Most members of the Produce Marketing Association know Bob Whitaker as its chief science and technology officer. Fewer know how many other circles he moves in, PMA president Bryan Silbermann said.
“Bob is able to bring together people where others failed,” Silbermann said.
“At the Center for Produce Safety he got government, industry and academics around a table to say what research is needed.”
Whitaker, 55, who chairs the CPS technical committee, is often invited to share his insights with lawmakers and regulators on Capitol Hill and at the Food and Drug Administration.
“We don’t publicize a lot of that. It goes under the radar,” Silbermann said.
“That’s the way you really influence public policy, by bringing expertise and integrity into contact with the people that need both. I’ve gotten fabulous feedback from the highest levels about the information they get from Bob.”
Whitaker came to PMA in 2008 after spending most of the previous decade at NewStar Fresh Foods in Salinas, Calif. After 16 years at DNA Plant Technology, where Whitaker directed research and product development, he came to NewStar in 1998 just a year after its creation.
“They wanted me to do product development and take on what was then fairly new, building food safety programs for grower-shippers,” Whitaker said.
Soon reorganization added a responsibility that may be unique for a Ph.D. in biochemistry.
“I was probably the only food scientist ever put in charge of a processing operation,” Whitaker said.
“Cutting and chopping lettuce, packing spinach.”
In 2006, Whitaker had to tell employees their work hours were sharply cut when an E. coli outbreak — later traced to a single field in San Benito County — devastated the California spinach market. Meanwhile he met with industry leaders to develop new food safety practices to reassure consumers.
“I’ve had this strange career where I’ve worked in operations as well as food safety,” he said. “It came together in that moment.”
His food safety work continues in many venues. Since 2008, CPS has funded 24 research projects for $4 million. The 2010 awards raised the totals to 41 projects and about $7 million, Whitaker said.
The research delivers the goods, said Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer of Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms and chairman of PMA’s produce safety, science and technology committee.
“Bob has this innate ability to take scientific research and translate it into real-world applications,” Pezzini said.
“The CPS looked at survivability of E. coli in the field, not a lab. The research showed E. coli isn’t taken up into the plant internally. Bob looked at that data and told us what techniques would help deal with plant residue.”
At PMA, Whitaker held summits with C-level leaders to influence company cultures on food safety. For smaller growers, he put together — in partnership with Sysco and PrimusLabs — a local food safety program. It was put to the test in August, for example, at a Portland, Ore., workshop.
“Doing a risk assessment seems daunting,” Whitaker said.
“It’s really not that hard. We break it down and show growers how to protect their businesses.”
“People know Bob has members’ best interests at heart,” Silbermann said.
“People know Bob has walked in their shoes.”