Let’s start at the very beginning – the early 1990s
The years leading up to the formation of Verner Wheelock Associates in 1990 were interesting ones in terms of the understanding of food safety – or should we say lack of it. One of the most notable was an outbreak of food poisoning at Stanley Royd Hospital for psychiatric patients in Wakefield in August 1984. Nineteen elderly patients and 300 other patients and staff were taken ill after eating beef containing Salmonella. The kitchens of the Victorian sanatorium were found to be in an appallingly filthy state.
On the subject of Salmonella, Health Minister Edwina Currie provoked outrage within the UK egg industry when she pronounced in December 1988 that most of Britain’s egg production was infected with the bacteria. Sales of eggs dropped 60 per cent as a consequence. For several years afterwards she was referred to as ‘Eggwina.’
1990 – a significant year
The birth of Verner Wheelock Associates coincided with the year that Gazza cried after England’s defeat in the World Cup; John Major became Prime Minister; there was a riot at Strangeways Prison in Manchester; The Simpsons was shown on British TV for the first time; Glasgow became the first British City of Culture and Princess Eugenie was born. 1990 was also the year that discount supermarkets Aldi and Netto opened their first UK stores in Birmingham and Leeds respectively; the BSE crisis was in full flow and the UK was in recession. Significantly for VWA it was also the year that the 1990 Food Safety Act was passed.
Professor Verner Wheelock was offered early retirement from his post of Head of the Food Policy Unit at Bradford University, which helped to shape the Government’s nutrition and food safety policies. Seeing this as the ideal opportunity to start up his own business, Verner agreed. The original Verner Wheelock Associates comprised Verner, his wife Jan (who had left her job as a sciences teacher at a local grammar school), Marlene Ellison, who had been Verner’s secretary at the university, and Steve Fallows, one of Verner’s research students.
The first training event takes place
In the beginning VWA was based in Albert Mill on Hey Street in Bradford. They had an office and there was also space to do some training. As Jan points out, they were still using typewriters in those days, so in order to get the word out about the new company and its events, they needed to send out plenty of mailshots, which meant a lot of envelope stuffing!
The first event they held was at Denton Hall in Ilkley on 25/26 October 1990 and was entitled ‘The Food Industry and the Media.’ The first major seminar and workshop on food safety run by VWA was on 4th December the same year, when they hired a room at the City Technology College. Over 100 delegates attended ‘Implications of the Food Safety Act 1990’, including Dr David Baines who was many years later to become tutor of VWA’s popular ‘Creating Savoury Flavours’ course.
The proceedings kicked off with an introduction from Verner and the programme proceeded as follows:
Chief Environmental Health Officer, Department of Health
‘The Government View’
Eunice Taylor and Stephen Fallows
Food Policy Research Unit, University of Bradford
‘What’s New about the Legislation?’
Secretary of IEHO London Food Study Group, Senior EHO, Hounslow
‘How will the Legislation be Enforced?’
RHM Ingredients, Ossett, West Yorkshire
‘Quality Systems BS 5750 and all that!’
Tesco Stores, Cheshunt
‘A Retailer’s View and the Impact on Supplies.’
PACE, Moira, Northern Ireland
‘A Computerised Due Diligence System.’
Report Back, Round Table Discussion
Tea and depart
This first seminar proved so popular that VWA ran 15 or 20 more over their first 18 months in business, including an event at Belfast Airport. When the Food Safety Act 1990 came into force on 1st January 1990, Verner was interviewed by Radio 4. “It was a bit like a roadshow.” Jan remembers. “Several representatives from large corporations attended, such as Coca Cola and John Howard, who was Marketing Director for Danish Bacon at the time and remained a longstanding client. In fact we still work with many people from the very early days. We also met people who became trainers for us.”
The start of many longstanding business relationships
At John Howard’s request VWA set up special conferences on food safety and legislation, including one on animal welfare, for Danish Bacon staff. The Danes flew in to London to attend.
As well as John, one of VWA’s very first clients on a consultancy basis was Moy Park, a chicken suppliers based in Northern Ireland. There are still a lot of people who we first met 25 years ago who keep coming back to book training with us as they move around in the food industry. It’s people like this who have helped VWA to grow into the company it is today.
Look out for the next chapter in the history of VWA.