The intersection between fresh produce and food safety has been a busy one in recent years, and Jennifer McEntire has already witnessed some major collisions since taking on the role of vice president of food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association a little more than two years ago.
Two outbreaks linked to leafy greens in less than six months — with commodities rather than specific companies identified in government advisories to consumers — kept McEntire busy late last year and this spring and summer.
As the resulting investigations unfolded, McEntire acted as a liaison between the industry and government agencies and also worked to keep United Fresh members informed about the facts of the investigations and what questions were still unanswered.
In the wake of the outbreak linked to romaine, she also participated in the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force with others in the industry.
In addition to outbreak-related work, McEntire has been leading food safety workshops, working on guidance documents, answering all manner of member questions and tackling other projects as they arise.
“I’ve loved every minute of it, even the really stressful moments, because at least you feel like you’re trying to make a difference and you’re trying to make things better, and that was really what drew me to the position in the first place,” McEntire said.
A food microbiologist, she has found that her science background and communication skills have served her well in this role, and she has grown to appreciate collaboration more over the years.
She described the change by recalling an experience earlier in her career when she was asked in a job interview whether she preferred working alone or with a group.
“I knew that the right answer was work with a group, but quite frankly I felt like I’d rather work alone because I know what I want to do and I can get it done,” McEntire said.
“Over time I have definitely come around on that and realized that if you leverage everyone’s strengths, unique strengths, you can always do so much more together and that it’s not in anyone’s best interest to go head-to-head and to compete over things that it’s really detrimental to the greater good.”
Dave Gombas, who preceded McEntire in her role at United Fresh, has known her since her college days, when she interned with him at the National Food Processors Association.
“She immediately impressed me,” Gombas said.
“Very sharp, able to take on pretty much any project I gave her already, so we learned as much from her back then as she did from us.”
He has followed her career ever since.
“I knew she was going to be going places,” Gombas said.