I had the chance to chat on March 2 with Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

3:00 p.m. Karst: What’s in your “inbox” right now? What are you working on?

3:00 p.m. Whitaker: I’m doing a lot right now in terms of education on food safety. I’ve got two different series that I’m doing right now. We package them together in what we call Fresh Connections and I’m basically talking to membership, targeted mostly toward people who are in marketing and sales end of the industry about what their role is in terms of food safety. You don’t often think of marketing and sales guys, even some of the operational guys, of having a role (in food safety) – you put that off to the Quality Assurance or food safety guys, but in fact they can play a very important role in communicating food safety philosophy and making sure the people they are buying produce from share the same philosophy. So we have been doing a series of those – I just did one in Houston a couple weeks ago and I’m going to do another one next week in Pleasanton, Calif. and another after that in North Carolina. So I’ve been doing those kinds of educational events and I’m also doing kind of smaller grower outreach educational events.

These are really targeted to the smaller growers who are really trying to hit the opportunities for the local supplier, helping them understand why they need to have food safety programs, and talking to them a little bit about how they can put those programs together. I did one of those in Houston and I’ve got one coming up in the middle of March and then in Cleveland a week later. I’ve been doing those now for about a year and Sysco Foods has been one of the sponsors for the program though we will be doing those with other folks fairly shortly.

3:03 p.m. Karst: You have taught food safety workshops for small growers. Do small growers all have the same type of profile, or they all over the map in terms of where they are at in terms of food safety?

3:04 p.m. Whitaker: It is all over the map. It is very common to see a fourth or fifth generation vegetable growers who don’t see the need to have a food safety program. Their grandfather didn’t have to deal with it, their father didn’t have to deal with it; ‘Why do I have to deal with it? I’m just a small guy.’ I had a guy in Houston say, ‘It’s all big ag – that’s where the problem is.’ I think one of the real rewarding (outcomes) is that when you talk to a group – and we typically have 35 to 60 people in the room – you see their faces go, ‘Okay, it doesn’t have to be hard; this is what they want us to do. I do make food and it is my responsibility to make sure the food is safe. And it if is not safe, it is people like me who can get hurt, my son or my daughter.”

So, it is amazing to see that shift take place. There is another end of the spectrum there too where you have some local guys who really been on top of this, who follow all the information and have worked with local ag extension or even with some of the people who buy from them to put the program in place and who are really coming to the workshop to see if they have everything they need to have. You really go from those who proclaim it to be not their problem to those who understand what their role and responsibility is and now they are really trying to be very conscientious about how they approach it. You really see that spectrum. And frankly, it is really kind of funny in a way because when I first started working in the food safety part of this business back in the late 1990s when I came out to Salinas to go to work for NewStar, we started working with growers here in the Salinas Valley and it is the same kind of audience.

The guys in Salinas might have been a little big bigger some than the guys I’m talking to now in Houston but it is the same thing: ‘Why do I have to do this? My father didn’t have to do this, why do I have to worry about it?’ As time went on and people began to understand what their roles and responsibilities were for food safety – and frankly, when some of them saw what the outcome could be if you didn’t have a food safety program that the markets went away from them. If you didn’t have a food safety program, then people weren’t going to buy from you. Then some of outbreaks we have seen have galvanized folks. So those who were trudging along building food safety programs were there, those who where lagging behind suddenly realized their opportunity to sell their crops and perhaps some of the outcomes that could happen if they didn’t have a food safety program were far more risky than just going out and putting together a food safety program.

Now, out here (in Salinas), it is part of doing business, it is part of what is expected of you as a supplier. But it is a change and it is hard for people to change and it takes time. So, when these programs I do for local growers and for marketers higher up in the supply chain, it is really about changing culture and changing the way you run your business. I don’t even talk about the science when I do these things. I spend very little time talking about the pathogens and how they are transpired and what might be a vehicle. It is not what they need to hear. They need to hear it is about how they run their businesses to make food safety part of their ongoing business culture.

3:09 p.m. Karst: You have been around different regions of the country as well. Do attitudes about food safety differ depending on what part of the country you are in?

3:10 p.m. Whitaker: I think it differs. You go up to a place where they might raise crops where they really haven’t had a history recently of foodborne illness outbreaks, you have to make your case a little stronger because they don’t really see how it is has touched them personally. So, if you get into a region where they grow tree fruit, they might take a little more convincing to be involved because they haven’t an outbreak necessarily associated with their crops. However, if you look at other kinds of things, such as chemical residues and things like that, then there is a little bit more of a recognition that yes, that could be a problem. Food safety is more than just bacteria.

I would say if you can explain to an audience – I don’t care where they are, here or overseas – that this is why you need to do this, you can make a valid argument about their responsibilities to produce safe food and what it means to people, growers by and large will always do the right thing. Growers are extremely inventive and innovative and so you might tell this is what you should be thinking of doing, and then it is amazing to see them figure out how to do it and do it really well. That is one of my messages to these folks when I talk to them is because to make food safety work, it has to be personal. You have to take responsibility.

Nobody knows your operation the way you do. It is one thing for a buying group to come in and say we want to see all these things but frankly they don’t know your operation just like you don’t know theirs. If you are going to have a good food safety program, it’s got to be personal. I have witnessed over the years that I have been doing this that growers will do it. It may take time, but they will get there.

3:13 p.m. Karst: As you look ahead to the next year or two, what are a few unanswered questions in your mind about what the FDA’s produce safety regulation might look like?

3:`14 p.m. Whitaker: Right now it is early to tell because there is nothing specific to put your teeth into until we start seeing some draft rules. I would think that right now what will be intriguing for me to see, first and foremost is the difference between import and domestic production. Right now it seems we are set up to consider using third party certification offshore. There is definitely talk about accrediting laboratories that might be able to do testing and that sort of thing so we can expedite product entry.

It has been a problem for a long time but it seems like it is getting worse and worse when we are trying to cross products and they have to stop and they are tested and it can take eight, nine ten days for the stuff to come through and we’re talking about perishable products. It has always been an issue. It will be interesting to see if we can work that through and if we can get third party laboratories accredited so we can have the testing done when the product is en route to the border or perhaps just before shipment.

I’m also interested what appears what could be two systems. So you could use a third party or accredited auditor to
do a food safety or GAP audit and a third party laboratory. But onshore domestically, it doesn’t seem that the same infrastructure is being considered. It will be interesting to see how that plays out and how much the industry can influence the FDA to take a broader view of these things and to use some the infrastructure already in place in the industry to be accommodated in the overall food safety scheme. It might be workable to have a system that uses some of the infrastructure that has already been set up by the industry.

I think the second thing that is going to be interesting is that a couple times in the legislation it talks about product testing, and where that might be used. I ‘m very interested to see how that might play out because there is a lot of duplication in the system right now. We see USDA testing programs, FDA testing program, state testing programs and contractor testing programs. There is a lot of surveillance going on. We do lots of recalls based on a positive test yet nobody is sick.

I think all of these things are simply a symptom of the fact that our testing methodologies have become very sophisticated. We can detect things, but we sometimes don’t know what that detection means. Would it really cause illness? How? What is the physiological or genetic state of that organism we find? What’s the validity of our sampling programs? What does that mean? I think FDA grappling with this just the way the industry is grappling with it and the research community is grappling with it. So how do we best use testing to monitor the effectiveness of our food safety programs? Who is best positioned to do that? What is the most efficient way to do that and share that information? Those are all questions we will have to come to grips within the next two to three years.

3:19 p.m. Karst: Are there any mysteries about how pathogens become present on vegetable crops? Do you feel the science behind that is fairly well known now, or is there still some mystery about how the pathogens get into the field and crops?

3:20 p.m. Whitaker: I think there are some unknowns. You asked what I am up to lately, I started off with education and we also talked about advocacy with the Food Safety Modernization Act and I would say the third thing that occupies my time is the role I play at the Center for Produce Safety. One of the key research questions is in our request for proposals is that whole idea of transference. How do pathogens become present on fruits or vegetables? How do they survive, or do they survive? Frequently when we test, we will find the presence of pathogen DNA. The more we look for these things we find it. But people aren’t sick. And then suddenly, conditions are changed and suddenly people are sick. So what happens?

 Is it genetics, different forms of these pathogens? Is it the environment they are in? Moisture, temperature, expose to sun, nutrient levels? It might be different in one field than in another but suddenly now we have an outbreak, or at least an organism that survives and might be detected. So what are the various pieces or components that cause a perfect storm? Certainly the research we are doing at the Center for Produce Safety and other funding agencies are looking for what those factors are.

We can start to identify some patterns, times of the year when crops appear to be more vulnerable than others. We’re starting to appreciate that some of these organisms are more frequent than what we thought, especially the salmonellas, and seem to be pretty sturdy creatures. We’re not sure that that means from a disease perspective or how they got there. There is research going on now that looks at water as a transfer vehicle. There is research that looks at wind as a transfer vehicle. Of course we are looking at all kind of animals that might have been suspected to be transfer vehicles for some of these organisms.

We’re still in an early time to draw any conclusion. Frankly, I think specific areas will all have their own factors and I don’t think we can draw one big brushstroke that will settle this for all time. I think there will be lots of factors that we will be able to put together and perhaps build some predictive models as time goes on.

3:21 p.m. Karst: How did you get your start in the industry? What interested you in this particular field?

3:22 p.m. Whitaker: I’ll give you the short version. I’m a biochemist by training. I came out and went to the biotech industry out of graduate school in 1982. I joined a company called DNA Plant Technology Corp., which was one of the largest private ag biotech companies at the time. One of the areas we did research in were fruits and vegetables, the idea of making them more nutritious, taste better, grow in different environments, that sort of thing. As part of that job, as I progressed, I got to work with a lot of growers and processors. I got more familiar with the produce industry and I liked the people and liked the idea of raising food that is healthy and nutritious for people. Sounds a little sentimental but it is true.

DNAP bought produce companies to help move some of our products to the market place. We did a lot of joint venture research and that sort of thing. I got to work with some produce professionals and as the biotech industry started to lag a little bit in the mid-1990s, some of the folks that were working with this biotech company – DNAP – broke off and formed NewStar out in Salinas, Calif. It was really Emanuel Lazopoulos (then of NewStar) who was really on me to come over and set up food safety programs and do product development work for them. It seemed like the right time to make the change, so in 1998,

 I moved down from the biotech company in Berkeley, Calif. to NewStar to do product development and food safety. After a couple of years, I ended up moving more into the operational role and I started running our processing plants and built a couple of brand new plants with the team. I ran operations for a long time and got to know a lot of people in the industry and got involved in association work and that sort of thing. Then in 2008, Bryan Silbermann from PMA had been talking with me for a little bit about coming on board with PMA and sharing some things I learned over the years in food safety and technology with the membership, so that is why I made the decision to go with PMA in 2008.