Conversations & Collaborations | May 2017

Meet Joe Pezzini, CEO of Ocean Mist Farms: “Food Safety is THE Most Important Thing We Do. Period.”

Humble, kind, unassuming, calm, sincere, and good-natured.

All these words have been used over and over by many people who’ve had the pleasure of working alongside Mr. Joe Pezzini, CEO of Ocean Mist Farms.

And while those words may sound “soft,” there’s one thing you shouldn’t mistake about Joe: When it comes to food safety, he’s dead serious, powerfully passionate, and super effective.

Today, we invite you to step inside the dynamic work life of Joe Pezzini. In our Q & A below, you’ll learn about what makes him tick, how he approaches food safety, and what he does day in and day out to help make sure the produce grown by Ocean Mist Farms is safe for all of us to eat. Plus, Joe shares a food safety initiative close to his heart that you can get involved in.

Q: Tell us about your story, Joe. How did you first become interested in a food safety career?
A: I grew up on our small family farm on the central coast of California, just north of Castroville. My family has been growing artichokes since 1930. In 2001, I became Vice President of Operations for Ocean Mist Farms (OMF), which is located in Castroville and specializes in growing artichokes and 30 other fresh produce items. In this role, I was tasked with creating a formal food safety program for our farming, harvesting, and post-harvest operations.

Although I wasn’t formally trained in food safety, I really took to heart just how important it is. I set out to learn everything I could about food safety practices, training, equipment, and education. This became the basis for the food safety program I built for OMF. What I learned then formed the backbone of the food safety education I needed to lead the creation of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement for the produce industry back in 2007.

Q: As CEO of Ocean Mist Farms, what’s a day in the life like?
A: Much of my day-to-day attention is focused on operational performance and strategic initiatives. I closely watch our product quality metrics, which includes food safety measurements like Daily Harvest Crew check list results and Weekly Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility results. Audit performance and testing results have been, and will continue to be, keys for guiding my work of continual progress and improvement of OMF’s food safety program. One way I keep on top of that progress is through participation in weekly meetings that hone in on the performance of our food safety department.

Something that I especially enjoy about my work is the food safety component of our employee quality incentive program. Let me share how that works.   Each harvest crew gets a monthly audit score on their food safety performance.  Quarterly, their scores are tallied and the team with the fewest deficiencies earns company clothing or gear. It’s a fun and effective program that our employees really take pride in.

Q: In your CEO role, you’ve been lauded for your unique leadership style. How is it different and how is it helping to improve food safety practices at OMF?
A: As a leader, I’m very task oriented. I’m particularly adept at keeping my eye on our end goal and working in a smart, efficient way to achieve it.

When it comes to my leadership style, I’ve heard it described as “quietly ambitious” and that I’m a very driven person, but not overbearing in my approach. I do agree and believe that my leadership style embodies the prevalent culture of Ocean Mist Farms. We’re very good at what we do, but we fly under the radar of most industry observers.

And that scenario definitely applies to our food safety work. It is THE most important thing we do in producing food. Period. And the practices and programs we implement are truly excellent—resulting in our produce having never been involved with an illness outbreak. Ours is a rigorous, disciplined program that’s very effective in prevention, which is really the name of the game. Yet our food safety work gets done without a lot of fanfare.

Honestly, I can’t say it enough:

Producing safe food is the most critical component of the efficient, successful operation of our farms, harvesting, and distribution practices.

And, every day, I’m very grateful for the hundreds of dedicated, talented people who work with me to ensure that the produce we deliver to consumers is free of harmful pathogens that can make people sick.

Q: From your perspective, what is the single biggest challenge you see with respect to preventing foodborne illness?
A: Education along the entire supply chain.

From learning food safety best practices to understanding why they’re important, to successfully implementing those best practices—it’s a tremendous challenge.

At OMF, we put forth a big effort in making sure our staff really understands the “why” in food safety—it’s not just about making sure they follow instructions. If you can get people to truly understand why they’re doing those best practices, then it becomes their own “why” and part of their heart, if you will. And the work gets done without exception. To effectively prevent more foodborne disease and save more lives, this approach must go far beyond just those who produce food. It must include every single person who touches food products along the supply chain, including the consumer.

Q: When did you first learn about Stop Foodborne Illness and what do you find most valuable about our work?
A: What Stop Foodborne Illness brings to our industry for the betterment of the consumer is priceless.

It was in 2013 that the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement organization collaborated with Stop Foodborne Illness to connect farmers with victims of foodborne illness related to produce. Stop Foodborne Illness helped the produce industry create outstanding educational tools that are now used to successfully promote food safety on farms. These tools brilliantly tap into the emotional, human side of our work, which is extremely powerful in moving people to take the right actions.

For me, the collaborative approach Stop Foodborne Illness initiated, and continues to nurture, with the produce industry is truly one of the most impressive, valuable aspects of their work.

Q: What can our readers get involved in to help your food safety work?
A: Ocean Mist Farms is a strong supporter of an organization called Ag Against Hunger (AAH).  AAH collects surplus produce and distributes it to food banks near and far. One of their programs takes volunteers to local farms to harvest surplus produce. The volunteers learn about the produce they’re picking; but, most importantly, they learn about food safety practices in the production and harvesting of the crop. Every volunteer gets a crash course in the best food safety practices on the farm. Our intention is to provide the education that can carry over into their daily food preparation practices. To learn more about this unique organization, visit www.agagainsthunger.org.

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Joe Pezzini is native to the Salinas, California area and hails from a third generation farming family. He began his career with the Ocean Mist Farms group of companies in 1983 as a farm manager. In 2001, Joe was promoted to Vice President of Operations at Ocean Mist Farms where he was responsible for cooling operations, food safety, research & development, quality assurance, human resources, and strategic planning. In 2009, Joe became Chief Operating Officer at Ocean Mist Farms and was named CEO in 2015. Joe is a leading advocate for produce food safety and was instrumental in forming the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement following the spinach crisis in 2006. Joe and his wife, Mary, are avid gardeners, enthusiastic runners, and enjoy sharing their home with a wide variety of animals—from peacocks to horses. They have two grown children, David and Bess, who they love spending time with.

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