In the world of food safety, Norman Barnett is one of those good guys who has it all—smarts, passion, professionalism, a caring heart, and a no-nonsense attitude about how to truly keep food safe.
So, when our friend, Norman, agreed to do an interview with us, we were thrilled! He’s a Training Officer with the Arizona Department of Agriculture and has a sincere, genuine love of his food safety work.
In our Q & A below, you’ll get to know Norman and how he’s fighting the battle against contaminated food. And you don’t want to miss his story about the lady with Stop Foodborne Illness who gave him a “light bulb moment.” It was an unforgettable moment that spurred a burning desire in Norman to change up his food safety trainings so that his students’ hearts would be forever touched and inspired to make food safety the priority it needs to be to prevent illness and save lives.
Q: Norman, tell us about your personal story and how you started a career in food safety.
A: My food safety career began with Fry’s Food & Drug Stores of Arizona, a wholly-owned division of the Kroger Company based in Cincinnati, OH. Here’s the backstory: In 1992, ABC Nightline conducted a hidden camera exposé involving an eastern seaboard chain of grocery stores, which alleged mishandling of food and unsafe food practices. Kroger saw this as an opportunity to strengthen their own longstanding mission of providing safe, wholesome food to their valued customers. And, to that end, in 1993 I was promoted as the Food Safety Manager for the Kroger stores in Arizona. During my tenure, I was privileged to see Fry’s grow from a mere 45 stores to 124 retail locations statewide.
I remained with Fry’s until my retirement in the spring of 2017. It’s been a tremendously rewarding run for me. Many people have influenced my food safety career, but none more so than Mr. John Marcello, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)’s Resident Food Specialist who’s based in Arizona. I consider him a good friend and a cherished mentor—someone who really set the tone for how I moved forward with my food safety career. John’s strong belief is that a regulator’s first and primary role is to be an EDUCATOR, not just a regulator. Education accomplishes far more to help bring about positive change. He promotes the value of intra-agency and industry cooperation. John has been instrumental in bringing the Arizona regulatory community and food industry together in a collaborative partnership to advance and promote food safety like no other person I’ve ever met. He’s the consummate professional and very effective in his work.
Q: What’s your current position and what do you consider to be MOST important in keeping food safe and preventing foodborne illness?
A: In September 2017, I came out of retirement and have been working as a Training Officer with the Arizona Department of Agriculture. In that role, I work directly with produce growers, harvesters, packers, and cooler-holders of fresh produce to educate them about the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule (PSR). I also deliver Grower Training using a curriculum jointly developed by the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) and Cornell University. I’m fortunate to travel throughout Arizona working with our primary stakeholders as well as reaching out to farmer’s markets, trade organizations, farm bureaus, and cooperative extensions to promote our training opportunities.
One best growing practice to help keep produce safe is the appropriate use and testing of agricultural water. As a general requirement of the PSR, agricultural water must be safe and of adequate sanitary quality for its intended use. Direct application of contaminated water on a covered crop or during post-harvest activities increases the risk of foodborne illness. Secondly, the proper use and timing of application of biological soil amendments such as manure, stabilized composts, and other biological materials are key.
Of course, farm-fresh produce undergoes significant handling by people and equipment. All that handling increases the risk of possible cross-contamination. So, employee personal hygiene practices and equipment cleaning/sanitation is paramount. Therefore, training is key. The worker food safety training must be easily understood, and appropriate to the worker’s assigned duties. Drawing from my experiences, striking an emotional chord is critical as it drives home the importance of training. And that’s where Stop Foodborne Illness has really helped me improve the effectiveness of my training efforts.
Q: Tagging on to your last comment, tell us how you first learned about Stop Foodborne Illness and the experience you had in 2017 when you shared one of our videos in your training class.
A: Many years ago, I met Nancy Donley at a food safety conference. Nancy was serving as a spokesperson for Stop Foodborne Illness and, when I heard her poignant story of how she lost her precious young son, Alex, to foodborne illness, I was deeply touched.
As a father and grandfather, I especially appreciated how Nancy’s story brought a terrible food safety tragedy down to a personal, human level. Little Alex is a face behind the statistical numbers we so often use. Behind every foodborne illness statistic is a child, a parent, a grandparent, a loved one, or a friend. At that moment, after my encounter with Nancy, I vowed to bring a higher level of humanity to every food safety class I conducted. And I wanted to accomplish this through sharing a story of someone who has suffered the awful pain and grief and sometimes death that contaminated food can levy on a person’s life. I wanted to use a story that would hopefully touch someone’s heart—not just tap into their sense of reason and intellect.
We aren’t simply food workers, farmers, or food producers—we’re also the frontline guardians of public health. A colleague of mine once said, “Everybody will tell you they are dedicated to food safety, but that’s not enough. We need to be converted to food safety.” That was another lightbulb moment. If you don’t have a passion and zeal for food safety, it’s time to find a different career.
Q: When it comes to food safety and preventing foodborne illness, what is ONE thing you’d like our readers to do right now?
A: Please watch the Survivors Video I use in our PSA Grower Training: The WHY Behind Food Safety. It tells the story of Rylee & Lauren who were victims of the 2006 spinach outbreak. In it, Dan Sutton, a member of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) meets with Rylee & Lauren.
After watching this video, I encourage you to thoughtfully contemplate your individual role in food safety. Whether you’re a consumer, line cook, food establishment manager, farmer, regulator, or food safety professional, please reflect upon this question:
And I hope your answer is the latter.
Norman Barnett is a Training Officer for the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA) in Phoenix, AZ. He works state-wide with growers, harvesters, packers, and cooler-holders to implement the Produce Safety Rule of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Norman came to AZDA after a career of 26 years, 23 of which he served as the Division Food Safety Manager for Fry’s Food & Drug Stores, which is owned by the Kroger Company. He’s licensed as a Certified Professional, Food Safety (CP-FS) by the National Environmental Health Association and serves as a Board Member of the Arizona Environmental Health Association. Norman is also credentialed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as an agent commissioned to perform food safety activities related to produce in Arizona.
When he’s not working, Norman enjoys his 12 grandchildren, traveling with his wife, 4X off-roading in his Jeep, volunteering at his church, and collecting World War II memorabilia.