As Steve Patricio assumes his responsibilities as the new chairman of the Center for Produce Safety and takes the reins of this groundbreaking effort to provide research the produce industry can use to prevent foodborne illnesses, he wants to assure everyone of one thing – this is not his first rodeo.

Patricio is president and CEO of Westside Produce, a major shipper of fresh California and Arizona melons.  He has served as Chairman of the Food Safety Committee of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board since its inception in 1990.  During his tenure, Patricio weathered one of the produce industry’s earliest known foodborne illness outbreaks.

Although, the outbreak was eventually linked to cantaloupes produced in Mexico, for several weeks in the middle of Central California’s major production period for melons, sales of all cantaloupes stopped dead in their tracks.

“It was my job to send 800 seasonal melon workers home because of an event that had happened two months prior in another country,” said Patricio.  “We quickly came to the realization that it didn’t matter if we were responsible for making people sick – we needed to do something about it.  We needed to assure consumers our product was safe; we needed to better understand the science behind our product and these pathogens.  More importantly, we needed to fund science-based research into how this incident happened in the first place and to make sure it never happened on our farms.”

With that thought in mind, Patricio became the leader of the melon industry’s first mandatory food safety program. “Our Central California cantaloupe industry was the first to implement mandatory trace-back on every carton shipped from our district, way ahead of any government or customer mandate,” explains Patricio.  “We are proud of what we do and how we do it.  Our families, our workers and their families rely on the assurance that we are producing a safe product.”

Today Patricio is still leading the charge for cantaloupes and with his new duties as chairman of CPS, that role will now expand well beyond the melon fields of California.

“Like most of us in the produce industry, the product we grow and ship has never been associated with a foodborne illness outbreak,” said Patricio.  “But we know firsthand the damage an outbreak can cause to the many people who make a living bringing that healthy product to market, as well as to the reputation and sales of an entire commodity.”

As its new chairman, Patricio’s overarching goal for CPS is to foster wide collaboration among all produce groups in all production areas.
“Science based research is the key to solving food safety problems for produce and it doesn’t matter what fruits or vegetables you grow – this is something we all need to pay attention to,” said Patricio. “The only way we can truly prevent foodborne illness in produce from ever happening is to work together to fund research and then share this knowledge with anyone and everyone who farms, ships, handles or consumes produce.”