(Feb. 1) The Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis looked outside the produce industry to find its new director.

Bonnie Fernandez, executive director of the California Wheat Commission, Woodland, will begin her duties at the center March 1. Fernandez, 47, has been with the wheat commission for 24 years and has been its director for the past 15 years.

She has leadership experience on the national level, having served as chairwoman for two U.S. Wheat Associates committees.

She also has served on U.S. Department of Agriculture advisory committees and is a member of the Agri-Business President’s Council.

“I’ve worked in areas where you have to bring people together to solve problems,” she said. “I don’t have produce expertise, but there are a lot of produce experts involved.”

MANAGEMENT EXPERIENCE

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said Fernandez’s lack of produce industry experience would not be a problem because of the “talent and experience” of the UC-Davis staff and that of the center’s advisory committee.

“She really had the best combination of leadership skills, management experience, a proven track record in the food industry and experience working on research projects with UC-Davis,” said Silbermann, who is a member of the center’s advisory committee and was a member of the search committee.

COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

The center was started in April 2007 in the wake of foodborne illness outbreaks and is intended to serve as a clearinghouse for produce safety research. PMA and Taylor Farms LLC, Salinas, Calif., pledged $2 million each to the center along with commitments from Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.; the California Farm Bureau Federation; the University of California and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Fernandez said the collaborative effort made her take notice.

“When I realized the produce industry, academia and government agencies had come together to put this in operation, it was very impressive,” Fernandez said. “That can be very difficult part of getting something like this started. When you look at the advisory committee, you have an excellent distribution of talent from all these different areas.”

Devon Zagory, founder of NSF Davis Fresh, has been serving as the center’s interim director since October. He said he will continue in that role through February.

Silbermann said one of Fernandez’s first priorities will be to meet key people in the industry. Though she will work for the wheat commission through February, Fernandez already has started an outreach effort, attending PMA’s executive committee meeting the week of Jan. 21 in Santa Monica, Calif.

She likely will have a larger audience April 3-5, when she attends PMA’s Produce Solutions Conference in Newport Beach, Calif. Fernandez is scheduled to participate in a food safety panel during that event.

(Web Editor's Note on Correction: This story incorrectly reported the spelling of Bonnie Fernandez' last name when the article was initially posted. This error has since been corrected.)

Wheat official to lead produce safety center
Bonnie Fernandez