Spotlight: Scientist

Diane Wetherington

Diane Wetherington  - Diane Wetherington

Diane Wetherington

Executive Vice President


B.A., Economics, University of Pennsylvania
M.A., Economics, University of Pennsylvania

While attending the University of Pennsylvania, Diane Wetherington developed and pursued her interest in economics. At Penn, she worked for professors on economic research ranging from capital productivity to industrial organization. Her first work related to food was to help develop econometric models to improve farm productivity in India. This early experience fueled her desire to pursue an applied research career. Now at Intertox, Wetherington spends her time actively involved in a variety of research projects from food safety to environmental health and safety risk assessments. She enjoys being able to work with the many talented individuals in the food safety field. CPS staffer Connie Arana spoke with Diane Wetherington about her career path and her research at CPS.

Where did you go to school?
I earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics at the University of Pennsylvania. Starting in my sophomore year, I worked for several professors and continued working with them through the completion of my master’s degree. My master’s thesis adviser was Dr. Lawrence R. Klein, who received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1980 for the creation of economic models and their application to the analysis of economic fluctuations and economic policies. Throughout my studies, I had outstanding professors, fellow researchers and great mentors at the University of Pennsylvania.

What influenced you to work in food safety?
My work in food safety began in 2006 when Intertox assisted Western Growers Association with the development of best practices in response to the E. coli outbreak in spinach. With my economics background, I was involved in evaluating the financial impact the ensuing food safety guidelines had on growers. We did some of the economic work on the proposal that lead to government support for the agreement.

From your years in working in food safety, what have you learned from the produce industry?
First, we all know that work on food safety is never ending. What most consumers don’t realize is how committed growers are to making sure our food is safe. These growers are often from families that have been in the industry for several generations and their food safety commitments do not end when their products are sold. Second, I have learned about food safety data sources, collection methods and limitations. If this information were collected and organized, it could be used to measure and improve food safety processes.

How did you learn about CPS?
We learned about CPS through our work with Western Growers Association and Hank Giclas’ involvement on the Technical Committee at CPS. Intertox applied for and received CPS funding for the first time in 2009.

How was presenting at the Second Annual Produce Research Symposium in June?
I participated in a panel presentation and discussion at the symposium. It was a new format that was informative and interactive with the audience, and should be expanded in the future.

CPS has funded “Evaluation of the baseline levels of microbial pathogens on Washington state fresh market apples and mitigation measures used to eliminate contamination.” Can you go over the project objectives? Any updates?
The objectives were to survey the apple packing houses in Washington and then obtain information on the food safety programs and efforts contributing to the mitigation of microbial pathogens that are currently in place and being used. We are also building a database containing microbial test results from the packing houses.  Finally, we will prepare a report on the microbial testing results, the food safety programs, and mitigation practices. At this point we have completed the survey.  Currently we are gathering the data and populating the database.

What do you think the industry will gain from your research project?
For several years, Intertox has been interested in developing quantitative human health risk assessments for individual specialty crops. Unfortunately, there has been little data available for these assessments.  This project helps us compile the data for the risk assessments. In addition to using the data to assess risks, we hope the project and the process of collecting data for the database will prove to be a positive experience for the specialty crop industry. Often in the industry there is a concern about how and why the data is being collected and released since the focus on data collection is normally about a specific problem. We hope to use the data to demonstrate what is working well in food safety for the industry.  

Where do you see food safety in five years down the road?
For the specialty crop industry, I expect the increasing need for more information and predictive analytics to take advantage of crop data to improve food safety will be a focal point.    Produce traceability is a great example.  When we can track lettuce bought in a grocery store back to the field where it was grown, including the crew that harvested the lettuce, we will have far greater control of food safety processes.

What are key factors influencing this field of inquiry?
One major factor is how the data will be used. If the end result for the data is to remove products from commerce then I think growers will be reluctant to share their test results and food safety program results. Many growers do not have the resources or the time to collect the information. The data collection needs to benefit the growers as well as consumers. Growers could benefit if the data collection enables them to improve the efficiency of their operations – whether it is in the yields or reduced product losses as a result of contamination.

What does a normal day consist of?
I try to schedule a few hours in the morning before I go into the office to work on projects. Often when I’m in the office, I get called on to work on other projects so frequently my day consists of doing work I had not planned on doing.  Otherwise I am working on research and responding to emails and calls.

Please describe one or more of your career highlights.
My career highlights involve working with people who are passionate about what they do and at the same time enjoy their work. A combination of challenging projects and working with talented individuals continues to be a career highlight.