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Bonnie Fernandez Takes Helm
Of Center For Produce Safety

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 1, 2008

We acknowledged the founding of the Center for Produce Safety with a piece entitled, Center For Produce Safety Established: An Act Of Faith In The Future, and we noted the appointment of an interim Executive Director with a piece entitled, Devon Zagary Takes Lead Role At Center For Produce Safety. Most recently we proclaimed that Tim York Will Chair Center For Produce Safety.

In the long term, The Center for Produce Safety will come to be seen as the single most important response of the industry to the Spinach Crisis, which occurred in the fall of 2006. While the establishment of the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement was an important tactical response to an immediate problem, the long term solution to our food safety concerns must depend on increasing our understanding of the causes of food safety problems related to produce. That is, in a nutshell, the function of the Center for Produce Safety.

The Center is headquartered within the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at UC Davis and is poised to begin a rapid expansion starting with the appointment of its first non-interim executive director:

Bonnie Fernandez Named to Lead
Produce Safety Center at UC Davis

Wheat industry executive Bonnie Fernandez has been selected as the new executive director of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California, Davis.

Fernandez, who currently serves as the executive director of the California Wheat Commission, will assume the new position on March 1.

“Bonnie Fernandez brings to this position a wealth of knowledge and practical experience in California agriculture,” said Neal Van Alfen, dean of UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “She will help establish the critical partnerships that are necessary to provide a safe food supply, from the farm to the consumer’s table.”

Tim York, chair of the center’s board of advisers and president of the Salinas-based Markon Cooperative said: “We look forward to the leadership Bonnie will provide for the Center for Produce Safety as we move forward to develop workable, science-based solutions that will safeguard the food supply and strengthen California’s produce industry.”

Fernandez has served with the California Wheat Commission since 1984, including fifteen years as the commission’s executive director. She holds a master’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business.

“I am anxious to begin working with the center’s advisory board and the produce industry, and am honored to know that I will be a part of the future success of the Center for Produce Safety,” Fernandez said.

She has served on various U.S. Department of Agriculture advisory committees, is currently a member of the Agri-Business President’s Council and chair of the U.S. Wheat Associates Food Aid Working Group. She was the first chair of U.S. Wheat Associates Phytosanitary Committee.

The Center for Produce Safety, established in April 2007, is intended to be a clearinghouse for research related to produce safety. Plant scientist Devon Zagory has served as its interim director since October.

The center also will help fund and coordinate research, training and consumer education activities, with the goal of enhancing the safety of fresh produce. Startup funding for the center has been provided by produce-industry leaders, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the University of California.

Well they may be calling her a “wheat industry executive” in the press release but, as they say in the movies, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

Bonnie is one of those truly admirable people. She started at the California Wheat Commission as an Executive Assistant and, through discipline and hard work, she earned for herself a series of promotions, first to Assistant Director, then Deputy Director, finally, after a decade of diligence, she was appointed as Executive Director of the Commission, a position she has held for 15 years.

While working she had the fortitude to earn an MBA — not easy for someone in a responsible position to find the time to earn an advanced degree.

The California Wheat Commission isn’t precisely like any commission we have in the produce trade; it literally has its own laboratory. So the science side of the Center for Produce Safety will certainly be comprehensible to her. And the administrative function will be a breeze. She has some fund-raising experience, though this may be her biggest challenge. The assumption, however, is that Tim York, the Board of Directors and the produce industry at large will do a lot of the heavy lifting in this area.

We’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Bonnie and can give first-person testimony to her inquisitive mind and pleasant personality. She may not be a produce industry veteran, but she has earned respect in the worlds she has lived in and is excited to take on this new challenge. We have plenty of produce industry veterans involved with the Center for Produce Safety, and we will probably benefit from having someone who can bring new ideas and different perspectives to the industry.

It is fair to say that the consensus of the industry is that the first job of the Center for Produce Safety — the one most urgently needed and the one likely to produce the biggest bang for the buck — is to serve as an amalgamator of research already completed and research currently being conducted.

Once we have all we know about food safety in one place, we can then look for holes in that knowledge and thus define new research priorities.

Perhaps, in time, the Center for Produce Safety will do even more.

In an interview we conducted with Bruce Taylor, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Taylor Farms and, currently, Chairman of the Board of Directors of PMA, when he won our Single Step Award for Food Safety, Bruce expressed his thoughts on the future of the Center for Produce Safety:

Q: You’ve made a substantial investment into the Center for Produce Safety (CPS). Do you see this as a critical component in the industry’s food safety goals?

A: Our support of the CPS is selfishly tied to an agenda. We want to use the Center as the clearing house and promulgator of standards of GAPs and GMPs for produce internationally.

We want the CPS to understand research being conducted, cross pollinate information where appropriate and sometimes fund research that will enhance food safety for consumers of fresh produce.

We want the CPS to become a trusted resource for the press and a credible voice to the consumer.

Q: I think you underestimate your generosity in financial support for CPS. I find it interesting that the Center could be the promulgator of standards for GAPs and GMPs for produce internationally. I haven’t heard it put this way before. Do you anticipate that the Center could publish a new set of metrics?

A: Admittedly, the goals I mentioned for the CPS are my goals… not universally agreed or accepted. Taylor Farms operates 10 salad plants in the United States and one in Mexico. We grow and/or purchase leafy greens from six states and Mexico and Canada. We need a North American solution to leafy green good safety and I believe the CPS can be this vehicle.

The Center for Produce Safety was launched with multi-million dollar grants from both PMA and Taylor Farms, but achieving its goals will require broad industry support over long periods of time. The industry has chosen to entrust a very important institution to the leadership of Bonnie Fernandez. We think she is up to the challenge and we know she is raring to go.

We welcome Bonnie Fernandez to the produce industry and say God Speed as she prepares to assume this important role.

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