Debate over the formation of a single national produce trade group has temporarily exited the public arena and is now taking place behind the scenes.
While board members of both the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association and the Produce Marketing Association plan to meet over the next month to discuss the apparently diminishing possibility of merging the two groups, the industry is still buzzing about the issue. United recently raised the idea of merging trade shows, while leaving the associations independent.
As SN reported earlier, retailers are clamoring for a merger between the nation's two major produce associations. And while suppliers are a little more cautious about supporting a full-fledged merger, they are definitely in favor of having only one trade show. The more cautious attitude on the part of growers and shippers is understandable, since United has traditionally represented suppliers, while PMA is known as the retailer organization.
"It's safe to say there's widespread industry support for the elimination of duplication, and for a consolidation of trade shows," said David Bernstein, executive vice president of Pacific Fruit, New York.
"In terms of how that's accomplished -- in terms of the relationship between the two associations -- that's a much more complicated issue," he said. "Both boards and both memberships have to really take a close look at that. Anything that can be intelligently streamlined will benefit both associations."
Tony Merola, director of marketing and executive chief for Brooks Tropicals, Homestead, Fla., said the industry needs a strong voice in Washington, one that might be lost in a merger.
"United has a great government relations program. It would be a great loss if no one on the Hill represents the produce industry," he said. "And I don't think that's in PMA's bailiwick. You need to have people on the Hill."
He thinks it will be a positive move for the industry if the trade shows merge, though.
"I feel good about one show. We attend a tremendous [number] of conventions and seminars. If the shows merge, it would be a great expense we wouldn't have," he said.
Merola said he is also not sure the merger will come off at all, although there are so many rumors swirling through the industry, it is hard to separate fact from fiction.
Steve Taylor, chairman and chief executive officer of Fresh Express Farms, Salinas, Calif. said his company supports a merger.
"As a company, we would like to see the merger occur," he said. "It makes sense to focus dollars and time."
"I'm not sure how the details would be worked out, but I don't see why it couldn't come together." Fresh Express exhibits at the PMA exposition, but has not exhibited at United's show for the last several years, he said.
Jack Carithers, vice president of fresh fruit marketing for the Texas Citrus Exchange, Mission, Texas, said he also thinks merging the two groups is the best idea.
"I definitely think a merger would benefit us all," said Carithers. "We're members of both organizations, and they both do good things."
A single trade show would be one of the biggest benefits, he said. "I know duplication of conventions is a problem. We need to go to one trade show a year, and I'm questioning the benefits of having two shows that are only a couple months apart."
Jim Provost, East Coast division manager for A&D Christopher Ranch, Gilroy, Calif., said that having one trade show would benefit the industry. However, he said the produce industry is large enough to support two trade groups.
"I think there's room for both entities," he said. If a merger took place, Provost said a certain percentage of funds should be set aside to address the lobbying needs of growers and shippers.
"I don't feel PMA can provide a strong enough voice for growers and shippers," he said. "[The Food Marketing Institute] represents retailers very well already."
Alexandria, Va.-based United first approached PMA, based in Newark, Del., early in the summer with the possibility of merging their two associations.
The discussions stalled late last month when PMA laid out several non-negotiable conditions for a merger, which, among other things, would do away with a full-time government relations voice for the industry in Washington.
United officials were scheduled to discuss the issue in a closed door meeting over the weekend during its Public Policy Conference in Washington. PMA board members are expected to raise the issue during a meeting at PMA's San Diego convention next month.