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Mills' quality-assurance manager tackles responsibility head on

As quality assurance manager for Salinas, CA-based Mills Family Farms' Wholeaves program, 25-year-old Kari Scheidhauer shoulders a lot of responsibility.

"The ax falls on me" in the event of food-safety problems, Ms. Scheidhauer said. Still, she's grateful for the opportunity and feels that she's making a contribution to the program.

Her role includes overseeing quality control in the Wholeaves facilities and in cooler facilities, as well as field audits. Training workers, handling paperwork and audits, product development and working with customers are all included in her job description.

Ms. Scheidhauer has been with Mills Family Farms for just about two years as quality-assurance manager following a stint with Salinas-based Classic Salads that began in May 1992 following her graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where she was a business major with a concentration in logistics.

Ms. Scheidhauer said that she has just "touched the tip of the iceberg -- presumably with gloves on -- in the fresh produce business. "I love what I do, she said.

The Minnesota native has adjusted to a California lifestyle over the past three years. It's a lifestyle that allows for downhill skiing in the daytime and enjoying a romantic evening on the beach -- all in the same day. "In Minnesota, you stay where you're at, she said.

In the fall Ms. Scheidhauer plays softball in a co-ed league in Salinas. She is also registered to run for the Hartnell College (Salinas) board of trustees for District 5.

Mills' Salinas "Wholeaves plant has 500 employees spread over two shifts from about the end of March through November. The Brawley, CA, facility also utilizes about 500 workers over two shifts and runs from about mid-November through March. Most of the workers in both locations are Mexican as is Ms. Scheidhauer's fianc? -- Francisco Valdes -- a situation she finds ironic. She said she got good grades in school except for the "D she received in Spanish class in college. She has become conversant in Spanish and laments that her college Spanish teacher can't see her now. "I do well when it's a work-related conversation, she said.

Ms. Scheidhauer and Mr. Valdes -- a consultant in the fresh produce industry -- bought a house together in Salinas last year. Mr. Valdes works for Dr. Karl Kolb, a former college professor of Ms. Scheidhauer who she says was instrumental in getting her going on the quality-assurance management track. Dr. Kolb owns the American Food Safety Institute and has written books on food safety.

Ms. Scheidhauer is contributing clothing guideline information to the International Fresh-cut Produce Association for a publication on food safety.

She has taken to wine tasting in recent times and, on behalf of Central Coast Young Farmers & Ranchers, she is chairwoman of an upcoming dinner and wine tasting event called Views of the Valley. An active member of Central Coast Young Farmers & Ranchers, she attended the American Farm Bureau Federation YF&R Leadership Conference in New Orleans in February.

Looking ahead, Ms. Scheidhauer said that she loves the agricultural community and foresees staying in the Salinas area indefinitely. She plans to increase her network of people and her responsibilities in fresh produce, especially in the areas of food safety, security and product development. Farther down the road, she said she might be interested in moving into sales or marketing.

Her interests somewhat combine those of her parents, Gary and Gayle Scheidhauer, who live in Minnesota, as does her married sister Shelly Jellison. Her father has always been in sales of different food products. She also worked with her mother during high school and college on product sensory, starting in the kitchen doing food preparation and then moving her way up to being a moderator. She credits that experience for shaping her interest in research and development.y