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Beach Beat: FDA picks up scientist who is food safety champion

Opinion

To quote Willy Wonka: “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

Lots of people have been bagging on lots of governmental entities for my whole life. Whether they want bigger or smaller government, they all have a lot to say about what’s bad in Washington, D.C. Few of those people mention what’s good.

Granted, staffing cuts in mainstream newsrooms mean many of those people don’t have a chance to see some of the brighter deeds that shine through the weary world of bureaucracy.

One such shining moment came Wednesday, when those of us in so-called niche media saw the announcement that scientist, educator and food safety warrior Jim Gorny is leaving his post as vice president for food safety and technology at the Produce Marketing Association to return to government service.

No matter what you think about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — during the current administration or previous ones — rest assured that Gorny’s new job as senior science adviser for produce safety at FDA is good news for anyone who eats fresh produce in the United States.

I got to know Gorny during my time as a reporter for The Packer newspaper, which covers the fresh produce industry in North America. For my first couple of years at The Packer, Gorny worked for FDA as senior adviser for produce safety at Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

His presentations and participation in panel discussions at produce industry events were amazing. Gorny’s got chops, as those of us with band experience would say. Few people can clearly communicate complex scientific information to non-eggheads. The beauty of Gorny’s style is that he can speak to researchers as well as real people in a conference hall without anyone feeling like the material is over — or under — their heads.

No doubt part of the foundation for his communication skills is his education. He has multiple degrees in food science and a doctorate in plant biology, which I know means nothing to some people. But he’s also got experience as a researcher/educator and food producer.

During his career, Gorny has been executive director of the Post-Harvest Technology Research and Information Center at the University of California-Davis, senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh Produce Association and the International Fresh-cut Produce Association. He also worked in industry at Pillsbury Green Giant and as general manager of a fresh-cut produce processing plant.

Then there are his four years at FDA, where he became intimately familiar with how food safety efforts work at the federal level. He knows the provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was developed and signed into law while he was with the FDA the first time. That first-hand experience with the FSMA regulations that are beginning to be enforced in the produce industry this year is no doubt part of the reason FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb hired Gorny back into civil service.

“… we will now have a high-level agency focal point for produce safety located in our Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition,” Gottlieb said Wednesday while addressing the National Association of State Agriculture Departments. “He’s someone many of you know — Jim Gorny.

“Jim not only has previous FDA experience but has also worked for the Produce Marketing Association and is well known to the produce industry. He knows FSMA very well, what it’s designed to accomplish in enhancing food safety, and the challenges associated with implementation of a rule as complex as the produce safety rule.”

Dr. Bob — aka Bob Whitaker, Ph.D. — put an even finer point on why Gorny is a good hire for the job at FDA. Whitaker, who shares Gorny’s ability to turn scientific lingo into plain language, hired Gorny into the Produce Marketing Association nearly five years ago.

“If ever there was a right person for a job, Jim is it,” Whitaker said in a news release from the Produce Marketing Association. “Jim and I share the belief that food safety isn’t something you add to your business; it is the entire way you do business. I know that is a point of view Jim will carry with him to the FDA. It has served our members well, and now it will serve our country well.”

Our government has given us reason to rejoice, despite what pundits, profilers and personal acquaintances might say. Jim Gorny’s return to civil service is a good deed, both by him and the government that recognized his expertise and put science first.

So, yes, I’m still a nerd whose heroes are more often than not even more nerdy than I am. I’m still an optimist at heart, after decades as a hard newswoman.

And, I still have a crush on the late, great Gene Wilder, whose delivery of that one line in his portrayal of Willy Wonka has stayed with me since I first heard it, with tears running down my cheeks, in 1971.

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