( File photo )

After 11 years as chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association, Bob Whitaker plans to retire in January.

Whitaker said it was a tough decision.

“One thing I came to realize is that there is no good time (to retire),” he said June 5.
Whitaker said he has been contemplating retiring for a couple of years. He will be 65 in January, and he is looking forward to spending time with his wife, children and grandson as he explores a new time in his life.

“But it was hard because I loved working at PMA, and in particular, I’ve really enjoyed what we’ve been working on in the last couple years with the new strategic plan,” he said.

Whitaker said he will be involved in choosing his replacement. Plus, he has other work to accomplish, he said. 

“There’s still a lot of challenges and things I’ve got to work hard on the next six months,” he said. ”We’ve got to work with the Romaine Task Force to finish up and some other projects that we’re working on within my own Science and Technology Group.”

Whitaker said he has been involved with the Center for Produce Safety and will be present at that group’s symposium June 18-19 in Austin, Texas. 

“It’s another chance to share some of the key research findings with the industry, and I always look forward to that,” he said

Whitaker has been responsible for food safety, technology, supply chain management and sustainability with his position at PMA. He has served on the Center for Produce Safety board of directors and executive committee since its founding in 2007 and was the first chairman of the CPS Technical Committee from 2008 to 2013, according the PMA website.
Before coming to PMA, Whitaker worked 10 years at NewStar Fresh Foods and its subsidiary, MissionStar Processing, in the areas of food safety and product development. 
Before that, Whitaker spent 16 years in the biotechnology field with DNA Plant Technology Corp. as a researcher and ultimately as the company’s vice president for fruit and vegetable research and development.

 

Position of strength

Whitaker said he will step away from PMA at a time when the association is strong in the science and technology arena. PMA’s staff includes Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain and sustainability, Trevor Suslow, vice president of produce safety, Vonnie Estes, vice president of technology, and Johnna Hepner, director of food safety and technology.

“I was fortunate that I was the first chief science officer of PMA and, with the support of the board of directors over the years and the senior management team at PMA, we’ve built a pretty formidable group to help our industry and to work with our partners across the industry,” he said.

Whitaker said he is proud of the collaborative relationship PMA has with the United Fresh Produce Association and other industry groups on food safety issues.

“Jennifer McEntire (United Fresh vice president of food safety and technology) has been a wonderful partner,” Whitaker said, noting the groups’ joint workshops on listeria and common work on policy issues. Most recently, the group’s leaders have come together on the Romaine Task Force.

“I couldn’t be prouder of that relationship and how we built that over the years,” he said. “And I know that it can continue as we go forward.”

While not ruling out speaking or writing about industry issues in his retirement, Whitaker said he will enjoy a slower pace. 

“I know one thing for sure — I won’t be getting on an airplane for the first couple of months,” he said.

 

Looking back

When asked about how the industry evolved in the last decade in the food safety realm, Whitaker said the Center for Produce Safety has contributed to the industry’s translation of food safety knowledge and practical applications.

When the E. coli outbreak linked to spinach occurred in 2006, the industry didn’t have much research to draw on as it tried to figure what to do next.

“And then you look at where we are today, some $26 million and 150 projects (later) and everything that spawned not only those projects but those projects that were then funded elsewhere in other places, the scientists that have been trained through those research projects — it has been amazing,” he said. “At the same time, we’re still faced with challenges and making sure that people are aware of that science and that knowledge base.”

Whitaker also said the industry is facing challenges with stronger detection systems that identify outbreaks sooner and find organisms with public health implications that were not on the radar 10 years ago.

“And so we’re doing better, but the challenges still remain,” he said.

Whitaker said he is excited about the technologies and knowledge that are coming into the industry.

“We have to educate our members and help them understand how to use that information to develop best practices,” he said. “I feel like we’ve done better and I feel like there’s still there’s still a ways to go on these things.”

 
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