ORLANDO, Fla. -- The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association used the venue of its annual convention here to make clear it intends to take the lead in helping the produce industry deal with thorny food safety issues.
During a panel discussion called "Produce Outlook 97: Focus on Food Safety," United's president and chief executive Tom Stenzel laid out the Alexandria, Va.-based association's six-point game plan for assuming that leadership.
"I want to share with you United's commitment on this issue," Stenzel told the assembly. "You can count on United. We will be your full-time advocate in Washington, D.C., and we will look forward to working with you."
The six operating roles under which United will pursue the produce safety issue, as Stenzel listed them, are:
As "your provider of scientific and technical information," having just added a full-time food scientist to its staff.
As the source of "guidance, education and training" for individual members and a catalyst for broader cooperative efforts, such as a microbiological coalition with other "organizations representing all different constituencies to begin the dialogue of how could we work together on these issues."
As the legislative, regulatory and legal representative in Washington for the grower community nationwide.
As the clearinghouse for "news media and opinion leader outreach," particularly aiming at "reporters who get it wrong, who don't listen or don't understand, not to beat them up, but to educate them."
As the arbiter of "trade and customer relations," because "it is critical that we have communications vertically throughout the chain."
And as the vehicle for "comprehensive crisis management," because despite growers' best efforts to run clean operations "there are going to be these outbreaks," Stenzel said. "We have to try to provide an insulating factor for you. You don't want that tied to your brand, to your commodity."
To underscore the need for that level of commitment, United showed a videotaped litany of news media reports on food-borne disease outbreaks aired over the last year or so, mostly with a taint of criticism for the produce industry. The tape was followed by a wide-ranging panel discussion on the topic, with three grower representatives, a supermarket retailer, a public health official and a food science consultant, as well as Stenzel moderating. [SN will report on that panel in greater detail next week.]
The "United 97" event also provided a forum for the association's attempt to foster an industry coalition to address microbiology issues. It hosted an "organizational meeting" during the convention to gauge the interest of other groups in such a coalition. Stenzel said the initial meeting was "excellent."
At least one group, the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., responded to United's overtures immediately, announcing last week that its executive committee voted to allocate as much as $100,000 in matching funds to United's national food safety coalition.
"We feel that United should take the lead to coordinate some of the excellent initiatives already begun at the grower-shipper level, and define where more are needed," said Bob DiPiazza, the PMA's chairman and also group vice president of perishables for Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill.
More broadly, the United convention, held over three days in late February, also represented a peak in the trade group's efforts over the last few years to differentiate itself from the PMA.
The United convention this year, for probably the first time, had little deliberate emphasis on the retail buyer\produce supplier relationship, and focused instead on the needs and concerns of grower-shippers. The show floor was devoted almost exclusively to courting the grower-shipper community as customers and association members; retail attendees were sparse, as were companies exhibiting fresh fruits or vegetables compared with those exhibiting products, equipment and services for produce suppliers.