Extension specialist closes language gap

By Lois Caliri

Each year, Virginia fishermen fill their nets with millions of pounds of seafood. The crabs — along with shrimp, oysters, and other delicacies — go to the production plants where workers, who are mostly from Spanish-speaking countries, crack open the crab and nimbly scoop out chunks of meat. But that’s just the outer shell of the story. Most workers do not speak English.

Luckily, the processing plants found a solution in Abigail Villalba from the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hampton. “Oftentimes, the workers do not understand something that is written in English,” she said, “so we give them the information in Spanish.”

Villalba, a bilingual Virginia Cooperative Extension food safety specialist and native of Puerto Rico, helps employees and their bosses talk to each other. Communication is crucial to the company managers and owners who face a myriad of state and federal regulations pertaining to seafood safety and quality, sanitation programs, and good manufacturing practices.

Villalba customizes the courses by the types of products, equipment, and processing operations. The workshop can include an evaluation of the company’s manufacturing practices and sanitation procedures, a customized PowerPoint presentation, and an evaluation of product safety.

“We try to take complex information and translate it into layman’s terms,” added Professor Mike Jahncke, director of the Virginia Seafood AREC. Villalba’s prior food safety experience working for the federal government ensures that the Spanish-speaking employees fully understand how to keep their products safe and in compliance with regulatory affairs. Companies can leave nothing to chance, as failed inspections can close their doors. In addition, seafood processors sell to huge companies, including Walmart, which have their own requirements.

“All that adds to what we have to do,” Villalba said.

There’s intensive training, independent inspections, audits, and process control. Two bilingual doctoral students — Anibal Concha-Meyer from Chile and Raul Saucedo from Panama — were tested and trained to provide ServSafe training at the retail level for Spanish-speaking managers. The students are in the Department of Food Science and Technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.