Technology and food safety and have been top priorities for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) over the last decade, and Dr. Bob Whitaker has been a driver behind those efforts. But change is coming. Whitaker, PMA’s Chief Science and Technology Officer, has announced his retirement, effective in June 2019. As the first person to serve in the role, Whitaker laid the groundwork for the development of what has become an intensive focus on food safety, supply chain, technology, and sustainability issues for PMA and the specialty crops industry.
PMA leadership is beginning the search process for a successor.
Whitaker joined PMA in 2008 after working in various positions with DNA Plant Technology Corporation, where his research focused on the development and use of biotechnology to develop new plant varieties, and more recently with Salinas, CA-based grower/shipper NewStar, serving as Vice President of Innovation and Food Safety.
“[PMA] came to me because the industry had started to see more product recalls and food safety incidents, particularly the E. coli incident in spinach in 2006. For the first time, we saw how food safety could shut down a category — whether you were directly involved or not,” Whitaker says. “It was devastating for those involved and for the rest of the industry as well. PMA needed technological capabilities internally to help members minimize the risk of this happening again.”
Whitaker’s unique combination of science and business experience made him a natural fit for the role.
“On my first day I said we needed to get stronger in technology. We built our knowledge on a wide variety of topics, from robotics to genetics to data acquisition and technology,” he says.
That effort led to PMA building a strong team of experts around him in recent years, including the addition of Ed Treacy, Vice President, Supply Chain Efficiencies & Sustainability; Dr. Trevor Suslow, Vice President, Food Safety; and Vonnie Estes, Vice President, Technology, among others.
“There are technology tools to help us solve some of our challenges. Our team is always out and about at events to learn about these new ideas, not just from things happening in the produce industry but elsewhere as well,” he says. “We’re always looking for solutions. We’re bringing technology capabilities but help translate the science into best practices and ideas that can be adopted by members.”
Food Safety and Other Accomplishments
Whitaker says he’s proud of what he and his team have been able to put in place over the last 11 years. He was involved with the Center for Produce Safety as a board member from the beginning, even prior to joining PMA.
“I was asked to be the first Center for Produce Safety Technical Committee Chairman and we have funded more than 150 research programs. If we find gaps in our knowledge base, we fill them using funding based solely on science. There are a lot of really interesting things happening there,” he says.
PMA’s efforts to help the industry manage food safety issues is high on his list too, although he’s quick to point out challenges continue.
“We’ve improved but still have outbreaks and advisories and recalls. We need to change the paradigm from ‘passing the audit’ to ‘risk analysis and hazard analysis.’ You need to assess your operation, find your vulnerabilities, and develop controls. It’s a much more active food safety system. The industry is going to have to come to grips with that.”
That includes communicating and extending influence on these issues beyond the boundaries of PMA.
“It’s important that we have stronger partnerships between other associations and regulators and interest groups. We have developed a good partnership with United Fresh and my colleague there, Jennifer McEntire [United’s Vice President, Food Safety] — as well as with other groups. It’s a real example of what industry can do. Those partnerships are really important for PMA.”
Whitaker will offer help in finding his replacement, and says he thinks the role that person fills will be a little different than the one he’s leaving.
“That’s a good thing,” he says. “We have a great team in place already. And at the end of the day, PMA will look for somebody who can tie everything together. Food safety, technology, supply chain, sustainability — they’re all interrelated. All the pieces have to work together. If there’s a new technology solution for packaging but it compromises food safety, it’s not a solution. We have to see these things as one organism to manage to be successful.”
Whitaker doesn’t have many immediate plans post-retirement, and says he is looking forward to slowing down a little and spending time with family, especially his grandson.
“My only regret about leaving is that I won’t directly be a part of where things are going,” he says. “I’m very enthusiastic about the management team at PMA. There’s a new vision for what a trade organization needs to look like in the next few years. New ideas. New ways to communicate. It’s all extremely exciting. I’m leaving while that’s still evolving, but I’m eager to watch how that happens.”