Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Joe Pezzini, Ocean Mist Farms
Originally printed in the July 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Joe Pezzini, president and chief executive of Castroville, CA-based Ocean Mist Farms, calls the Spinach Crisis of 2006 “probably the defining moment of my career,” and, although addressing that challenge helped shape the approach he takes to his own business, it also was crucial to the future of the entire produce industry.
Pezzini’s calm leadership emerged as confidence in the safety of leafy greens withered in the halls of government and in the homes of consumers. He helped reverse the course of the crisis, and set the foundation for a transformation in how the industry addresses food safety and transparency.
Pezzini grew up on his family’s farm, and he decided early on that he wanted a career in agriculture. He focused on agricultural business, earning an MBA in preparation for it. After Pezzini participated in the California Agricultural Leadership Program from 1997 to 1999, he began looking at how he could contribute to the larger produce industry, eventually taking a place on the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California board.
After a year on the board, he agreed to become chairman and was in that position in 2006. At the beginning of Pezzini’s tenure, local issues and immigration reform were the association’s central concerns. Food safety was on its radar, but it wasn’t a prominent issue.
That changed, however, in September 2006.
Pezzini was attending the United Fresh Produce Association’s Public Policy Conference with Jim Bogart, then president of the grower-shipper association. The day before the two were set to fly home, they heard “something big was going on, something that was going to affect the industry,” recalls Pezzini. “We didn’t know what it was, but it had to do with the FDA, and it had to do with food safety.”
Then, at 6 a.m. the next morning at the airport, Pezzini saw a newsfeed on CNN about an advisory telling people not to eat spinach.
The spinach outbreak caught the industry off guard, Pezzini says, and no infrastructure existed to deal with the emerging crisis.
“Frankly, it was chaotic,” Pezzini says. “There were news trucks running around, and none of us had any experience of dealing with anything like this before. I found myself at the epicenter of it because I was the chairman of the grower-shipper association. So, I felt obligated to get out in front of the news agencies. Someone had to speak on behalf of the industry, and nobody was.”
Timothy York, chief executive at California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, says it became evident that having Pezzini involved was fortunate, as the industry needed a credible spokesperson.
“At that time — when we had a huge credibility problem, when we were the joke of the country — I don’t think you could have found a more perfect person than Joe,” York says. “He’s brilliant. He’s as genuine and real as they come, with no pretense, just as authentic as anyone you can meet. He was the perfect person at that time.”
As a unified industry response began to coalesce, Pezzini said meetings began with industry representatives and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
The idea emerged to establish standards and metrics that lettuce and leafy greens growers would adopt, and hearings commenced about using the market agreement act as a vehicle. “It was clear that we needed some sort of standard that would get producers to follow some set of rules that would help foster food safety.”
Eventually, Pezzini was elected chairman of the newly formed California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.
Pezzini, York says, knew that addressing the problems was going to require more than dousing the immediate fires. “Joe understood when he got into it that it was going to be a long-term effort, and he was going to be in the thick of it for a number of years.”
The marketing agreement has evolved with advancing science, testing protocols and capabilities, as well as a mechanism to address marketing orders. “It has created the infrastructure for improvement, and that’s the biggest deal I think,” Pezzini says. “It’s provided a mechanism to improve standards, to improve food safety.”
Pezzini was chairman of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California through 2007, about the time the marketing agreement program launched, and he stayed on the board for a year more. He acted as chairman of the marketing agreement for three years. After that, he stayed on the organization board and otherwise remained involved for the first 10 years of its life. He remains active in both organizations.
Pezzini said that, in addition to being the defining point in his career, the spinach crisis gave him insight he carried the rest of his career, especially the ability to communicate and rally people by identifying a clear end goal.
Bryan Silbermann, retired Produce Marketing Association chief executive, said Pezzini’s actions during the spinach crisis — his considered approach to handling the challenges and his foresight in recognizing that food safety would be an ongoing issue — were invaluable. Indeed, Silbermann says, they were contributing factors in the foundation of the larger food safety infrastructure that exists today.
“Joe is quite a leader. He’s a thoughtful guy with a tremendous reservoir of goodwill,” says Silbermann. “Beyond that, he’s a highly ethical guy. He was in the right place at the right time.”