(UPDATED COVERAGE, 11:05 a.m.) The California Strawberry Commission has appointed Chris Christian and Rick Tomlinson as interim co-leaders while a successor is sought to departing president Mark Murai.
Murai is joining Sunrise Growers Frozsun Foods as vice president of strategy and development, effective Feb. 22.
Christian has been vice president of marketing at the Watsonville-based commission since 2009, when she was promoted after heading trade and nutrition programs for six years. Tomlinson is vice president of public policy, a role he’s had since his promotion in May from public policy director.
A search committee was formed Feb. 5, commission chairman Victor Ramirez said.
Murai was California Strawberry Commission president since August 2005 — at first on an interim basis, but quickly becoming permanent.
The position at Sunrise Growers Frozsun Foods is a new one for the Placentia, Calif.-based strawberry processor and marketer of frozen and fresh fruit.
Ed Haft, chief executive officer, said Murai’s primary contribution to the industry has been in food safety.
“Mark saw very early the need to make food safety the top priority in the entire California strawberry industry,” Haft said. “He got all of us — growers, shipper, processors — to align behind that at a time when most of us were focused on demand and cost saving initiatives. Not only did we get an agreement on that, we realigned all the resources of the commission and a lot of our companies’ resources.”
“Mark put in an amazing field labor and management program that is still in place today,” he said. “It took a potential weakness of the industry and gave us a leadership role in food safety practices across agriculture and processing.”
Murai said he looks forward to working with Sunrise Growers at a time when berry consumption is rising.
“I’m intrigued with how they’ve developed the fresh and frozen side of the business,” he said.
Murai said research was a highlight of his tenure at the commission.
“Looking at the regulatory and environmental climate, we aligned our strategic initiatives with what growers need to be able to compete and be sustainable in California,” he said.
Haft sees Murai as someone who can, among other contributions, help solidify Sunrise Growers’ sourcing. Its client list includes McDonald’s, Costco and Wal-Mart. Much of the focus will be on clients who also do business abroad.
“Our customers are looking strong in the U.S. but also expanding internationally,” Haft said. “We service their needs around the world and over time it would make sense to start playing more of a local support role wherever they are.”
“We’re a strong player in fresh, but we have more of a leadership role and market share in the process side,” he said.
Murai is a former member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fruit & Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee. In 2011, he became vice chairman of the Alliance for Food and Farming.
His background is in strawberry production through a family business in Orange County, Murai Farms.