NEWARK, Del. -- The Produce Marketing Association, here, and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., have formed a joint committee that will act as a single, industry-wide source of information for the exploding interest in produce packaging options -- most notably, returnable plastic containers and standardized cardboard boxes.
The primary goal of the 24-member committee is to ensure that all parties throughout the produce distribution chain are represented as the industry seeks packaging solutions, officials said.
"We need to make sure that all partners in the [full vertical distribution] chain are looking at mutual efficiencies and that whatever solutions are developed work for everybody," said Tom Stenzel, United president.
The inclusive nature of the joint effort will be enhanced by the creation of a shared database of opinion and information that will be accessible by computer, the officials added.
"It's an issue of providing a place for ongoing debate, and building up some kind of knowledge database within the association memberships that can be shared with the overall industry," said Bryan Silbermann, PMA president.
The panel will include a single representative each from the RPC and fiberboard segments, as well as an even number of retailers, grower/shippers, food-service operators, wholesalers and brokers. The committee will be co-chaired by Fred Heptinstall, United's chairman-elect, and executive vice president of Chiquita Fresh North America, Cincinnati; and PMA secretary-treasurer Tim York, who is also president of Markon Cooperative, a food-service produce supplier based in Salinas, Calif.
"People are looking for information," said York. "We really have not had an opportunity for all concerned parties within the industry to come together and have a chance to address the various options and issues related to containers."
He added that the pan-industry approach is critical to resolving the issue, because individual segments within the distribution channel may develop what they believe is a solution, only to have it negatively impact someone elsewhere.
"We look at this as an opportunity not for debate, but an opportunity for people to come and learn more about the issues surrounding various packaging options and make more informed decisions," he said.
PMA's Silbermann said that the idea for forming a joint committee came in February, and both PMA and United quickly agreed it was time to take the next step.
"A lot of issues have been percolating up from our memberships to the respective boards of both associations," he said. "We both, at the same time, in February, said we ought to be doing something on this."
Members will be appointed to the panel throughout the rest of the spring and convene officially this summer. A host of issues pertaining to packaging will be examined, including efficiency, cooling, transportation and food safety. Besides acting as a one-source forum, the committee may also develop recommendations for research, though officials cautioned it will not be directed at any one type of container.
"It could spawn some recommendation for research, but at this point, to say that there would definitely be additional research -- or we would validate one or the other [container system] -- is premature at this point," said Heptinstall.
"One of the things we're trying to avoid is saying that there's a particular problem that we intend to resolve, and then issue recommendations," added Stenzel. "We're trying to create an opportunity to address these packaging issues, and make sure there's common understanding across the industry."
Nevertheless, the panel is sure to be peppered with a variety of research concerning the attributes of both RPCs and standardized corrugated boxes, most of it from the respective manufacturers of those systems. But the committee officials stressed that, while this research might be accurate, it is too narrow in scope to be of true use to the larger industry.
"It's almost become a situation of duelling researchers on some of these issues," said Silbermann. "I think that by providing an ongoing committee with a focus, we can have a larger group of people, representing all sectors, including the RPCs and fiberboard side of the business, bringing ideas and research to this group to look at, and hopefully get some impartiality involved."
"We're open to both solutions, if we can better understand how we can use those within our system," said York.