Vichyssoise: A Sad Story with Lessons Learned for Food Safety & Quality Professionals

I attend a lot of conferences and summits. I know I’ve contributed to more than a hundred during my working life, to say nothing of events I attended as a delegate rather than as one of the organizers.

There was an amazing presentation I saw many years ago that I probably think about and reference in conversation more often than the next several best presentations I have ever seen put together. It has been a little while since the last time I wrote about FSQ issues on this blog, and so I think it is high time to repeat some of the key takeaways from that terrific session here for a broader audience.

I want to begin by apologizing to whoever I am about to reference as my inspiration for today’s blog post. I have gone through half a dozen of the agendas for our North American Food Safety & Quality series, and you don’t appear on any of them. I think it highly probable —in fact, as I say it, it sounds familiar— that you were a last-minute volunteer substitution for a speaker who had missed a flight. Whichever event it was, I am sure you were speaking in Conference Room 2, because I remember in the moment and ever since lamenting that we did not have a camera recording your presentation, as we always do in the back of sessions running in Conference Room 1.

(As a quick aside both for those who attend our events and for those interested in doing so in the future, Executive Platforms now has cameras recording all sessions at most of our events these days, but that is a relatively recent development.)

Returning to my story, the speaker was an older gentleman who was attending as a senior consultant for one of the food service companies sponsoring the event that year. He took the stage with a few quickly prepared powerpoint slides and a smile. His audience was a room full of senior Food Safety, Quality, and Compliance professionals from companies across North America. I remember he began with a request.

“Let’s all admit —quietly to ourselves here in the privacy of this room— that unless your product is salt or vinegar, something can go wrong. It’s up to people like us to keep it from going wrong. Let’s talk about our failures.”

Then he clicked the remote and advanced to the first slide after his title card. It was a can of soup on an otherwise blank screen.

“By show of hands, how many people have ever heard of Vichyssoise Soup?”

Most people in the room raised a hand.

“How many of you have ever had it?”

Most of the hands went down.

“And those of you who had it, would I be right in saying you ordered it in a restaurant, or someone made it for you at home from scratch? Please keep your hand up if you buy or have ever bought Vichyssoise in a grocery store, or if anyone has ever even seen Vichyssoise available in a grocery store.”

All the hands went down, and then the speaker raised his own hand. “I used to buy it in grocery stores all the time as a young man. I quite liked it. It’s basically cream of potato and leak soup served cold. You can still buy potato and leak soup in grocery stores, but you haven’t been able to find Vichyssoise in a grocery store since 1971. Let me tell you why.”

I will stop half-remembering and half-inventing dialogue from many years ago of a man whose name I cannot recall, and just tell you the rest of the story in my own way. I hope I have done enough justice to the start of his version of the story to leave you confident he had everyone’s complete attention as he told his sad story and then walked them through why a decades-old FSQ disaster was still relevant to all of them today. Instead, I will tell the story in my own way that works better in blog format than as a likely near-spontaneous public address.

The Origins of Vichyssoise

As I already mentioned, Vichyssoise is a variant of potato and leak soup that French people have been making for the last several centuries. The version that became a household name in the UK and North America was the creation of a chef named Louis Félix Diat from a small town near the famous French spa town of Vichy. He trained under César Ritz at the Paris Ritz and the London Ritz, and by 1911 he was the first head chef of the newly opened Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City, where he worked until he retired 40 years later as one of the first giants of French cuisine in America.

In a book published after his death, Diat is quoted saying, “I suspect that some of the [connoisseurs] who order [Vichyssoise] would be much surprised to learn of its humble origins as my mother’s simple leek and potato soup. Casting about one day for a new cold soup, I remembered how maman used to cool our breakfast soup on a warm morning by adding cold milk to it. A cup of cream, an extra straining, and a sprinkle of chives, et voila! I had my new soup. I named my version of maman’s soup after Vichy […] as a tribute to the fine cooking of the region.”

A Grocery Store Staple

Canned soup was not new even in 1911, but the 1897 discovery by a chemist at the Campbell Soup Company of how to make condensed soup where a smaller volume could be shipped and sold at less cost perfectly positioned the food industry for explosive growth throughout the 20th Century —especially during two World Wars and a Great Depression where convenient, inexpensive, shelf-stable, easy-to-make meals seemed a godsend for people living and working in ways difficult to imagine for earlier generations.

Vichyssoise with its air of sophistication based on simple, wholesome ingredients that could easily be prepared by anyone in minutes quickly became a top seller, mentioned in the same breath as Cream of Mushroom, Chicken Noodle, and even the ubiquitous Tomato Soup. If anything, it had a competitive advantage and a unique selling proposition over those others. Being a soup intended to be served cold, you did not even need a stove or a hotplate to prepare it! Just add milk and maybe some cream and chives, and you are ready to eat.

The Incident

Have you ever heard of the Bon Vivant Soup Company? In 1971 they were a 108-year-old contemporary and major competitor of The Campbell Soup Company responsible for around four million cans of different food products a year.

July 2nd, 1971, was a very warm day in Westchester County, New York. A married couple decided it was too hot to cook, so they opened a can of Bon Vivant Vichyssoise. It tasted funny, so they did not finish it. Within hours, the husband was dead and the wife was paralyzed from botulism poisoning.

The FDA recalled 6,444 cans of Bon Vivant Vichyssoise —all from the same batch canned at the same time and sold to Westchester County grocery stores— and found five more cases of botulism in the first 324 cans they opened.

The story went national, then international, faster than you would believe. Late-night talk shows and stand-up comedians all talked about poisoned soup that week. The Addams Family was a newspaper comic strip at the time, and there was a storyline where Uncle Fester began hoarding cans of Vichyssoise soup. They were all being recalled, you see.

The FDA looked at how the cans were contaminated, and they could not guarantee the problem did not apply to all of Bon Vivant’s soup lines. More than a million cans of Bon Vivant soup were pulled from shelves within days, and by July 7th, the FDA shut down Bon Vivant’s plant in Newark, New Jersey.

The CEO of Bon Vivant, James Paretti, complained that the FDA’s behavior was, “Unnecessarily cruel.” He maintained that he could not even provide all the requisitioned documents the FDA demanded in part because of how the inspectors had tore through his company’s offices in a haphazard and frenzied manner trying to track down where else Bon Vivant’s soup might be.

To make matters even worse, Bon Vivant was also involved in producing a number of in-store brands, and so public confidence in all canned soup in general plummeted. The summer of 1971 saw public boycotts of all sorts of canned goods as people tried to figure out who they could trust.

By the end of July, Bon Vivant’s brand name was so permanently tarnished, they filed for bankruptcy and reincorporated as Moore & Co. Under that banner, they fought the FDA for three years to get their inventory of more than a million cans of soup returned to them, but in the end they lost. In 1974, the FDA destroyed everything.

One bad can reaching a customer’s kitchen table killed a man, ruined a woman’s life, destroyed a 108-year-old company utterly, and to this day Vichyssoise —once one of the top-selling canned soups— is now just a vaguely familiar and somewhat exotic dish that no one thinks to go looking for down at the local market.

I suppose I should end this portion of the blog post by saying the older gentleman speaking had five more slides after this about other incidents in the Food Industry from the 20th Century. None of the others resonated with me as much as this one, though, which is why I’ve remembered it all these years and share it with you now.

Lessons Learned

Now we should acknowledge a fifty-year-old incident is not going to be immediately applicable to today’s Food Safety and Quality professional. For one thing, the FDA hadn’t inspected a Bon Vivant plant in four years prior to the incident. Can you imagine that happening today? Anyway, you can understand how there was at the time a whiff of overreaction to how swiftly and thoroughly the FDA stepped in once a problem occurred. One anonymous industry source told the Washington Post at the time it was, “The god-damndest case of overkill I have ever seen in my life,” but the most relevant part of that quote to me is that it was given anonymously.

The FDA had shown its awesome power to an industry that had grown complacent, and no one wanted to pull the fury of regulators down on them in the post-Bon Vivant world.

The Food and Beverage industry had been, to an extent and in comparison to today, self-regulating. It wasn’t quite Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but there was a feeling in the 1960s and early 1970s that if there was no problem, no onerous regulatory burden was put on their day-to-day operations of American food manufacturing and processing facilities. Now the industry had betrayed the public trust. Government regulators stepped in, utterly destroyed the worst offender, and nothing was ever the same after that for the rest of the industry.

Public trust takes decades to build, and it can be lost for years over one incident.

Brands and companies like Vichyssoise and Bon Vivant can go from household names to historical trivia over one incident.

A man died and a woman was left a paralyzed widow because of one incident.

It can happen that fast. It can happen over something that seemingly trivial. How many cans did Bon Vivant make and ship without incident? The FSQ professionals working at that company may never even have seen the can that brought the whole business down in less than a month.

That is the awesome truth all Food Safety, Quality, and Compliance professionals live with each and every day, and while the 21st Century is not the mid-20th Century, botulism and the other things that can get into our food and beverages do not know or care what year it is. The only solution is to always be improving, always looking at compliance as the starting point to exceed expectations, always looking for new tactics, tools, and technologies to better perform the sacred duty the public entrusts to them without ever knowing their names.

I have forgotten the name of the older gentleman I keep referencing throughout this story, but I will never forget that I would trust him and people like him to keep my food safe.