With no preparation time, I found myself dropped into the World Ag Expo in Tulare, CA, this past week. I was sent in to substitute for the publisher on a food safety panel, totally unaware it was being held at an event which is the world’s largest agricultural exposition. Like the 1 percent who defend us, the 2 percent who feed us are largely out of sight and out of mind for the rest of us. Attending the World Ag Expo with more than 120,000 farmers and ranchers is an awesome way to connect with them. The World Ag Expo got started in 1968 with 28,000 attendees and has grown steadily ever since. This year’s was the 48th annual event, drawing visitors from 70 countries to see 1,500 exhibits on 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space. Every conceivable kind of agricultural equipment and service is found among the exhibitors. The new and “cutting edge” are found here — among the top 10 new products were everything from irrigation and pump systems to a dairy records management system — along with massive showings by familiar names such as John Deere, Case, New Holland, Wilcox, Tharp, Kubota and many others. But it’s the thousands upon thousands of farmers and ranchers who make this event. Not being an election year, when candidates for president and governor of California are known to attend, the crowds this year lined up at some of the more popular food stands, where beef tri-tips looked to be the favored choice. The Expo also hosted 35 seminars over the three-day event on topics that included beef, dairy, hay and forage, international trade, irrigation, and what they called “general agricultural categories.” That’s where our panel fit in. Brad Sullivan with L+G Attorneys in Hollister and Salinas put the panel together. His firm represents many a grower in the area often called “America’s salad bowl.” He wanted our group to go through how recalls often evolve into an outbreak involving an ongoing investigation, and then to discuss how it might play out. Still fresh in the minds of many in this area is the 2006 outbreak sourced to E. coli O157:H7 on spinach. One of our panel members was Johnny Massa, now with Comgro Soil Amendments in Hollister, who had been head of Quality Assurance and Food Safety for Earthbound Farms. Masha said the valley was 99 percent back from the spinach outbreak, but not yet 100 percent recovered. Except for me as a fill-in, this panel was a who’s who of California food safety. It was led by Susan Pheasant, who directs the Salinas-based Hartnell College Agricultural and Business & Technology Institute, and Trevor Suslow from UC-Davis Extension Research. Pheasant’s is a food safety degree-granting program, and Suslow is the West’s go-to guy on fresh produce safety. We got the regulator’s viewpoint from Michael Needham, chief of emergency response for the California Department of Public Health. His explanation of what it’s like to go through an investigation where much remains unknown for longer than anyone would like was interesting to hear. I had to admit to myself that we in the media often do expect too much too fast. On the sidelines of our panel discussion, Suslow said he did test sampling of 5,000 cantaloupes grown in California during the past season and found no Listeria contamination. He also said he recently taught a heavily attended session on how to find and remove Listeria in produce processing facilities. It’s a positive sign that Listeria has the attention of California growers, and, since it has showed up now in everything from cantaloupes to apples, the defensive knowledge that Suslow can provide is a good thing for them to be picking up on. These counties in California’s Central Valley make up something like nine of the top 10 richest agricultural counties in the U.S. But, when flying into Fresno, you see mountain reservoirs that appear to be only half to three-quarters full. On the ground, you pass a handful of orchards that are no longer getting water. So, even for this area, the $1 million outsiders spend here during World Ag Expo week is probably very welcome. Even more, there’s enough here to make you want to return for next year’s event.