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Sammy Duda elected chairman of Western Growers Association

Sammy Duda, vice president of operations for Duda Farm Fresh Foods in Salinas, CA, was elected 2017 chairman of the board for Western Growers Association at the group’s 91st Annual Meeting, held Nov. 6-9 in Kauai, HI.Duda CoxIncoming WGA Chairman of the Board Sammy Duda of Duda Farm Fresh Foods accepts the gavel from Lawrence Cox of Lawrence Cox Ranches.

Duda replaces outgoing chairman Larry Cox, owner of Lawrence Cox Ranches in Brawley, CA, who will join Duda and the other officers on the association’s Executive Committee. That group will consist of Senior Vice Chairman Craig Reade of Bonipak Produce Inc. in Santa Maria, CA; Vice Chairman Ron Ratto of Ratto Bros. in Modesto, CA; Treasurer Steve Danna of Danna Farms in Yuba City, CA; Executive Secretary Carol Chandler of Chandler Farms in Selma, CA; and WGA President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Nassif.

The WGA convention, which always is an interesting mix of educational workshops, networking opportunities and keynote addresses, kicked off with a Top Chef workshop featuring Hawaiian Islands Chef Adam Tabura. The event was standing room only as a lively crowd learned how to incorporate local flavors in produce-centric dishes, and were able to taste the creations.

During the Civil & Criminal Liability workshop, also on Nov. 7, Stuart Woolf of Woolf Farms facilitated a discussion between the audience and three speakers discussing foodborne illnesses and their impact on businesses.

Attorney William Marler of Marler Clark LLP, who has enjoyed a lucrative career suing food companies for making people sick, indicated that there are steps that can be taken to limit these outbreaks. He noted that from 1993 to 2003, about 95 percent of his lawsuits involved E. coli and hamburgers.

“That number is nearly zero today,” he said, suggesting the meat industry took steps and cleaned up its act.

Marler applauded the produce industry for the same corrective steps taken after the foodborne illness crisis associated with spinach 10 years ago, with the establishment of leafy green standards. He said the produce industry has come a long way in the past decade.

He also acknowledged that there are a lot of “bogus claims” against food companies that he does not file. But he said when there is a foodborne illness and causation can be proven, strict liability is the result.

“It is not whether you are at fault, but how much you are going to pay,” he said.

Daniel Jarcho of the law firm of Alston & Bird noted that more and more criminal liability has entered the landscape. If there is a major civil liability case surrounding foodborne illnesses, he said there will most likely be a criminal investigation. In those investigations, he said it is not necessary that a CEO or other people in positions of power have absolute knowledge of a criminal action by their company to be held responsible. If they were in a position where they should have known what was going on, they can face criminal penalties, including jail time.

Sarah Bew, who typically defends companies in foodborne illness cases for the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, agreed that criminal liability is on the rise. She said prosecutors will come into a company with a subpoena and delve deep into the business. She said companies have to be prepared. "Protect yourself: do a risk assessment, have a plan, document everything and make a contract," she said.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman James Nicholson, who served during the 2000 election when George W. Bush was elected, was the keynote speaker during the Western Growers Political Action Committee luncheon on Nov. 7. He spoke about the upcoming election, but was reluctant to make a hard-and-fast prediction. He did note that the polls suggested a presidential win for the Democrats, but regardless of who wins, “We have monumental issues facing us, like national security," he said.

But Nicholson did give a robust defense of America being able to rebound from its deep divide and continue to prosper. "My bet is on America. We won the lottery to live here,” he opined, “and are still the envy of the world.”

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