Food safety program transitions as Abigail Villalba retires after fifteen years working in Extension
Abigail Villalba, muscle food safety extension specialist with the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center, is retiring after 15 years supporting businesses in producing safe, high-quality foods, including shellfish and finfish for seafood lovers in Virginia and beyond.
Before her retirement at the end of September, Abigail worked closely with her successor to impart institutional knowledge and industry insight to transition the food safety program at the center into a new chapter. Villalba will continue to support the program as an affiliate faculty member.
“We are extremely thankful for the amazing food safety program Abigail developed over the years at the Virginia Seafood AREC, and equally pleased to announce that Abigail has agreed to continue service in an advisory/support capacity as a new VSAREC affiliate faculty in her retirement," said Michael Schwarz, director of the Virginia Seafood AREC.
Since joining the center and Virginia Cooperative Extension and VT Department of Food Science and Technology in 2006, Villalba has helped develop a food safety program centered on supporting businesses by providing technical assistance and education to the Virginia seafood industry. Food processors and retail food establishments need dependable help troubleshooting problems and understanding the requirements of food laws and regulations. Villalba has been there to help meet that need.
She took her work directly to business owners and workers across the commonwealth, delivering in-person and virtual food safety training sessions in English and Spanish, including HACCP training—hazard analysis and critical control points training, Good Manufacturing Practices, and personal hygiene practices.
"Finding that the research we do can be transferred and put to good use to improve and support the lives of the people in Virginia has made my time working in Extension at Virginia Tech through Virginia Cooperative Extension very fulfilling," Villalba said. "Working with a group of fun, friendly and professional people at the Virginia Seafood AREC made coming to work enjoyable, and my colleagues are what I will miss the most."
Bringing past regulatory experience with the United States Department of Commerce and the Food and Drug Administration to her Extension position, Villalba knew food processors without in-house regulatory expertise faced challenges understanding the requirements of food regulations and correcting deficiencies to stay in business serving consumers high-quality, safe products. She prioritized building relationships with food processors, state regulators, and retail food establishments to identify industry challenges while helping them resolve issues related to lack of HACCP plans, understand changing regulations, and putting food safety practices into action.
"Training and technical support have been the two most critical needs of the seafood industry," Villalba said. "Being able to support these needs is notable by the continued sale of safe and quality seafood products in Virginia. The trust that the industry places in us and our expertise has been a very rewarding experience."
Katheryn Parraga-Estrada, the newly hired muscle food safety extension specialist, shares her predecessor's passion for working directly with the industry.
"I am most excited to provide technical assistance to the industry," Parraga said. "I am looking forward to getting to work with businesses to learn about their individual processes, help them adapt to changes in regulations, and find ways they can improve to ensure the final product is safe for consumers."
Parraga joined the faculty at Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center and VT Department of Food Science and Technology in September after earning her Ph.D. in Food Science from Louisiana State University earlier this summer. She holds a master's degree in Food Science focused on Food Microbiology from Louisiana State University and a bachelor's degree in Food Science and Technology from Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School in Honduras.
Growing up seeing her grandfather, a plantain grower in Ecuador, grow and process produce is what initially drew Parraga to the field of food safety.
"If you don't have safety procedures in place, you ultimately do not have a final product to sell," Parraga said.
In addition to providing technical guidance to businesses to ensure workforce development, Parraga will continue to offer training sessions in English and Spanish through the Virginia Seafood AREC. She has participated as an instructor in delivering courses in sanitation control procedures of fish and fishery products and seafood HACCP. She brings along six years of experience working with the food industry, where most of her work has been in the areas of regulatory compliance and food safety.
When asked about what she saw for the future of the program under new guidance, Villalba said, "Having Katheryn on-board will assure the continuation of the established food safety Extension programs that the industry relies on for support and the sale of their products. I know for sure that the food safety programs will grow and expand much more under her position."