The Food Safety Industry Needs More Heroes
Darin Detwiler appeared in the TEDxNortheasternU video in December.

The Food Safety Industry Needs More Heroes

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Food safety advocate Darin Detwiler’s TEDx Talk puts a call out for taking up a heroic task: preventing foodborne illness.

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February 8, 2021

Darin Detwiler talked about his late son Riley a lot in the early-to-mid 1990s. His son, who was just 16 months old, died as the result of the 1993 E. coli outbreak originating from beef patties from fast-food chain Jack in the Box. While 732 people were infected across four states, Riley was the last of four deaths — all of them children.

“That was kind of my function as the grieving father,” said Detwiler, who was interviewed on TV and in newspaper and magazine articles at the time.

Since then, though, Detwiler has become a devoted advocate for food safety, speaking at events and conferences. He’s also the assistant dean and associate teaching professor of food policy at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies in Boston.

And it was through the school’s recent TEDxNortheasternU that Detwiler talked about Riley and his experiences more publicly than he had in some time, discussing the conversations he has with the parents of children who are ill or have died due to foodborne illnesses.

“My goal is to listen and to offer my insight, and my experience,” he said in the video, before recounting the heartbreaking story.

In the TEDx Talk, released in December, Detwiler showed how one moment can shape the future and explained how food safety culture has grown over the decades. He shared facts and figures about foodborne illness, before talking about a 4-year-old child who survived an E. coli infection, which had left him with physical impairments. The child’s mom showed Detwiler a drawing her son created of a superhero in tights and a cape, and explained that if someone could have prevented him from getting sick, that person would have been the child’s hero.

Using that experience, Detwiler calls for food safety heroes to take their places alongside the Marvel and DC crusaders who dominate movie and TV screens.

“It’s one thing to make our food supply system as safe as can be,” Detwiler said in the video. “It’s another to inspire others to do the same."

We caught up with Detwiler, who serves on QA’s advisory board and is an occasional columnist for the magazine, to talk about the TEDx experience, how it was different than almost anything else that he’s written or presented and more.

Q. Why doesn’t Riley’s story come up when you’re speaking or teaching?

A. When I teach classes, I keep [it] professional. I don’t even tell anyone. And then there are conferences I’m speaking at, and I will tell other people's stories more than I tell my own my own son’s story. These are details and images from people who ask me to, “Tell my daughter’s story, here’s her photo.” One of the things I’ve learned is that if there’s no takeaway, if there’s no actionable element to it, all you’ve done is told someone a sad story. And I’m not saying that it’s bad. If all you are is the attention grabber, there’s a point where you have to share something beyond that. I’ve given plenty of presentations where I’ve never even mentioned my son. If I’m asked to talk about the future of food safety technology … there’s no place for me to insert that story.

Q. Why was the TEDx Talk the right space for that?

A. I found out about this opportunity to do a TEDx Talk, and I talked with the organizers. … It’s a student-run event, and they’re kind of like, Well, we've looked at your background, and I don't know how that’s interesting, really, to just talk about policy. So I said, “Well, what I could talk about is there’s this emotional piece. I’d like to build on that, and not just do the emotional piece, but build how I have changed as a person. And it was the first time for me to give a presentation in which I’m actually talking about myself. I didn’t actually tell much about my son’s experience. I focused on four memories, four photos, for me to just highlight and say, “Here are the things that I remember: When he looked at the IV, and he thought it was a bottle. To see him being airlifted. To see him being dwarfed by tubes and wires and monitors. To see his coffin.” I just had to barely talk about those and create that mental image in the audience’s minds.

Q. Doing a TEDx talk was a goal you set for yourself several years ago. Why is the platform interesting for this story?

A. I just thought, here was an interesting platform with TEDx to really provide a different topic than you normally see. [With other TEDx Talks], we see “I got to the moon.” “I ran this marathon.” “I invented this thing.” How often do you find, in all of the TEDx Talk videos, a guy talking about grieving and moving forward, having spent half his life after this event and talking about how to deal with this issue. It just seemed to me like this was a bit of a unicorn opportunity. It really was, for me, not just something to check off on my list of accomplishments. It was an emotional hurdle for me to break through and to look at in terms of: I’m exposing my vulnerability at a whole new level.

Q. What was your goal for this?

A. [I wanted] to find a way to talk about food safety that provides a message of hope to an audience that has nothing to do with the food industry, most likely, and to follow this theme of looking forward. It was different for me. I’ve been on so many stages in front of so many people, and I don’t talk like this. I don’t talk about this topic. So, how do I talk about this topic, and how do I keep it together, and how do I make it flow and make sense? … I guess my goals were that if I could inspire someone — whether it be someone who lost a child or someone who wonders [if there] is value in the work that they do in terms of auditing, inspection, maintenance or sanitation — to realize that underneath everything, we’re still human.

Q. Why was it important to tell the human side of why food safety is vital, and to put out a call for heroes?

A. There are people who deal with tragedies. Look at COVID-19. Look at drunk driving. There are so many different small- and large-scale issues. We want to have more advocates. We want to have more people focusing on how to be involved in change. Not everyone has a voice. Not everyone wants to have a voice. Not everyone knows what to do. If 3,000 families are dealing with [foodborne illness] every year, that’s 80,000 families since my son died. And that’s just simple math. If we want to have compassion, if we want to have ethics and corporate social responsibility and people operating not just from their financial statements, but from their heart as well, we have to look at this in terms of how we deal with these issues.