For some people, the seeds for pursuing a career in food safety are planted when they’re just small tykes.
That’s certainly the case for one of Stop Foodborne Illness’ new friends, Jorge Hernandez, Senior Vice President of Food Safety and Quality Assurance at US Foods.
While most 8-year-old boys daydream about becoming a policeman or a firefighter when they grow up, Jorge had different notions.
Today, in our special Q & A with Jorge, you’ll learn about the twists and turns he took on his path to food safety work, and you’ll find out why his long hours at US Foods are so much more than a job. It’s truly a calling for Jorge. And it’s something that gives him soul-shaking clarity on exactly what he’s meant to do in this life.
Q:Tell us more about your story and what led you to US Foods.
A: As a child in Mexico, it was heart wrenching to see my paternal Grandmother die from diabetes. She suffered a great deal, and it tore me up inside. As her only grandchild, I was very close to her. The experience had a strong impact on me.
So, shortly after her death when I was nine, I distinctly remember deciding that a career in medicine would be a worthy pursuit. Helping patients who were sick like my grandmother, and easing their suffering, was going to be my mission.
Many years later, my studies brought me to the United States. But, an economic downturn in Mexico forced me to leave my graduate studies and find a job. The first one I started was in the Environmental Health Program at the Winnebago County Health Department in Illinois. While there, I learned about food, water, and air safety, along with other related areas and programs in public health. Part of my work included inspecting restaurants, and that’s what sparked my passion for food safety.
For me, it all came together during my second year on the job. Suddenly, a light bulb went on very brightly for me. I thought to myself:
Once I made that realization, things just “clicked” for me. Exciting new doors began to open. My strong passion for preventing foodborne illness led me to another opportunity leading food safety at the state level in Illinois. In that position, I met others equally as passionate and was asked to take on the role of a State Food Safety Trainer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
My FDA experience then catapulted me to an incredibly rewarding opportunity helping the National Restaurant Association develop a new and innovative food safety training program for the restaurant industry. The program, eventually named “ServSafe,” allowed me to work with top food safety leaders in the country. I soaked up so much knowledge! I loved it and felt so invigorated by this work. After years of learning how to implement ServSafe from the best of the best in the industry, I was asked to put a program together for US Foodservice, now US Foods.
Upon joining US Foods as VP of Food Safety and Quality Assurance, I began to develop systems and programs to identify the food safety, quality, and regulatory risks in our supply chain while assembling a team of top professionals who were just as passionate about food safety as I am. Now, as Senior VP of Food Safety and Quality Assurance, I can look back at the last 10 years and see that the team has done a great job and earned a reputation of innovation and leadership. For example, we were the first distributor in the U.S. to require job-specific food safety training for all employees who handle food; the first U.S. company to require food safety certification for all its private label suppliers; and we’re the first broad-line distributor to launch a program that checks for mislabeled seafood/ food fraud.
Along the way, the big lesson for me was this: God works in mysterious ways.
To find my real passion and purpose career-wise, I needed to veer away from the original dream I had of working in the medical field.
Whenever you feel like your plans are going off course, I encourage you to embrace the signs you’re getting about which way God is moving you toward. In my experience, this works in a powerfully rewarding way leading you to people and circumstances that will make your life a more fulfilling, happy one.
Q: In your role at US Foods, what’s a “day in the life” like for you?
A: Truthfully, there’s no such thing!
US Foods is a very large organization. With more than 60 distribution centers, we’re one of the largest foodservice distributors in the country. We also operate 12 meat processing facilities, an expansive fleet of trucks, an import business, and a portfolio of 20,000 private label products manufactured in more than 1,200 facilities by 530 suppliers in more than 10 different countries.
As you can imagine, with my work focused on ensuring the safety, quality, and regulatory compliance of all products we offer to more than 250,000 customers, it’s a little daunting!
Fortunately, US Foods has made food safety a non-negotiable, top priority and has put forth tremendous resources to make that possible.
Over the years, we’ve worked diligently to develop a culture of food safety, innovation, and continuous improvement. Most importantly, we’ve built a smart, talented, dedicated team of food safety professionals who establish food safety systems in every segment of our business. These folks help make sure US Foods delivers safe, quality food to our customers day in and day out.
For me, every day brings something different. One day, I might be working with my team to set up product testing to make sure products are pathogen-free and labeled properly. On other days, I could be analyzing data, fielding customer questions, working with regulators to verify compliance, or expediting communication to customers about a recalled product.
Each day is unpredictable. The one constant, though, is US Foods’ commitment to make sound food safety decisions that protect our customers and prevent foodborne illness.
Q: What’s your personal philosophy on food safety and how does that play a role in your work every day?
A: My personal philosophy on food safety is simple:
It can’t be done effectively by one country, one company, one segment of the industry, one nonprofit, one university, or one government agency.
I know this is frequently touched on, and you’ve no doubt heard this hundreds of times before!
But, it’s really at the heart of how we can prevent more sickness and death from contaminated food. Effective food safety requires you, me, and all of us who eat food each day to do our part.
Q: What’s one thing that gets you really fired up to drive positive change in the world of food safety and why?
A: I love my job, my company, and our customers. The passionate people I work with at US Foods and those we serve get me fired up and believing—to the core of my being—that we ARE and WILL CONTINUE to bring about positive change.
Q: What’s the most difficult part of your work and why?
A: At times, I’ve got to make tough calls without optimal data to support my conclusions and recommendations.
This is hard. And it can be emotionally overwhelming. I know my decisions can impact many people, products, and companies.
But, when it comes to food safety, a rule of thumb I always use is to take the most conservative approach. This is the best way to minimize negative consequences and protect as many people as possible if a food recall or foodborne illness outbreak strikes.
Q: If you could pick one food safety problem, snap your fingers, and make it disappear, which would it be?
A: When it comes to food, there are many risks and practices that impact its safety.
However, I think the biggest challenge and opportunity is improving the general lack of knowledge and implementation of food safety practices with the public.
If I could, I’d snap my fingers and have every single one of us around the world learn all the things we can do on our own to keep food safe, and I’d make sure each practice—like hand washing, making sure cold food stays cold, and not preparing food when sick—was carried out.
Sure, I know that’s “pie in the sky” thinking.
But, I think this can have an enormously positive effect on reducing the number of people who get sick from foodborne illness. Yes, all of us who grow, harvest, manufacture, and deliver food MUST do our part. And we’re totally committed to that at US Foods. But, every person who eats food is empowered to make their food safer, too.
Q: What advice do you have for STOP’s readers about the problem above?
A: I know STOP readers are “in the know” more so than most. And they’re undoubtedly doing a lot every day to prevent foodborne illness. I give them so much appreciation and kudos for that!
Yet, for anyone who may not be as attentive to things like proper hand washing or other basic food safety practices that STOP does such a great job at communicating about, I hope you’ll re-dedicate yourself to them.
Because from the most sincere place in my heart, I care about you and don’t want you or anyone you love suffering in any way from a foodborne illness.
Q: Let’s switch gears and talk trends. What food safety trends do you see happening over the next 5 years that’ll help make our food supply safer?
A: Over the next five years, I think the spotlight on food safety, quality, and regulations on the food industry will stay strong.
In my opinion, three trends will help improve food safety around the globe:
Q: How did you first learn about Stop Foodborne Illness and what inspired you to get involved?
A: I heard about STOP at a meeting where Nancy Donley did a presentation about her son contracting and eventually dying from a foodborne illness.
Her remarks were so poignant. I shed tears as she spoke. She put into human terms the horrors that can happen when food safety practices aren’t followed.
This lady’s heartfelt speech reminded me of my childhood and the reasons I decided to pursue a career preventing foodborne illness. She was the first person with STOP who won my heart and, shortly after her talk, I reached out to STOP to see how I could help.
Q: So far, reflecting on your experiences with us, what’s one thing that’s been especially meaningful to you in your work?
A: For me, it’s been meeting the dynamic and caring people at STOP who share my passion for food safety. Specifically, I love that we’re both very focused on education that leads to taking action to help prevent foodborne illness.
Q: Why is your partnership with STOP important to you personally?
A: The mission of Stop Foodborne Illness aligns with me on a deep personal level. STOP wants to end the suffering and death from foodborne illness. So do I. If our efforts help even just one person, all the work is worth it.
Q: For our many readers who’ve suffered greatly from a foodborne illness, what’s your personal message to them?
A: First, I’m truly sorry that any person has had to endure the tragedy of foodborne illness. I know it’s so awful. If you’ve been a victim or seen a loved suffer, I empathize with you on a deep level.
But, the good news is this:
Our potential for preventing sickness and lost lives from foodborne illness is huge. We’ve all been blessed with immeasurable power to make positive changes. Please don’t wait another single minute to start or increase your food safety role.
I feel fortunate to be traveling on the path with you, and I’m looking forward to creating waves of positive change together along the way.
Jorge Hernandez graduated from Rockford University in Illinois with degrees in chemistry and biology. He also holds a degree in French culture from La Université de la Sorbonne in Paris, France, and a degree in microbiology from the Centro de Estudios Científicos y Tecnológicos Especialidades Medico-Biológicas in México City, México.