Industry Viewpoint: Food safety first
There is, perhaps, no more important issue in the produce industry today than the safety of our fresh fruits and vegetables. The work to ensure consumers can safely enjoy such nutritious food can often feel daunting and fulfilling at the same time, with constant changes in the regulatory and legal environment and the development of new technologies changing the way produce is processed, packaged, and delivered. Emerging technology and science developments, coupled with consumers’ evolving preferences and buying behaviors, create an even greater need for ongoing professional development in produce safety.
After noticing gaps in the education of aspiring food safety professionals, Dr. Jennifer McEntire, United Fresh’s Senior Vice President, Food Safety & Technology, answered the call to develop the next generation of produce safety leaders. Backed with the support of United Fresh’s board and leadership, Dr. McEntire developed United Fresh’s Produce Safety Immersion Program in 2019. Selected through a competitive application process, the inaugural class of 14 up-and-coming professionals built their technical capacity, critical thinking skills, and leadership attributes through face-to-face meetings/trainings, tailored webinars, and regular networking and professional development sessions. In addition, five highly skilled produce safety professionals served as mentors to the program fellows and supported the professional growth and development of the cohort throughout the year-long program.
“United Fresh has always been the industry resource for all things produce safety and the Produce Safety Immersion Program is yet another great tool for the industry,” said Dr. McEntire. “Nothing has given me more personal and professional satisfaction than watching Class One of the program grow their skills by learning from experts, and each other.”
Immersed in topics from outbreak investigations and the role of state agriculture departments, to berry harvesting and produce safety history, the fellows had opportunities to directly engage with senior level officials, including experts from the FDA, Cornell University, and esteemed companies in the produce industry.
“The Produce Safety Immersion Program has given me invaluable tools and technical skills that I will be able to use throughout my career,” said Class One Fellow Jackie Hawkins, Senior Manager of Food Safety, BrightFarms. “Additionally, we have developed a network of food safety individuals in which we can contact to share thoughts, comments, and questions. Having this network of peers to help me navigate through choices and decisions gives me the confidence in myself and my food safety program.”
United Fresh’s Dr. Jennifer McEntire was recently named the 2020 recipient of NSF International’s prestigious Food Safety Leadership Award for her commitment to food safety and dedication to the Produce Safety Immersion program.
“I am optimistic that Dr. McEntire’s approach [of the Produce Safety Immersion program] can be modeled for other facets of a truly integrated food safety system to help bolster, build and sustain a culture of food protection; one that encompasses quality, food safety and food defense within and across the food industry,” states Jason Bashura, Senior Manager of Global Food Defense at PepsiCo, in his Food Safety Leadership Award submitted nomination.
United Fresh is accepting applications through October 31 from prospective fellows and mentors for Class Two of the Produce Safety Immersion Program, again sponsored by Renaissance Food Group at the gold level, and Ecolab as a silver sponsor.
United in Food Safety
United Fresh’s dedication to building a pipeline of produce safety professional extends beyond the Produce Safety Immersion Program. Numerous conversations with its members about their increasing demand for produce safety and quality assurance candidates led United Fresh to develop two new initiatives to help prepare students to excel before and after graduation. In another step towards nurturing future produce safety leaders, United Fresh recently launched a complimentary membership category for undergraduate and graduate students with a career interest in produce safety or quality assurance. Student members have access to all United Fresh membership benefits, including dozens of food safety webinars, discounted rates on trainings and events, and regular networking opportunities with industry professionals. In addition, these members now have exclusive access to an all-new job board for produce safety and quality assurance positions.
As the industry continues to navigate uncertain times, United Fresh will be there to assist with produce safety needs through consultation, education and evolving resources, to help grow and market the safest possible fresh fruits and vegetables.
(Ben Massoud is the communications manager for United Fresh)