When Mark Murai took over as president of the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission seven years ago, he had a to-do list of objectives he hoped to accomplish as head of the commission.
When he stepped down to accept the position of vice president of strategy and development for Placentia, Calif.-based Sunrise Growers Frozsun Foods, he had checked off all of his self-imposed tasks and then some.
“I think we made great strides,” Murai said.
Perhaps the area where he and the commission made the greatest strides was in food safety.
The commission started with a grassroots program to educate and train field supervisors and field support staff and develop a culture of food safety in the field, he said.
Next, the commission decided that a continuing education program would be “beneficial and necessary to really imbed that mentality in the fields.”
Most recently, the commission launched a certificate program consisting of five components, each of which has a training portion and a test. The test must be successfully completed before moving on to the next component.
Those who finish the track receive a certification card that stays with the worker no matter where he or she is employed.
The training is available free to any company that is a commission member.
Research is another area in which the commission has made significant advancements.
“We’ve always had a strong production research program with the University of California,” he said. “But we recognize the need to deepen that work and to develop expertise from both of our state institutions (University of California-Davis and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo).”
With that in mind, the commission signed an agreement in February sealing a partnership with Cal Poly for a Strawberry Sustainability Research and Education Center.
“We believe Cal Poly brings something unique, having a different philosophy — ‘learn by doing’ — which is so necessary to foster field executions of the latest innovations or discoveries,” Murai said.
Another item on his list was to bridge the gap between retail trade and the strawberry industry.
The commission developed a strong category analysis and business reviews that have helped develop the berry category by bringing best practices to retail partners “and exposing opportunities for growth.”
The commission’s efforts combined with shipper’s own marketing programs “have really fostered the growth of the berry category,” he said.
Coupled with that has been the nutrition research and health and wellness benefits that have been an important component of why consumers are eating berries as part of their daily diets, he said.
The strawberry commission’s public policy efforts, another of Murai’s objectives, have significantly strengthened over the past few years, he said.
“We have strong connections with our decision makers — locally and at the federal level and even the international level.”
In foreign trade, the commission has been successful in maintaining markets abroad, exposing other countries to what is happening in the berry category in the U.S. and managing trade and phytosanitary requirements, he said.
“We continue to pursue the opening of mainland China with great optimism,” he said. “We have some technical and trade barriers to overcome, but I think eventually it will happen.”
As he stepped down from his post, Murai said he was grateful for the backing he received from the industry.
“I’m humbled by the support that the commission and myself have received on all fronts to help us do our job,” he said.
“Change is good,” he said, as he recounted his reasons for his latest career move.
“I had deep admiration for (chief executive officer) Ed Haft and his company. The growth and the business opportunity with their model were very appealing.”
On a personal level, he said he looked forward to being closer to his family in Southern California.
“I’m excited to come back home,” he said.