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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Robert Whitaker Becomes
PMA’s First Scientific Officer

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 8, 2008

Ever since the spinach crisis, PMA has been trying to find a science guy… or gal. Well, the man and the moment have finally met:

PMA NAMES DR. ROBERT WHITAKER AS
CHIEF SCIENTIFIC OFFICER

Industry leader will guide global food safety,
key science initiatives

Produce Marketing Association (PMA) today named Dr. Robert Whitaker, one of the produce industry’s most respected scientists, as the association’s first chief scientific officer. Whitaker will direct the creation of PMA’s new science-based programs and services at a time when food safety, traceability, sustainability and other science-based issues are taking immediacy in the produce industry.

Dr. Robert Whitaker, seen here testifying on Capitol Hill last year as an expert witness on produce food safety, has been named PMA’s new chief scientific officer.Dr. Robert Whitaker

Whitaker has worked in the produce and agricultural industries since 1982 and has an extensive and multi-faceted background including food safety, security and quality, new product development, product and process innovation, production, operations, research ranging from consumer testing to plant breeding, grower and industry outreach, and planning and training.

“We created this position as an investment in the future, so we are naturally thrilled to have Bob help create and implement the critical programs, not just in food safety but also in a range of other science and technology areas that will fundamentally change this business in the years to come,” said PMA President Bryan Silbermann. “His expertise in science and innovation will help strengthen the entire global supply chain.”

Whitaker comes to PMA from NewStar Fresh Foods LLC of Salinas, California, where he served as vice president of the company’s product development and innovation program. He previously served as president of NewStar’s value-added salad production company, MissionStar Processing LLC, and held vice president positions in charge of product development and food safety, value-added operations/research and development, and product quality and development.

“Bob has the rare combination of a brilliant scientific mind and feet firmly planted in the field, packinghouse or processing facility — he knows how to transfer sound science into business practices that make sense,” said PMA’s Board Chairman Bruce Taylor, chairman and chief executive officer of Taylor Farms, Inc., Salinas, California. “He brings the diverse and unusual skill set that the PMA board had in mind when we charted the course for the association to take a leadership position on food safety, and the other science issues on the horizon, including sustainability.”

Whitaker’s recent credentials include helping to develop Good Agricultural Practices metrics for the leafy greens industry’s return to market after foodborne illness outbreaks in fall 2006, and serving on the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement’s Technical Committee. He has also developed corporate biosecurity programs and comprehensive food safety programs including state-of-the-art Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point systems, developed multi-year modernization plans for processing facilities, and identified new technologies to provide competitive advantages in processing, packaging and production.

He has testified before both houses of Congress as an expert witness on produce food safety in the last two years, and received the International Fresh-cut Processing Association’s (IFPA) Technical Achievement Award in 2006. He also served as the chairman of IFPA’s board that same year. He sits on the Executive Committee and the Advisory Board for the new Center for Produce Safety at the University of California at Davis, and has served on the Board of Directors of United Fresh Produce Association.

Whitaker welcomes the opportunity to put the skills and experience he gained in the corporate world to work for the good of the entire produce industry.

“I was drawn to PMA because its position as a global leader offers a great platform from which to guide our industry through the challenges that lie ahead in food safety and the incorporation of new technologies into our businesses,” said Whitaker. “NewStar has been a great place to work; I made some great friends there. It is a wonderful company and I wish them well moving forward, and look forward to serving them as PMA’s staff.”

“Bob’s experience and leadership will be a tremendous asset for produce buyers and sellers alike,” said PMA Chairman-Elect David Corsi, vice president of produce and floral operations for Wegmans Food & Pharmacy, Inc., Rochester, New York. “He can help all the links in the supply chain make collective decisions based on sound science rather than best guesses, so that the industry can move forward together and at the speed we need.”

Prior to joining NewStar Whitaker held senior management positions in product development, and research and development, for FreshWorld/DNAP of Oakland, California. He was an adjunct professor for Rutgers University’s Department of Botany and Plant Physiology, New Brunswick, N.J. Whitaker holds Ph.D. and bachelor of science degrees in biology from State University of New York, Binghamton, New York.

Whitaker will assume his position with PMA on April 1. He will initially be based in California.

As PMA searched for someone to take on this task, they asked many people who would be the best candidate for the job. Among the people they asked was Dave Eldredge, then the CEO of NewStar, but also a former Chairman of the Produce Marketing Association.

Dave didn’t hesitate; he said the best guy in the whole world for that job would be Robert Whitaker, adding, “And you can’t have him because he works for me!”

Things change of course. Dave Eldredge left NewStar to rejuvenate body and soul. And Dr. Whitaker started thinking that, long term, he might like to move east to be near his children.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This particular hire is of special significance because it is a public manifestation of the way PMA perceives itself. Last year, there was another attempt to negotiate a merger between PMA and United, and that effort ultimately collapsed. That collapse reconfirmed the direction PMA was already heading in, which was guided by the notion that PMA couldn’t assume all its members would always belong to a second association, and so PMA had to be prepared to meet whatever needs its members might present. With the world as it is, an ability to respond comprehensively to scientific and technical issues was considered of paramount importance.

For the industry, it is an interesting moment. The trade needs all the scientific and technical advice it can get. Right now, we have a new Chairman of the Board and new Executive Director for the Center for Produce Safety, and PMA will need someone to interface with the Center, so the timing is great.

And United, which fortunately for the industry had carried the burden of two science officers after its merger with the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, is doubtless pleased to have the financial cost of this important department shared across association lines.

We actually gave an award to Jim Gorny and David Gombas from United as well as Hank Giclas from WGA because the amount of work these people did during the spinach crisis and its aftermath was monumental.

We know he will have plenty to do and, normally, we want to get maximum labor out of industry hires, but to Dr. Robert Whitaker, who we do not doubt will work day and night to help this industry if there should be another major food safety outbreak, here is our wish as you join PMA: May you never have cause to work so hard.

Congratulations to Dr. Whitaker and to PMA.

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