California Strawberry Commission President Mark Murai gazed at nearly 200 industry representatives gathered at the first California Strawberry Food Safety Summit yjod to hear a panel of prominent experts, industry leaders and regulators from the front lines of food safety.

“What a powerful statement, to see 97 percent of the industry here,” he said. “We don't invest our time and our passion and our money to make people sick. California strawberries have not been the source of an outbreak, but we need to do whatever is necessary to prevent one from happening.”

The large attendance spoke volumes about the commitment of the California strawberry industry to providing healthy, safe and delicious fruit to consumers.

It even impressed panelist Mike Villaneva, Inspection Manager, Food Safety Section, California Department of Food & Agriculture/Researcher, Western Institute for Food Safety & Security.

“The California strawberry industry is way out ahead in terms of food safety,” he remarked. “So focus on what you do well and think beyond the challenges to come.”

Villaneva was one of six panelists who spoke about how state and national agencies investigate a food-borne illness outbreak and the tools that strawberry growers, processors and shippers can use to protect themselves against such a crisis, as well as what steps they need to take in case one happens.

Precise and thorough documentation, verification and consistent water-testing were emphasized throughout the discussion.

“Because your industry is so successful and proactive, chances are you won’t see us on a regular basis because we go where we think more high-risk products are,” added panelist H. Gordon Cox, Director of Investigations Branch, Pacific Region, Food & Drug Administration.

Rounding out the elite panel were Anita Highsmith, former Head of Water Quality Laboratories, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention; Benson Yee, Chief, Emergency Response Unit, Food and Drug Branch, California Department of Health Services; and Sean Fitzgerald, Partner/Managing Director, Ketchum West.

Also on hand throughout the day at a “mini” trade show were representatives from companies providing food safety solutions such as food safety testing, monitoring and traceback products and services. During his presentation, Murai explained why it was crucial that the California Strawberry Commission host this unique event.

“Food safety is our number one priority,” he explained. “I want to be able to bring strawberries home to my family and know they will be eating nutritious, great-tasting fruit without any worries.”

Food safety is integrated into all program areas of the California Strawberry Commission. First adopted in 1998, and fully revised in 2005, the Commission’s Food Safety Program builds on Good Agricultural Practices, tailoring them to the specific needs of the strawberry industry. In fact, part of that concentrated effort led to the formation of a new Food Safety and Security Committee last fall.