SAN DIEGO — From May 14-16 this sunny city will host produce suppliers, growers and retailers at the 2013 United Fresh Produce Association conference. The show promises a wide array of educational workshops and networking events.
The conference comes at a busy time for the regulatory side of the industry with the immigration debate heating up and two proposed rules for the Food Safety Modernization Act under review.
Last month SN spoke with Ron Midyett — United Fresh incoming chairman and CEO at Apio, Inc. — to discuss the upcoming conference as well as what United is working on in the next year. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
Supermarket News: With the conference in San Diego, what can attendees expect from this year’s show? Are there any new features?
Ron Midyett: A great show starts with a great location. I think you have really that in San Diego. It’s a very welcoming city. It’s a great city to hold a convention in.
So along with the location we’re going to have some really great speakers including Walter Robb, who is the Co-CEO of Whole Foods, which I think a lot of us are looking forward to that.
There [are] a lot of ongoing programs we include in the convention. We’ll be graduating our leadership development program and that program continues to astound me on how well it’s been embraced. I was a graduate of class 6 and it just seems like yesterday that that program was in its infancy. We’re already graduating class 18. Every year we do our Retail Marketing Awards in which we honor the best of the best retail produce managers across the country. This year we have 25 honorees from across the country [from] many, many chains.
Every year we have great education opportunities so again we’re going to have great market-segment-specific educational opportunities targeted towards growing and shipping and processing, wholesale, retail, foodservice. And in addition to that after the show we’re going to have a full day post-convention workshop that is going to be dedicated to the best practices in marketing and merchandising produce.
SN: And is there something in particular you yourself are looking forward to most?
SN: And more broadly, are there any new United Fresh initiatives coming up?
RM: Well you know, a lot of the things that United works on is much broader than just a year so clearly we’re going to be continuing to do a lot of the good work that we’re doing in some of the advocacy areas of immigration and food safety, child nutrition and consumption. But I will point out two new specific initiatives this year.
United for many years has had a very successful both market segment board and expert council structure. So this year we’re going to expand our expert council structure to include two new councils — one that’s going to be focusing on marketing and merchandising of produce, again helping us with our overall objective of driving produce consumption.
And then the other expert council is one in finance and business management. It’s to put together some experts in a lot of the functions that are often behind the scenes that drive our organizations — financing, HR issues, insurance, private company and family business estate planning, those types of areas where we can bring in experts to provide education and assistance to our members.
SN: Can you tell me a little bit more about the legislation that you’re going to be working on just in the near future? [United Fresh held a press conference on April 18 to support the bill, Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.]
RM: I think the two that are really on point right now are immigration and the Food Safety Modernization Act implementation. So let me touch a little bit on immigration.
So as you know, the so-called “group of eight” [bipartisan senators] announced their compromise plan yesterday. And looking at it, I think it’s a really good compromise for the ag industry.
It does a couple things: It acknowledges those folks that are currently working in ag, and it gives them an accelerated path to legalization.
And then the second piece is it provides for a guest worker program for future new ag workings. It is an issue currently in the ag industry.
The current workforce is getting older and so we really need to have a process that will enable us to attract and bring in new people into the ag work pool. So overall it’s a proposal at this point, so that means in Washington, there’s still a long way to go.
But I would say if enacted I think this proposal would provide a much needed boost to the supply and the stability of the domestic ag labor pool so I think that’s a good thing for everybody throughout the produce supply chain.
The second one is obviously food safety — food safety modernization. United has been a long supporter of and a driver towards federal food safety regulations, and going back as early as 2006, 2007, in that support we’ve always stipulated that we’d like to see food safety regulations that are science-based and commodity-specific.
And I think the proposed food safety modernization regulations, they do a nice job of meeting those tenets that we’re looking for. Still, a lot of work to go here as well. This is the first major overall of U.S. food safety regulations in over 70 years. In that clearly, there’s a lot of detail to look at.
[At] United, we’re in the process and continue to be in the process of leading a vigorous industry review … to provide commentary back to the FDA.
SN: What about the Produce Traceability Initiative?
RM: United has taken a leadership role in the PTI process. It is continuing to go. There [are] numerous folks throughout the supply chain both on the supply and on the buyer side that are participating in the PTI. And for those that are participating in it, it does seem to be delivering what was intended — improved traceability and improved efficiencies throughout the supply chain. So I think it’s going to continue to move forward, but to be fully implemented it’s going to require the full supply chain to fully embrace it.
SN: What is the most pressing issue in the produce industry right now, or where does the industry need to change?
RM: Well, I mean I think we touched on a lot of those, but I will say that there’s one other issue that’s been kind of brewing out there that I think will have a significant impact on the produce industry and the whole supply chain. And that’s in the area of transportation.
You know, as we are working on some of the food safety legislation there continues to be legislations going through Washington on transportation regulations particularly in the areas of hours of service for drivers. And then there’s some regional issues, like here in California, there’s regulations that just got enacted in terms of air quality that related to diesel trucking, refrigeration units, etc., and both of those issues have pretty significant impacts on refrigerated transportation. Both in terms of the availability and the cost. So I think that’s an issue that will continue to bubble up and is going to have impact on the produce industry moving forward that we as a complete industry are going to have to address.