When Steve Patricio says “bean-counting computer jockeys” frequently hamper food safety efforts, some might think he doesn’t have much respect for certified public accountants.
That’s not the case: Patricio is a CPA, as are his sons Garrett and Blake.
However, when Patricio put his knack for numbers to work in 1976 as chief financial officer for Tri Produce, Firebaugh, Calif., he quickly came to understand food safety isn’t an optional cost.
“I grabbed onto food safety issues early in my career,” said the co-founder of Firebaugh-based Westside Produce and chairman of the Center for Produce Safety advisory board. “I saw an absence of knowledge in the produce industry and the scientific community.”
By the mid-1980s, Patricio acquired the hat of melon manager in addition to his duties as CFO for Tri Produce. He said when the cantaloupe industry was virtually shut down in 1991 because of outbreaks related to fruit from Mexico that had been top-iced in Texas, he knew something had to be done.
“I vowed to do whatever I could to keep that from happening again,” he said.
As it turns out, he could do quite a bit, and while he was doing it he found the time to co-found Westside Produce. Today the company ships up to 6,000 acres of cantaloupes annually.
Working with the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, the California Melon Research Board and researchers at the University of California-Davis, Patricio helped develop guidelines and best practices for the commodity.
“The industry was very supportive,” Patricio said. “It changed how we did business in California.”
When the Center for Produce Safety was founded and housed at UC-Davis, it was natural for Patricio, who turns 60 on Nov. 4, to become involved.
Now, as chairman of the center’s advisory board, he works to disseminate food safety information outside the confines of California.
“Steve shows endless passion to have a produce industry that provides a quality and safe product each and every day of the year,” said Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director of the center. “He has been a visionary in food safety.”
Part of that vision means looking at things some in the industry would rather ignore.
“Steve never allowed the California melon industry and cantaloupe handlers to be complacent in dealing with food safety, despite the absence of outbreaks from California fruit,” said Trevor Suslow, an extension researcher for UC-Davis and a volunteer at the Center for Produce Safety.
Patricio said he finds great satisfaction in the fact that California growers voted unanimously this year to establish a marketing order requiring food safety measures.
He said he found similar satisfaction in 2006-07, when he was chairman of the board for Western Growers. It was one of the most turbulent eras in the association’s history. A spinach-related salmonella outbreak in 2006 left the industry reeling.
Tom Nassif, president of the association then and now, said Patricio’s leadership and commitment to food safety was key to the establishment of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which is now heralded as a blueprint for food safety programs.
“A lot of our California producers felt it would put them at an economic disadvantage because of the costs involved. They thought buyers would go elsewhere rather than pay more,” Nassif said.
“Steve convinced them that it was the right thing to do and that retailers would demand that suppliers be signatories to the LGMA. And that’s what happened.
“If I ever had to go anywhere to sell and idea or a concept to anyone — from legislators to growers — there’s no one I’d rather have at my side than Steve.”