Seismic shifts

September 18, 2015

Our tour group gathered on the grounds of the San Juan Batista Mission in northern California. We had just finished three days of absorbing information at the III International Fresh-Cut Produce at University of California, Davis and were enjoying an oasis of calm before visiting factories and fields.

Paul, our tour guide, pointed toward the valley and explained that the San Andreas Fault was 200 feet away.

I thought my ears had failed me yet again until he repeated the statistic. The dreaded San Andreas Fault, which has caused massive California earthquakes in the past and will likely do so again, was literally just a long football punt away from where we were standing.

What if, I wondered. What would happen if that bad boy were to wake up right now as we were standing on that holy ground? It’s a little spooky to be that close to such latent peril.

I’m not sure if anybody else in the group made any connections between where we were standing and what we had heard in the conference, but I immediately began to ponder the seismic shift that dominated the sessions.

Dave Gombas, United Fresh senior vice president for food safety and technology, crystallized the change during an intriguing panel discussion on how industry and academia can help fresh-cut advance.

One of the questions put to the panel was this: how has the industry changed the most in the last 20 years? Gombas, who noted that he had only been involved in the industry for about half that time, shared the story of a reversal. When he started, 95 percent of the questions he was asked were about shelf life and quality, while 5 percent were about food safety. Today, the situation is reversed.

Another speaker referred to the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak as the industry’s 9/11. Considering where we were standing, it could also be thought of as the equivalent to the 1906 San Francisco quake.

I’ve tortured this metaphor long enough, but note that while there isn’t much anybody can do to prevent another 1906-style Big One, the fresh-cut industry is working diligently to stave off another disaster like its 2006 Big One. The classroom discussions and plant tours drove that point home at almost every turn to the participants who came around across the planet to Davis.

Paul the tour guide, explained that the roof of the old mission church was going to be replaced in an effort to better prepare the building to handle the shock of the next quake. Here’s hoping that everything learned at the symposium and tour can accomplish the same thing for produce.

—Lee Dean, editorial director

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