“Thanks again for a great evening, and good night.”
Those were the concluding words delivered Oct. 16 by Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association, at the association leadership dinner in Anaheim, Calif.
Whitaker is retiring in a few months, and the pre-Fresh Summit leadership dinner gave the industry and Whitaker a chance to reflect on his tenure.
When a much-treasured industry leader with an out-sized role retires, there is a sense of loss that accompanies the well-wishes for life after work.
That is certainly the case for produce professionals who knew Bob Whitaker.
PMA president and CEO Cathy Burns asked leadership dinner attendees to stand if they or their customers had benefited from Whitaker’s “knowledge or counsel.”
The entire audience rose to its feet. Burns invited Whitaker to the podium to see the room.
“If you ever wonder if you made an impact, over 11 years, this is just one visual — I want you to be able to see (this),” she said. Burns invited two industry leaders to share their thoughts about Whitaker.
The industry owes Whitaker a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, said Stephen Patricio, president and CEO of Westside Produce.
Joe Pezzini, president and CEO of Ocean Mist Farms, told the crowd that he began working with Whitaker after the spinach crisis of 2006.
At the time, Whitaker worked for NewStar Fresh Foods, and he huddled with other industry leaders in the aftermath of the E. coli outbreak.
“It was really up to us to try to figure out how to restart the spinach business, this industry after an unprecedented full stop by the FDA,” Pezzini said. “And it was really my first experience and understanding how important Bob was, and his unique skill set. The truth is, he’s way too smart for this industry. I’ll never forget being in there that first day. And Bob is literally teaching all of us produce folks — the folks that were in there — a master’s level course of microbiology,” Pezzini recalled.
“So it was his leadership that helped elevate an industry. His guidance transformed this industry. It made (the industry) come to grips with the new reality that we all face. Bob’s education and early career experience (produced) unprecedented level of expertise, and what turned out to be a critical point in our industry’s evolution.”
In the past 11 years at PMA, Pezzini said Whitaker has substantially contributed to the significant food safety enhancements and practices throughout the supply chain.
“As they say, from field to fork, Bob literally has elevated this industry. And it’s those lasting impressions that you’ll always be remembered for, Bob.”
Pezzini concluded, “You’ve been a guiding light through some incredibly dark times, and I know that because I’ve had a front row seat in it. Your legacy as a food safety champion will live on for many generations for this industry.”
Indeed, farewell and good night to Bob Whitaker. You will be missed.
Tom Karst is The Packer’s editor. E-mail him at [email protected].