Knowledge Transfer Task Force

Article 26 - For food safety talent, Westside Produce looks inward, outward

November 4, 2022

This article originally appeared in The Packer, and is reprinted here with permission. © 2022 The Packer www.thepacker.com

Who do you produce safe produce for? For me, it’s always been the “grands” – grandparents, and grandchildren. They eat the food we produce; how would I feel if my grandmother, or grandchild, got sick? I want to do everything I can to keep them safe.

And it’s also our workers. They were central to my food safety epiphany early in my career, when the first food safety event hit the melon industry in 1992. While that outbreak would eventually be linked to imported cantaloupes, suddenly my company was shut down, product movement stopped. My job was to meet with our harvest crews, to tell the guys – hundreds of them – they had to go home, I didn’t know for how long and I couldn’t explain why. The epiphany came when some of them asked if they could take melons; it hit me they were worried about feeding their families while out of work. I literally became sick to my stomach. I vowed this would not happen again under my watch. Food safety has been a quest for me since then.

At Westside Produce, food safety is part of our everyday actions. It has been clear since the early 1990s that in my industry, handlers have the greatest role to play in ensuring safe food. So we made hard choices, including closing our packing facility in favor of field packing, moving washing to the consumer level. Major customers stopped doing business with us; we made the hard choice to commit to food safety.

Where can you look for food safety talent? At Westside Produce, it is a family business. Both of my sons now work with me; Garrett heads food safety, and also chairs the board of California Cantaloupe Advisory Board. We have always been able to look within for food safety talent.

Center for Produce Safety is helping to answer this question for the fresh produce industry and other produce safety stakeholders.

For example, for over a decade CPS has been grooming the next generation of produce safety science talent. CPS’s Professional Development Program started simply; we provided travel grants to students of funded researchers to attend our annual Research Symposium. They helped us staff the event, and in return they learned the latest produce safety science, and networked with leaders from across CPS’s diverse community, including industry, researchers and other academia, federal and state regulators, and public health professionals.

In 2021 the CPS program was formalized, and is now partly sponsored by Bayer. CPS rounds out students’ science skills through virtual coaching, mentorship and networking at the symposium. In return, industry gets to connect with this valuable pool of trusted science talent; they understand the science, and they know our industry.

Here’s the concept behind CPS’s student outreach: Having a science degree is a starting point, we also need professionals who have the well-rounded skill set it takes to advance fresh produce food safety. We need researchers who can who can effectively design research projects, and communicate the resulting science. On the industry side, we need leaders who can evaluate science and new technologies, guide others through challenging discussions and situations, and ultimately influence change.

I’ve had the chance to mentor some of these young scientists at CPS events. I talk to them about what and why the industry does what we do. They tell me that while they were initially attracted to the science, at the end of the day they are attracted to our industry because they get really excited about food – we all have to eat.

New this year, CPS has just launched a Careers webpage, the only one dedicated to fresh produce food safety. Industry can post help wanted listings, from food safety interns to full-time staffers; researchers can post post-doctoral positions. The new page currently list almost 20 opportunities. To post a produce safety position, email info@centerforproducesafety.org.

Want to tap into Center for Produce Safety’s talented community? It’s easy! CPS is a safe space, an undictated-to organization whose sole purpose is to bring together all produce safety stakeholders to conduct timely research to enhance the safety of the food we eat. Can’t make it to our extraordinary annual research symposia? CPS research is 100% accessible on the center’s website; researchers are generally happy to talk about their findings. Think a research project was lousy? Join the Technical Committee, which oversees CPS’s research program, or our research vetting teams that give feedback on research proposals.

Food safety is a giant tent. We must get our noses under it and be part of the solution. We owe that to our grandmothers and grandchildren.

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— Center for Produce Safety board director Steve Patricio is president and CEO of Westside Produce, a major grower, packer and shipper of fresh California and Arizona melons.  Patricio is a longstanding leader in fresh produce food safety. He has been chair of California Cantaloupe Advisory Board’s Food Safety Committee since its inception in 1990. His 2007-2008 chairmanship of Western Growers’ Board of Directors was dominated by the 2006 spinach/E. coli and 2008 tomato/Salmonella food safety crises. He was elected to CPS’s first Board of Directors when it was established in 2007, and served as CPS board chair 2013-2017.