RANDOLPH, Mass. -- As the Northeast Fresh Foods Alliance gears up for its conference and expo next week in Boston, it's clear that the group has expanded its horizons.
The roster of educational seminars at the NEFFA's 1998 New Horizons Conference & Exposition reflects the trade group's broadened scope. In addition to assembling a panel of experts to present an update on home-meal replacement, the NEFFA has scheduled sessions on fresh meat, organic foods, FDA regulations on fresh and frozen turkeys, HMR opportunities in convenience stores and franchising of branded food-service programs.
Such cutting-edge topics as irradiation of fresh foods will also be addressed. All this will take place at Boston's World Trade Center, April 28 and 29.
The organization, which until earlier this year had been known as the NEDDA, or the New England Dairy Deli Bakery Association, has been doing more than beefing up its seminar program. The NEFFA has also begun efforts to bring its members closer to the consumer. It has pushed to include fresh meat, produce, organics and specialty products among the industry segments it represents. And it is zeroing in on subjects pertinent to home-meal replacement.
The trade group changed its name "to more accurately reflect what we're doing," said the NEFFA's executive director, Andrea Walker. In an interview with SN, Walker was quick to point out that both the name change and the broadened scope of activities are actions driven by its members.
"Our 400 some member companies are our primary responsibility. Anything we've done has been in response to our members," Walker said.
The NEFFA's president, Sue Fraser, seconded that statement, adding some examples of how the industry is also broadening beyond old definitions for fresh-food categories. The HMR trend, she said, has spurred merchandising crossovers from one department to another; and the dairy, deli and bakery departments have incorporated other categories in their departments.
"I think the whole meat arena is a clear example of the evolution, the natural progression, to the alliance we have formed with an HMR focus," Fraser told SN.
She pointed out that some broker members who have been associated with the organization since its beginning now handle meat as well as dairy, deli and bakery products. Value-added meats are finding a place in supermarket meals centers too, alongside fully cooked products.
"Meat companies are looking for ways to enhance their presence in HMR in the supermarket. We're just keying into the interests of current and potential members who are in meat, organic, produce and specialty foods as well as dairy, deli and bakery," Fraser said.
In response to the needs of its members, the NEFFA formed a fresh meat committee this year. "There are meat companies that have been members and are represented on our board, and they were looking for more exposure," Walker explained. "At their urging and with the consensus of the board, the meat committee was formed. Coming out of that initially are educational sessions that you'll see have been added at this year's conference.
"And as we go on, we'll be looking to do certification seminars where the NEFFA is the facilitator, not just for meat, but deli and HMR, too," Walker added.
"We're thinking about how we as an alliance can help supermarkets reach another level of HMR. We need to be more of a facilitator in helping them get a bigger share of the market," Walker said.
Asked what key issues face the NEFFA's members, Walker named the growth of HMR and safe food handling.
"It's particularly crucial, since it's coupled with the issues of labor and high turnover in supermarkets," she said. That is one of the reasons the NEFFA is looking to run Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point certification seminars as another member service.
According to Lavinia Macala, the NEFFA's sales and marketing director, this year's conference program "runs the gamut from safe food handling to marketing home-meal replacement."
Macala said such cutting-edge topics as irradiation and the marketing of natural meats and organics have a prominent place on the seminar schedule.
Walker said organic products are a natural for the NEFFA. "Organic is a natural extension of dairy, and then there's Coleman natural meat in the meat departments. There's a higher consumer awareness of what's organic and natural, and they're obviously willing to pay a premium price for those products," Walker said.
And Fraser added, "We even have retail members whose main focus is natural and organic products. There's Nature's Heartland and Star Markets' Wild Harvest, to name just two."
Fraser emphasized that many of the NEFFA's broker and distributor members represent companies that have organic products. She added that the NEFFA does not consider its objective to broaden itself as a competitive jab at other industry groups.
"Synergies will grow as the industry changes. For example, there's a produce council that's very proactive and we don't want to be seen as a competitor. On the other hand, it's important for produce buyers to attend our show from an educational standpoint," Fraser said.
Macala said cooperation between the NEFFA and other trade groups already is being played out at the conference this year. She pointed out that Mary Alice McKenzie, chairwoman of the American Meat Institute; Mark Retzloff, president of the American Organic Trade Association; and Marty Mitchell, food technologist for the Refrigerated Food Association, are all featured seminar speakers at this year's show.
The association is reaching out beyond its traditional geographic parameters as well, hence the change from "New England" to "Northeast," as well as the addition of a Canadian pavilion at the meeting. The NEFFA executive said even that is a progressive, evolutionary process.
"We've had exhibitors from Canada before," Walker said. The Canadians this year will have a stronger presence at the show because it's the first time they've been grouped together in a Canadian/Quebec pavilion.
"We've also arranged to hold our Annual Fall Weekend Conference in Montebello, Quebec, in September. It's beneficial for us to establish a relationship, for importing Canadian products into this market, and they're looking to see what's going on here, especially as it pertains to HMR," Walker said.
The extension of the trade group's membership throughout the Northeast started several years ago, as New England-based brokers and manufacturers associated with the NEDDA went into upstate New York, Walker added. That was when the NEDDA attracted Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper Supermarkets as a member.
"There was no dairy-deli-bakery association in upstate New York and the area is more closely aligned with New England than with metropolitan New York City," Walker explained. Now, Bob Langdon, a category manager at Price Chopper, sits on the NEFFA's board of directors.
"Since the NEDDA already had members outside New England, we wanted our new name to be inclusionary," she said.
In the past year, the NEFFA launched a direct-mail newsletter that is distributed to consumers, and that benefits all segments of the NEFFA's membership, Walker said.
"We had run a successful freestanding insert program for years, but it was costly. When we decided to get away from FSIs, we thought about how we could reach those households we knew we reached with FSIs," she explained. The households receiving the quarterly newsletter, Consumer Watch, are responsive; a full 34% returned survey cards that were mailed out with the first issue, which was launched in December, Walker added. The newsletter targets regional shopping households, providing value via coupons and information about food. "It promotes purchase of fresh foods within supermarkets. We use recipes and cooking tips in addition to coupons, to pull the consumer in," Walker said. She said it also gives retailers an opportunity to sell consumers on what they have to offer. Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass., for example, has a half-page ad in the second issue, she said.
The importance of contacting consumers and finding out what they want can't be over-estimated, according to Fraser, who, besides being the NEFFA's current president, is also co-owner of a company called Fraser & Wagner Marketing Services in Scituate, Mass.
"I'm constantly interfacing with the consumer at the point of purchase. And I think that type of contact has never been effectively used in supermarkets. In fact, it seems to have always been undervalued," she said.
Fraser added that sampling has been looked upon as a value only to manufacturers. "But there's a lot of information that can be gained and put to use by retailers and brokers and distributors just by asking a couple of selected questions when sampling a product."
Fraser stressed that the NEFFA listens closely to its membership and performs a networking service as well as a forum for brain-storming and for discussion of particular issues as they arise.
"We feel as an alliance we have venues in place for discussions. We keep the door open and we listen," Fraser said.
All this expansion has offered enormous challenges to the NEFFA's small staff plus 90 volunteers, to make sure they're staying in touch with members' needs. But the trade group's leaders see it as a course it must take.
"I think we refocused this year to see who we are, and have tried, and will continue, to zero in on what will benefit the most people," Walker said.