The Most Influential Women in the Food and Beverage Industry

The food and beverage industry may be more hospitable than others to women executives – who are not shy about getting their way once they reach the top.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief, and David Phillips, Technical Editor

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It's a smaller world, to be sure, and many U.S. food companies are involved in a more globalized food industry.

One of the most all-encompassing food regulations ever written is being rolled out under Hamburg's watch. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which Hamburg calls the “most sweeping reform to its food safety system in 70 years,” codifies and specifies a series of initiatives that have been adopted by the food industry over several decades. Hamburg says its phased implementation is coming along nicely.

“I have been continually impressed with the public’s interest in these issues and the commitment demonstrated by so many to get these rules right,” Hamburg says. “I personally value the input and feedback we have received from the public, and I am confident that, once FSMA is fully implemented, we can expect fewer food-borne illnesses and an even safer food supply in this country.”

Born in Chicago but raised in California, Hamburg says her physician parents inspired her own accomplishments. Before being appointed to steer the FDA, her most notable career achievement took place during her tenure as head of  New York City's health department from 1991-1997, when Hamburg helped stem a rise in tuberculosis through a policy of effective drug administration. In five years, the TB rate for the city fell by 86 percent for the most resistant strains.

So, how does Hamburg view the efforts of food processors to produce safe and nutritious food? For one, as the agency considers a ban on partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats, she credits industry efforts for a dramatic reduction in consumption of trans fats — from 4.6g per day in 2003 to about 1g per day in 2012.

“It is clear that food and beverage makers are increasingly focused on the positive role they can play, and in many instances, have provided important leadership to develop and advance strategies to improve the nutritional composition of the foods they provide and to improve food safety,” Hamburg says. “Of course, there is more to be done, and the FDA is eager to work with industry as partners to better serve the health of the public.

"I am grateful for the public and industry engagement on this critical public health issue," she concludes, "and I look forward to all that we will accomplish together in 2014."

Kim Ruiz Beck, Rachel CullenKim Ruiz Beck and Rachel Cullen, Ruiz Foods

Ruiz Foods, Dinuba, Calif., will mark its 50th anniversary this year. The family-owned company is a leader in Mexican-style frozen foods, selling burritos, snacks and entrees under the El Monterey brand in a variety of retail and food service channels. The executives filling the top managerial seats in the company are two women -- Chairman Kim Ruiz Beck and President/CEO Rachel Cullen.

Beck grew up in the family business that was started by her father and grandfather. She has a master's degree in administrative leadership from Fresno Pacific University and an undergraduate degree in marketing from California State University, Fresno.

Her affiliation with the family business began at a very early age when she held a series of marketing and sales positions. More recent leadership roles have included vice president of marketing and sales, then executive vice president of product development and then vice chairman.

Beck says that in her experience, the food business has been a bastion of gender equality.

“I’ve always thought the food industry has been hospitable — in fact, welcoming to women,” she reflects. “Maybe it’s because I was born into it, I don’t know, but even in the early days when I would accompany my dad or one of our sales executives on a call, I felt I was valued and respected for my knowledge and expertise.”

She notes that 80 percent of Ruiz Foods' employees are women. Beck also believes that companies with women in top positions benefit from the female perspective.

“As a mom involved in the food business, I always like looking at what we do from the perspective of my three boys,” she says. “It’s great because I never have to guess what they might enjoy.  I can observe in real situations — before baseball practice, at the dinner table, what they stock in their college refrigerator for snacks, etc. When they were young, I just watched what they put on their plate, listened to their comments and made notes as to what they asked me to bring back from the grocery store when I went shopping.  The input always proves valuable.”

Cullen came to the company in 2012 after holding a series of key executive positions with several major food manufacturers including Kraft Foods and Dean Foods. She holds a degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania.

Cullen says she too has found a level playing field among men and women in the food business.

“I have always found that acceptance and success in the food industry is based on abilities and performance, not gender,” she says. “I have also found the food industry a great personal source for finding mentors who are very willing to their share experiences and insights.”

Beck says that as she has gained experience in the business, she has become more aware of other famale food executives, in part due to her involvement in industry associations.

“As I became more involved in the industry, I am amazed how many more women have also become involved," she says. “I attend the Networking for Women conference and the Women’s Foodservice Forum each year and am very impressed by the visibility and mentoring available for successful women in the food industry.”

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  • I think you should also include Patricia Woertz, Chairman of Board, CEO and President of ADM

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