safety is concerned. “We revisit the issue of food safety constantly,” Theno says. “We re-certify with the ServSafe program, hold leadership team meetings to discuss food safety and constantly tweak our HACCP system, raising the bar.”

According to Theno, as HACCP systems were being instituted, the company's advisory team, of which 80 percent are operators, were making revisions and suggestions for change. “This is their report card. Operators get promoted or fired based on these reports, which are modified every six to nine months due to menu revamps and other changes. These operators were raising the bar on themselves with their suggestions, making the report card even tougher. This is evidence of their commitment to food safety and their understanding of its importance,” he says.

Theno recounts a visit by the representative of a large fast-food chain to a California Jack in the Box as further evidence of its associates' commitment to food safety. “We had a representative of another highly franchised chain come in to do surveillance on our food safety program. They queried an employee, who talked vehemently about our food safety program for at least a half an hour. The chain's rep wanted to know how he, too, could get that sense of ownership from employees at the unit level,” he says.

Because Theno believes the importance and effectiveness of its procedures can benefit everyone in the industry, details on Jack in the Box's food safety program are not proprietary. “We have an open invitation for anyone in the restaurant industry to visit our restaurants and we will share our food safety systems. We will even share our information with our fiercest competitors,” he says. “We use it as benchmarking best practices. It's a way to give back to people.”


A Man Committed to Food Safety

Dr. David M. Theno, Jack in the Box's senior vice president of quality and logistics, was formerly managing director and CEO of Theno & Associates, a Modesto, Calif., agribusiness-consulting firm. He has also directed food safety, quality and technical operations for Armour Food Co., Kellogg's and Foster Farms.

Theno is a member of the USDA National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods and a board member of the International Stockmen's Educational Foundation. In addition, he is a member

of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Beef Industry Food Safety Council and serves on the Blue Ribbon Task Force for “Solving the E. coli O157:H7 Problem,” sponsored by the National Livestock & Meat Board. Theno has served as a peer reviewer for the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service's HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) study and was on the National Advisory Committee on Meat & Poultry Inspection in 1998. He is also the author of numerous scientific and trade publications on food safety and HACCP applications.

Theno is on the advisory board of the Partnership for Food Safety Education ® (PFSE), a public-private coalition dedicated to preventing foodborne illness by educating Americans at home and at work about safe food handling and by building awareness of food security.

In addition, he was the 1997 recipient of the California Environmental Health Association's Mark Nottingham Award.