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.”

Not just lip service

For Patricio this is not just lip service, it’s something he is putting into practice at home.  Since the 1990s, the California melon industry has utilized industry assessment dollars to fund a great deal of food safety research.  Most recently, the California Cantaloupe Board completed a couple of important research projects by renowned food safety scientist Dr. Trevor Suslow of the University of California, Davis.  Suslow conducted a series of tests both in commercial melon field settings as well as in greenhouses to analyze how pathogens, particularly Salmonella, could potentially find their way into packed melons.

“What Dr. Suslow learned is very good news,” said Patricio. “The research confirms there is no internalization of pathogens into cantaloupes via root uptake and, in fact, it appears that cantaloupes may have some natural capacity to ward off salmonella systemically.”

Patricio explained that Dr. Suslow is now further examining this phenomenon as part of a CPS-funded project that will look at other commodities besides melons.  Further, Patricio noted that other California melon industry-funded research by Suslow has provided additional findings about certain growing practices in California that minimize contamination of product in the field.

“Our intention now is to share this research with producers in other melon growing regions who have recently experienced issues with contaminated product,” said Patricio.  “We have learned the hard way that the best case scenario is for all melons to be safe.  This is what melon producers want and what is best for consumers of melons around the world.”

Patricio explains that Dr. Suslow’s research findings, as well as all of the other funded research projects of the California melon industry, are available and posted on the website of the California Melon Research Board at www.cmrb.org. He urges all melon producers to contact the California Melon Research Board to gain access to the research database and to see other food safety information concerning melons so it can be put to use on their own farms.  He also noted that the most recent U.S. Food and Drug Agency Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Melons is also available on the CMRB website.

Patricio believes the current U.S. food safety policy environment, new legislation and pending food safety regulations are even more reason for producers to band together.

“It is of the utmost importance that we have commodity-specific food safety guidelines that are applicable for all growing areas and that they really work to protect public health,” he said.  “That means more and greater collaboration.  I am very happy to be a part of the industry-wide CPS organization at this unique time.”

Patricio concluded by saying, “Those who know me understand I am an outspoken advocate on issues that are important to producers.  I hope people recognize they can come to me with their concerns and know I’ll listen and try to help. “

In the meantime, Patricio urges all members of the produce industry to support the Center for Produce Safety.