I had the chance to chat on March 2 with Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
3:00 p.m. Karst: What’s in your “inbox” right now? What are you working on?
3:00 p.m. Whitaker: I’m doing a lot right now in terms of education on food safety. I’ve got two different series that I’m doing right now. We package them together in what we call Fresh Connections and I’m basically talking to membership, targeted mostly toward people who are in marketing and sales end of the industry about what their role is in terms of food safety. You don’t often think of marketing and sales guys, even some of the operational guys, of having a role (in food safety) – you put that off to the Quality Assurance or food safety guys, but in fact they can play a very important role in communicating food safety philosophy and making sure the people they are buying produce from share the same philosophy. So we have been doing a series of those – I just did one in Houston a couple weeks ago and I’m going to do another one next week in Pleasanton, Calif. and another after that in North Carolina. So I’ve been doing those kinds of educational events and I’m also doing kind of smaller grower outreach educational events.
These are really targeted to the smaller growers who are really trying to hit the opportunities for the local supplier, helping them understand why they need to have food safety programs, and talking to them a little bit about how they can put those programs together. I did one of those in Houston and I’ve got one coming up in the middle of March and then in Cleveland a week later. I’ve been doing those now for about a year and Sysco Foods has been one of the sponsors for the program though we will be doing those with other folks fairly shortly.
3:03 p.m. Karst: You have taught food safety workshops for small growers. Do small growers all have the same type of profile, or they all over the map in terms of where they are at in terms of food safety?
3:04 p.m. Whitaker: It is all over the map. It is very common to see a fourth or fifth generation vegetable growers who don’t see the need to have a food safety program. Their grandfather didn’t have to deal with it, their father didn’t have to deal with it; ‘Why do I have to deal with it? I’m just a small guy.’ I had a guy in Houston say, ‘It’s all big ag – that’s where the problem is.’ I think one of the real rewarding (outcomes) is that when you talk to a group – and we typically have 35 to 60 people in the room – you see their faces go, ‘Okay, it doesn’t have to be hard; this is what they want us to do. I do make food and it is my responsibility to make sure the food is safe. And it if is not safe, it is people like me who can get hurt, my son or my daughter.”