( Photo courtesy Tim York )

“If there is a weakness anywhere, there is a weakness everywhere,” said Richard Hatchett, head of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness in a Feb. 10 Bloomberg Businessweek article titled “We’re Not Ready for This,” about the spread of coronavirus. 

Hatchett’s comments and the story of how the coronavirus is spreading is eerily similar to our struggles against pathogens in the fresh produce industry. 

The Bloomberg article reports that more than 1,500 new pathogens have been discovered since 1970, and epidemics in the 21st century are spreading faster and farther than ever. While science, including gene-sequencing technologies, and information sharing are advancing, what’s missing in controlling pathogens of all types is a long-term focus and a proactive approach.

“With each new outbreak comes global panic and momentary resolve, only to give way to studied inaction once the crisis subsides,” according to the article — sound familiar? 

The produce industry has also endured “panic” situations in the past. At PMA Fresh Summit, PMA’s chief science and technology officer Bob Whitaker reminded attendees of the death of a toddler during the 2006 outbreak linked to spinach, an event that should have been a stern wake-up call to the industry. 

Yet the stories of food safety vulnerabilities continue. Fourteen years after the spinach crisis, there is still a significant amount of work to be done to ensure the food we grow, process and bring to market is safe. 

What’s needed is renewed commitment and action by all of us in the produce industry to put safety first. This may mean making tough calls and taking bold actions without fear of repercussion. Luckily both our industry and the medical community have their share of heroes up to the challenge. 

With the coronavirus, that hero was Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who raised the alarm about the virus that eventually took his life. For our industry, one such hero is Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning, science and technology with Western Growers. 

Hank is retiring in the coming months, after a three-decade-long career at Western Growers. Hank deserves recognition and our appreciation for his tireless efforts on food safety, and the passion and commitment he brought to addressing our industry’s biggest challenges. 

“The unique quality I found about Hank was his willingness to take on the most difficult and complex tasks,” said Joe Pezzini, president and CEO of Ocean Mist Farms, who worked extensively with Hank since 2007 with the formation of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement.

Case in point was his willingness to manage the process of developing industry standards for LGMA metric approval. This was an unruly process with a very fragmented constituency. Hank was able to bring clarity and shepherd improvement over the years.  

So, if we are to better manage pathogens in public health and in food safety, we need to heed our lessons learned, be proactive, and be willing to stand up for and roll up our sleeves for what’s right. 

We could use more people like Dr. Wenliang and Hank. The end result is something we can all support — improved health for people globally. 

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative.

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