LONG BEACH, Calif. -- In a role that has increasingly defined its importance within the produce industry for the past 99 years, the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association will highlight the growing bonds between government, grower/shippers and retailers when the organization convenes its annual Produce Business Conference & Expo Feb. 21-24.
As the trade group most responsible for fostering relations between the upper tiers of the produce supply chain, it's natural for United to turn the spotlight on such current events as country-of-origin labeling, the imported clementine medfly problem, and the ongoing ban on cantaloupe imported from Mexico.
However, a day-long Produce Marketing & Management Conference on Friday, Feb. 21, will focus on retail trends, proprietary and high-value produce, and the ever-evolving consumer perceptions of the category. Tom Stenzel, United's president, said that the department has changed dramatically from the time 10 years ago when the first branded, bagged salad mixes started appearing in the cooler.
"Even the traditional commodities are starting to think of themselves more as consumer products, either through special packaging or added information like recipes, which is adding value to that item," he told SN. "Produce merchandising is starting to move into a much more sophisticated and aggressive area."
As part of the discussion, five retailers will share their experiences working under the new paradigm. Part of their discussion is likely to include the emergence of new competition from alternate channels such as convenience stores and club chains. Another portion of the program is reserved for the ultimate end-user: the consumer. The Perishables Group, E. Wenatchee, Wash., will discuss the results of a customized study that analyzed consumer views of produce and how those perceptions influenced their purchase habits.
Intra-business factors also continue to weigh heavily in the way produce is sold in supermarkets. Stenzel noted that industry consolidation is beginning to catch up with the last round of retail-level mergers and acquisitions. The match-up is allowing for more cooperation, Stenzel said.
"It's not so much a retailer doing category management on, say, potatoes, as it is that the supplier and the retailer are sitting down together, better understanding the consumer, and then figuring out together how they can deliver value to the consumer," he said, citing the recent formation of a nationwide partnership among multiple tomato growers.
"What you're seeing on the supply side is not all mergers and acquisitions," Stenzel added. "A lot of the consolidation is different growers teaming up for marketing purposes to cooperatively market their products."
Among the various sessions offered as part of the show's regular education program, United is hosting a 2-hour forum on Sunday, Feb. 23, regarding the controversial country-of-origin labeling component of the 2002 farm act. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued voluntary guidelines last September in preparation for mandatory labeling regulations due to take effect on Sept. 30, 2004. As part of its mandate, the USDA is inviting public comments and will consider them in crafting the final regulations. To that end, the forum will include an overview of current thinking by Eric Foreman, associate deputy administrator for fruit and vegetable programs for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. Attendees will also have a chance to ask questions or offer opinions on the proposed regulations.
"It's not all scripted, so it's going to be fun to see what might come out of this process," Stenzel said.
Another seminar will gather officials from the United States, Mexico and Canada to talk about the ongoing restriction on melons imported from Mexico. The ban, which went into effect last October, was issued after U.S. authorities determined that a series of salmonella outbreaks over the past several years was caused by Mexican cantaloupes. To date, only two growers have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to resume shipments, having satisfied a list of food-safety requirements.
"I anticipate the Mexican government and some growers will be asking the FDA why," said Stenzel. The primary purpose of the meeting, however, will be to discuss best practices to prevent such outbreaks, and the need for sweeping restrictions like the import ban, in the future.
On Monday, Feb. 24, the focus moves onto food safety and security, with a day-long conference scheduled to address one of the most pressing issues facing the entire food industry. Especially for produce, with its openness and myriad source points, the topic is compelling. The agenda encompasses all phases of the supply chain, from farm to retail store, and includes presentations on the new crop of regulations and their effect on business practices, crisis management and traceback investigations, among others.
Stenzel said the industry is absorbing its new responsibilities quickly and efficiently, in large part due to the cooperation of government agencies charged with implementing and enforcing such measures.
"Everybody in the industry is much more aware and paying a lot more attention to security at every stage, whether it's in a production area or in transportation coming through ports or at retail," he said. "Retailers are paying much more attention to security in the store -- and in most cases the regulatory approach has been responsible and reasonable out of the U.S. government."
Stenzel praised the Bush Administration for its capacity and willingness to solicit input from the produce industry as it developed the rules.
"The Bush Administration has listened to reason from all industry groups. They're being reasonable in making sure regulations are implemented a in way that increases security without just getting in the way of business."
However, the discussions continue over certain aspects of the food-security laws, including the 24-hour prior notification clause for imports.
"Perishable products don't work well under this type of restriction," he said, noting a lot of produce is shipped within 24 hours of picking.