Freshman atmospheric and oceanic sciences major, Anna Smith, had a rough start to her first semester at Stony Brook last fall. As someone with celiac disease, the dining halls were a nightmare – more so than for most – as she struggled to figure out what was gluten-free and what would slowly destroy her immune system if consumed.
Then George Anderson came along.
“He’s been extremely helpful,” Smith said. “I don’t know if the student body knows about him that well. It would benefit a lot of people if they actually talk to someone.”
George Anderson is the university sanitarian. He is the guy who shows up to fix any issues regarding allergies, dietary restrictions and food quality.
He is also the guy who shows up if students alert employees of issues instead of going straight to the Stony Brook Dining Feedback Facebook page.
“I talk to students daily to get their impressions of food and to help them with any concerns they may have with the food so that I can address it, fix it and put them at ease,” Anderson said. “Every day brings a new challenge.”
Anderson’s past is more interesting than some might expect — he’s visited 28 countries, worked as a Las Vegas club-runner and once worked as a researcher who ate chocolate and then entered his thoughts into a computer. But ask any given West Side diner and they will likely be unable to tell you who he is or what a sanitarian does.
A sanitarian is responsible for food safety in a kitchen or dining environment. Anderson’s job is to educate and train all the chefs, full-time employees and the undergrads how to properly handle and prepare food so no one finds a toenail in their tacos at East Side Dining.
“Food safety is a very boring subject,” Anderson readily admits. “I know that sounds strange coming from the food safety expert, but I find it to be boring, so I know other people do too. “
Having interacted with Anderson twice, Smith can attest to the importance of his job. The first time was when a bottle of salad dressing was mislabeled and the second was when she had concerns about cross-contamination at Roth Dining. There is no room for small mistakes when allergic reactions can cause hives or breathing problems. Both incidences occurred early on in the spring 2017 semester.
“Because I talked to the managers, [George] discovered what happened,” Smith said. “I met with him and Stephanie May and they told me they had a giant meeting at Roth explaining what the issue was, what happened and they put in some procedures to prevent it from ever happening again.”
Smith credited May, the school nutritionist, with offering guidance on what she could eat last fall, but said Anderson’s policies and efforts have led to “much, much better conditions” in the dining halls this spring.
“If any of your friends need anything, let me know. You can give my number to anyone,” Anderson said, according to Smith. “Just tell them ‘I’m here. I’ll help.’”
“That was just extremely comforting to know,” Smith said. She later directed questions on behalf of her friends, one with a peanut allergy and another who was vegan. Again Anderson was, “more than willing to answer any question.”
Anderson arrived at Stony Brook in January of 2016. After traveling all across the world, most recently to Japan where he summited Mt. Fuji, and growing up between Nebraska and Massachusetts, the former chef decided to come to Long Island because of the wide range of facilities he would be able to see and the teaching role he would get to fill.
“Educating is absolutely my favorite part,” Anderson said of food safety. The training he does includes games, videos and real life stories of what happens when safety is taken for granted. The most severe example was when the Peanut Corporation of America went bankrupt after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a salmonella outbreak in 2008 may have contributed to nine deaths in five states. One of the most extensive food recalls in U.S. history followed and the company’s owner, Stewart Parnell, was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
“When I make it personal, it helps people to understand we aren’t just serving food,” Anderson said. “People are trusting us with their health. Once you get people to understand that, it becomes more than just a job.”
Anderson said there have not been any major health scares since he arrived last year and he would not discuss any kitchen horror stories pertaining to his time here at Stony Brook — but like any chef, he has his fair share.
“The worst thing I have ever seen was when I was running a fine dining restaurant in Reagan National Airport in D.C. on 9/11,” Anderson said. The whole restaurant was evacuated with little time to clean up. “When we got back into the place about a month later, there was mold and bugs all over everything. It was like walking into a forest.”
Hopefully, nothing quite like that occurs during Anderson’s tenure here. But if it does happen, even on a minor scale, he wants to be the first one to know about it.
“When I met with him the first time,” Smith said, “He gave me his card and he was like, ‘I work for the students. You guys are my boss.’”
A previous version of this story stated that nine people died due to the Peanut Corporation of America salmonella outbreak of 2008. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report at the time identified the outbreak as a possible contributor, not a cause, to the deaths.