A lot of people pointed fingers during the 2006 spinach-related E. coli outbreak, and many of those were pointed at Will Daniels, 47.
As director of quality assurance at Earthbound Farm, Daniels was in an unenviable position when the San Juan Batista, Calif.-based company’s organic bagged spinach was linked to the multi-state outbreak that ultimately killed three and sickened hundreds.
“You can’t get that kind of experience without going through it,” Daniels said. “But one of my proudest moments is for Earthbound to have gone through that and come out of it.”
The 2006 outbreak triggered a nationwide look at food safety. The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was conceived and enacted, with Daniels’ help.
“Going to those industry events and industry meetings was difficult because some people there really blamed Earthbound for what they thought were expensive rules and procedures.” said Daniels, now senior vice president of operations and quality assurance.
Leaders from Earthbound and the industry paid attention, though, partly because of Daniels’ demeanor, colleagues said.
“When Will is leading the conversation, what’s so impressive is his inclusive nature, even with people who are detractors,” said Samantha Cabaluna, Earthbound vice president of marketing.
Daniels said input from others is crucial for him. He recalled how listening to others when he first started at Earthbound in 1999 as an assistant quality assurance manager gave him insights about food safety audits.
“We were a couple of weeks away from an audit, and we were meeting every day to get ready for it,” he said. “Then I realized a couple of weeks later things were back the way they were before.”
Daniels said the “roller coaster of inspection readiness” was a dangerous ride.
“I prefer to be ready every day,” he said.
That readiness has been with Daniels since he worked at The Fish Market, a restaurant in Delmar, Calif., where he learned about hazard analysis and critical control points.
After the birth of his first of two daughters Daniels no longer felt fulfilled by the restaurant industry and sought a different career path. He blindly applied for a job at Earthbound Farm in 1999, thinking he could put his nutrition degree to work.
It was a good fit, and Daniels soon dived into the industry, joining the board of directors for the California Certified Organic Farmers in 2000, where he served as chairman for six years.
He also has served on various technical committees for the United Fresh Produce Association, the Organic Trade Association and the Center for Produce Safety.
Fingers are still pointing at Daniels, but now they are pointing at the man who stunned industry peers with his keynote address at the 2013 Food Safety Summit, calling for corporate transparency on the topic.
“Food safety shouldn’t be a competitive advantage,” Daniels said at the summit in May, announcing Earthbound would invite competitors and others into its facilities to show its food safety practices. The first tour was in July.