AgriLife Extension specialists receive Superior Service Award for work with HEB

COLLEGE STATION  –  A group of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialists has received the agency’s Superior Service Award in the team category.

The award, presented Jan. 8 during the annual Texas A&M AgriLife Conference in College Station, is given to those who demonstrate outstanding performance or provide exceptional service to AgriLife Extension, an educational outreach agency of the Texas A&M University System.

The team received the award for their work on the HEB Produce Safety Training Course for Producers and Suppliers. AgriLife Extension team members include Don Renchie, a pesticide specialist in College Station; Mark Matocha, an agronomist in College Station; Juan Anciso, a citrus and vegetable specialist in Weslaco; and Frank Dainello, a horticulturist and professor emeritus in College Station.

According to the award’s nomination narrative, Chris Dzuik, HEB product quality manager, approached AgriLife Extension in 2007 for assistance in expanding their producer food safety education program.

HEB is a privately owned retail grocer operating in Texas and Mexico and has been serving the people of Texas for more than a century. Annual revenues from the 300 stores across Texas total $15 billion. HEB employs 76,000 people and serve on average 8.2 million customers per week.

To ensure the safety of fresh produce and to minimize or alleviate the occurrence of foodborne illnesses from contaminated produce, the AgriLife Extension team developed the HEB Produce Safety Training Course and taught their first class in 2007.

“The course is a two-day, team-taught intensive instruction in the scientific, regulatory and practical issues facing the produce industry,” according to the nomination. “Since 2007, the AgriLife Extension team, in collaboration with HEB, have conducted at least 15 educational programs in Texas and one in Mexico at which more than 300 students have participated. Those students represent companies that employ some 55,000 employees.”

In addition, the total value of the crops grown, shipped or sold by companies that have attended the course exceeds $1.04 billion, the nomination stated, noting it is the first effort by a major retailer in the U.S. to address produce safety through education of their producers and suppliers.

In a commendation letter, John Scott, director of HEB quality assurance, wrote that the course is one of the most significant, practical food safety courses taught in the U.S.

“The innovative teaching and pertinent information is having a direct positive impact on grower, packer, warehousing and retailer food safety practices, pushing the produce industry further to achieving benchmark best practices as evidenced by product and audit performances,” Scott wrote.

“These positive results in turn raise the shopper’s comfort level, resulting in increased produce sales, which are all good for Texas and our economy.”

The manner in which the course is taught and the depth of knowledge provided by the instructors is simply outstanding, Scott wrote.

“I have been in the food safety and quality assurance profession for 40 years and this course is one of the best I have ever attended,” he said.

In another supporting letter, Samantha Bierschwale of Lipman Family Companies, the largest field tomato grower in North America, wrote that “this is a crucial time in our industry to educate growers and suppliers on the actual science, data and regulations regarding pesticide usage and food safety.

“I think giving everyone, not just food safety people, even a basic understanding of what food safety and good agricultural practices as this team does will be beneficial to the industry as a whole, which will, of course, result in safer, higher quality produce for consumers.”

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