NEW ORLEANS -- The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association is still alive, kicking and vital -- so its leaders took pains to remind the industry at United's 96th annual convention here.
Before a large crowd gathered for the opening session, Tim Fleming, outgoing chairman, waved a copy of the new PACA law in the air like a hard-won trophy.
The gesture was to signify United's victorious role in protecting the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act in the face of attempts last year by retail trade groups and some congressional legislators to tear it down as obsolete.
Fleming also characterized Alexandria, Va.-based United as the industry's "true produce association," having emerged "taller and prouder" from a round of negotiations over whether it should be merged with the Produce Marketing Association or its convention consolidated with PMA's into a single national produce show.
Tom Stenzel, for the last three years United's president and chief executive officer, followed Fleming at the podium, and added that he "had no idea we could come so far so fast" to build a better and more profitable climate for the produce industry.
The movement to derail PACA was a "dire threat" to the industry, said Fleming. "Today, I stand before you with a new law," he said, holding the new PACA law above his head. "This was the No. 1 test of character for your industry and your association."
He said United weathered a "difficult, costly, sometimes bitter
struggle" against other food industry forces to push through PACA reform that kept the law largely intact. "We were not caving in on our principles," he said, and, as a result, United stands "taller and prouder" as an industry advocate in the future.
Fleming also commended United for holding its own in difficult discussions with PMA, Newark, Del., about merging, after voices within the industry complained that the two trade groups were redundant and could serve the industry better and more economically as one association, or with one trade show.
"To be frank, those discussions were brief, and highlighted the differences between our two organizations rather than the similarities," he said. "I can't speak for PMA, but I know what United stands for. We are the produce association."
Fleming described United as representing growers, packers, processors, shippers, brokers and wholesalers, following a trail of produce right up to the back door of the supermarket.
While that description leaves retailers and food-service operators out, Fleming added that United will continue to work hard in partnership with retailers and their representatives.
"But first, a true produce association must represent produce. We are an industry association, not a marketing association," he said, in an obvious allusion to PMA's positioning toward the industry.