CULTIVATING THE PROGRAM

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The annual conference and exposition of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association next month will feature several changes from years past that promise to underscore the trade group's commitment to serving all segments of the produce industry.That is according to association President Tom Stenzel, who told SN in a preconvention interview that United, based here, is working

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The annual conference and exposition of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association next month will feature several changes from years past that promise to underscore the trade group's commitment to serving all segments of the produce industry.

That is according to association President Tom Stenzel, who told SN in a preconvention interview that United, based here, is working hard toward its goal of serving the industry "from seed to table," both at the annual event and in the course of doing business throughout the year.

The convention and exposition, FreshWorld '95, is set for Feb. 5 to 7 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif. "We asked the industry what they needed most from a national trade association, and have responded

with clear priorities," said Stenzel, who took over at the helm of the trade group a year and a half ago. They include: government representation on industrywide issues; customer networking and trade relations with retail and food-service operators and international traders, and education for all segments of the industry.

The key changes at FreshWorld include integrating two formerly stand-alone programs, one for retailers and one for the international produce industry, into the entire convention and exposition.

While United has worked during the past year and a half to differentiate itself from the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., the other major national produce trade group, it does not want to lose sight of the fact that the different parts of the produce industry must work together for each to succeed.

"What we're talking about here is responsibility," said Tim Fleming, chairman-elect of United and vice president of marketing and development at Strube Celery & Vegetable Co., a Chicago-based wholesaler.

"All of us have in this industry a related responsibility for our products from the time they are a seed until they get to the table. We can't really close the door on a product once it leaves our dock and say, 'Out of sight, out of mind.' I still need to have responsibility for that product," he said.

Fleming added that working together is particularly important because of the fact that the produce industry is made up of so many small companies, rather than a "big three" that can set the tone.

The benefit of United's seed-to-table approach, said Fleming, is that the industry is "going to be ultimately able to service the consumer better. We are going to have a better understanding of how to get the products to the consumer. We are committed to giving them a safe variety of economical fresh fruits and vegetables and to get that all done we have to get an idea of where the next guy's coming from."

Said Stenzel: "It's the interaction of all the different segments of the industry that's going to help us all grow." United has focused in on the grower-shipper segment of the industry and its work in the political arena in Washington, while PMA has focused more on the retail segment.

However, that doesn't mean any segment is more important than another, Stenzel said. Indeed, United is reaching out to retailers to conduct in-store training, and recently completed such a program at Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C.

Also, United announced last month it is lowering its dues for retailers and food-service operators for 1995 to make it more affordable to participate in United activities. Until now, retailers paid dues on a sliding scale to $975 per year, Stenzel noted. Now annual dues are fixed at $495 per company, which includes one free registration for FreshWorld and for one United seminar during the year.

"When it comes down to political representation, it's clear we've had to make that a focus," Stenzel said. "When it comes to education and trade relations, it's very clear that we have as high a priority for serving the retail customer as anybody. That's what we've done with the dues."

With the in-house produce training program at Food Lion, he said, it's difficult to define who is being better served, the grower-shipper or the retailer, since both ultimately benefit from better merchandising.

There's another segment United is seeking to serve, and that is the consumer. At FreshWorld, United plans to release results from a $15,000 survey focusing on consumers and produce.

"We felt that the whole produce industry needs a better understanding of the consumer," Stenzel said of the study, which was conducted by MRCA Information Services, Chicago, a research firm that has done a lot of work in consumer dietary patterns. The firm bases its information on food consumption diaries maintained by some 10,000 consumers across the country.

"What I anticipate is that we're going to find that people seriously overestimate how much fruit and vegetables they are really eating," said Stenzel, who declined to discuss further preliminary results of the survey. He said the survey results will be made available for purchase following the convention, and that the funds will be used to recoup the cost of the research.

Stenzel said it appears that while the U.S. Department of Agriculture does a "pretty good job" of tracking produce consumption, more information is needed. "There's a lot of public opinion research about what people think," he said. "The big gap is, are we doing what we say?"

The survey results will be released at FreshWorld's closing session Tuesday, Feb. 7. The session, Produce Outlook '95, has a lineup of speakers from different segments of the industry who will speak on how to profit from changing consumer trends, demographics and new market opportunities.

The scheduled speakers are Derek Derdivanis, managing partner at Fresh Network, Salinas, Calif.; Anne Marie Davee, consumer affairs manager at Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine; Bruce Peterson, produce director for Wal-Mart Supercenters, Bentonville, Ark.; Steve Taylor, chief executive officer of Bruce Church, Salinas, Calif., and Al Vangelos, president of Calavo Growers of California, Santa Ana, Calif.

As for the international program of FreshWorld, the opening general session will feature speakers from Hong Kong and Colombia discussing global competition.

The moderator for the Feb. 5 session will be David Bernstein, chairman of the conference and exposition's advisory committee and executive vice president of Pacific Fruit, New York. Speakers include Louis Ng, an international produce trade consultant with Overseas Marketing Network, Hong Kong; Jorge Carulla Fornaguera, director of fruits and vegetables at Carulla & Cia S.A., Bogota, Colombia, representing 50 retail stores, and Gus Schumacher, foreign agriculture service administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A convention first, Stenzel noted, will be a speaker delivering comments in Spanish. The remarks of the speaker, Carulla Fornaguera, will be translated simultaneously.

Another convention first will be a "casual day," slated for Monday, Feb. 6, one of Stenzel's particular favorites. "I gave up my coat and tie when I came into the produce business, only to find that the one place we dress like we're going to a funeral is at PMA and United conventions," he joked.