CHICAGO -- The United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association is not using its 100th anniversary show to look back on past achievements, but is forging ahead with a series of seminars and related educational sessions devoted to the present.
Some of them are of universal concern right now to grower/shippers and retailers. For example, "Country-of-Origin Labeling -- What's Next?" will update the industry on the current status of the voluntary guidelines proposed by United and other organizations representing the affected food categories, as well as discuss what some grower/shippers are already doing to include COOL on their merchandise.
"All of us in the produce sector realize there is going to be some form of country-of-origin labeling, like it or not," said Tom Stenzel, United's president and chief executive officer. "No one is sticking their heads in the sand and saying there's not. But we're asking how to do it; how can it be cost-effective without the liabilities, the fines and the recordkeeping."
The initial relief the industry felt when Congress authorized a two-year delay in implementation until 2006 has given rise to a wide-ranging initiative to develop voluntary guidelines that satisfy the spirit of the law. Such a proposal is very close to being completed and ready to be sent to Capitol Hill, Stenzel said.
"The basic platform that is emerging is that the suppliers will do the majority of the labeling by putting it on packaging, [price look-up stickers] and bag tags, so that when the product comes into retailers, it is all prelabeled by country," he said.
Many initiatives are under way in the area of health and nutrition as well. The rise of issues such as low-carb diets, obesity and organics translates into prime opportunities for both retailers and suppliers to increase produce sales -- provided they know how to market to consumers. Such issues are prime examples of how supplier-retailer partnerships can be tested and put to their best use.
"We believe that we can double produce consumption, but it's going to require strong, strong partnerships in retail and supply," said Stenzel. "If you think about what that could mean at store level, I think that's where we start getting noticed by retail CEOs. While the produce guys are in the trenches every day, the top guys should be thinking about the bigger strategic picture, and the longer-term investment that can bring about greater profits."
Low-carb diet plans have hit some commodities like citrus, potatoes and bananas hard. But well-executed responses to such challenges are already turning the tide, Stenzel added. Commodity boards have launched significant advertising and public education campaigns about the role items maligned by diets can play in a overall healthy lifestyle. "The banana, potato and orange juice guys are pushing back aggressively and letting consumers know that it's dumb advice to take a perfectly healthy product out of your diet over the long term," Stenzel said. "Consumers need to be reminded that dieting is very different from a healthy diet."
Obesity, on the other hand, seems perfectly fit for a massive produce education campaign. The category has certainly caught the eye of government agencies charged with keeping the nation healthy. United recently joined with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote healthy eating choices among Americans. Several seminars reflect produce's leading role in these issues, including "Low-Carb Trends?
The Impact of the Atkins Revolution"; "Using 5 A Day -- The Color Way to Increase Retail Produce Sales"; "Marketing Nutrition -- Sell More Produce By Selling Health"; and "Organic Produce -- When Niche Marketing Becomes Big Business."
Produce is no good to anyone if it doesn't arrive in peak form. A number of packaging sessions examine the strides that corrugated cardboard, returnable plastic containers and consumer packs have made in protecting the quality and safety of produce. Certainly, the introduction of a common footprint has helped facilitate greater compatibility. Attendees will find these seminars on packaging-related issues: "Innovations in Consumer Packaging for Produce" and "Innovations in Container Packaging."
"It's now a joint decision between a retailer and supplier, whereas if you go back 20 or more years, retailers didn't have anything to do with packaging," said Stenzel. "It's almost as if everything that the consumer sees, or what matters to the consumer, has become a joint concern."
Food safety and security are always high on the list in the United show seminar series, and this year is no exception. "Food Safety Standards and the Future of Retail-Produce Auditing" seeks to consolidate the requirements found in myriad domestic and international audit programs into a finite number of basic needs that all participants in the supply chain must meet. "Food Safety Outbreaks -- Lessons Learned from Traceback" takes the audit seminar one step further and demonstrates the effectiveness of integrated food-safety programs in action.
"Focus on Food Security: An Introspective Look" examines the responsibility of suppliers and their allied partners in meeting new federal requirements pertaining to imports and the distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Value-added produce is the subject of a two-part series. One examines fruit, which has resisted innovations in technology and packaging due to its extremely perishable nature, while the other looks at what's next in the well-established vegetable category. Both sessions are moderated by Jerry Welcome, the new president of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association.