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If you’ve been in the food industry for longer than five minutes, chances are someone has told you that food safety isn’t a competitive advantage. You’ve heard it from talking heads, CEOs and more. Seasoned professionals have heard it over and over but can’t quite pinpoint where it came from.

Some insiders think the ethos might have originated with the late Dave Theno, who was recruited by Jack in the Box to overhaul its food safety programs after the deadly 1993 outbreak.

It’s not exactly an unwritten rule. The North American Meat Institute board of directors agreed to make food safety a non-competitive issue in 2001, and Frank Yiannas, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deputy commissioner for food policy and response, said parts of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and New Era for Smarter Food Safety touch on it being a shared responsibility.

“The idea that food safety should not be viewed as a competitive issue started to grow in acceptance with the emergence of a modern, interdependent food system that has provided consumers with a more diverse food supply — and one that provides foods from all over the world,” Yiannas said. “Keeping food safe is also more than just a regulatory requirement. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Darin Detwiler, author, food safety advocate and professor of food policy at Northeastern University, thinks the reality is that food safety culture is what’s actually non-competitive.

“In the world of sports, sportsmanship is not a competitive thing, but clearly there’s competition in sports between teams,” he said. “So, food safety culture — like sportsmanship — is not competitive, but we would have a hard time saying that food and drink itself does not have any competitive element.”