ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- For the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, 1995 was a bruising year.The organization fought a long, expensive and ultimately successful battle to preserve the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, the legislative program that is intended to ensure prompt payment for fresh produce.United also endured several tough rounds of debate with the Produce Marketing Association

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- For the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, 1995 was a bruising year.

The organization fought a long, expensive and ultimately successful battle to preserve the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, the legislative program that is intended to ensure prompt payment for fresh produce.

United also endured several tough rounds of debate with the Produce Marketing Association on whether the industry would be better served with a single national trade association and trade show.

Now, on the eve of its annual convention and exposition, United has emerged with a clearer vision of its mission and stronger member support than it has had in years, according to Tom Stenzel, president.

"I think this past year has been very much a period of asking the hard questions," Stenzel said during an interview with SN at the association's headquarters here. "And now that we've got a much clearer picture of what PMA views as its mission and where we are as an industry, we're trying basically to tell that story to our members," he said. "And also to other

members of the industry who are not United members."

That mission, as Stenzel sees it, is serving the produce industry.

"We are the produce association. We don't apologize for that. PMA is a great representative of the supermarket industry.

"That doesn't mean that we don't like retailers, and sometimes I think PMA tries to paint it that way," he added. "But we are first and foremost a produce association. And I think the industry needs that, and wants that and is willing to pay for that."

Stenzel said last year's negotiations with Newark, Del.-based PMA highlighted glaringly how the two associations' memberships and missions diverge.

A stumbling block to the merger negotiations was PMA's determined position that it would not run a government relations organization, he said.

"The whole merger question really produced more of a fundamental difference than maybe some people expected," he said.

By bringing the issue to a head, the boards of both associations came to acknowledge that they are different organizations, with distinct constituencies and very different missions, according to Stenzel. 'When it comes down to it, we are produce. PMA has said that they are not, that they are part supermarket, part produce and part whatever else, and strictly focused on marketing. And that's OK.

"They get to choose for themselves what they want to do. But that's not our mission. We're the national produce association, representing produce companies. That's our core. That's who we are," he said.

At the same time, retail members do play an important part in United. Stenzel said retail and food-service members bring an important perspective to United that the organization values. "I think it's good for retail to be involved, to learn more about produce from the produce perspective. I think that's true of any industry. I think produce buyers and managers can be more effective the more they are involved with suppliers," he said.

"I want the supermarket produce people involved, but I think that's a hard challenge PMA has bitten off. It's been successful in building a trade show, but I don't know that it's been very successful long-term in representing the industry.

"That's the key difference we found this year. PMA is neither this nor that. The more produce companies understand that, the more produce companies are saying they need a strong produce advocate in Washington," Stenzel said.

And merger questions aside, United member involvement has increased in the last several months, along with member recruitment, according to Stenzel.

He maintains that is a result, at least in part, of United's fight to save PACA, which clearly showed the need that produce companies have for a strong advocate.

"Hopefully, PACA was the most difficult trade relations issue we'll ever have to face. I can't imagine anything that's going to put more strain on suppliers of produce and their customers. But that's behind us. We found resolution, we found compromise and I think we move on now in partnership."

Stenzel said rebuilding relationships with associations that tried to repeal PACA -- such as the Food Marketing Institute, the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association and the National Grocers Association -- is a goal this year.

"I think there's tremendous respect between associations," he said. "I certainly have a lot of respect for their presidents. They were hard competitors during that legislative battle, and I think they feel the same way about us.

"That's sort of the perfect example of why you have trade associations. You sometimes do have conflicts, and you have to put your members' interests first. And you go head to head sometimes. And finding a compromise -- FMI had a PACA victory party, and we had a PACA victory party -- that's the ideal solution," he said.

Stenzel said he is glad that PACA came to a head last year, so at least the issue could be resolved.

"Having a strong-willed [FMI President] Tim Hammonds and a strong-willed me butting heads helped us resolve PACA in a way that hadn't been [likely] for many years," he said. "We had all danced around the issues, and until we wanted to fight it out, it didn't get done. Now it's done and behind us."

Ed Duda, incoming United chairman, agreed. "I think PACA was a tremendous accomplishment against formidable odds for the industry through United," said Duda, chief executive officer of A. Duda & Sons, Ovieda, Fla., interviewed over the phone by SN.

With PACA behind it, United is working on issues facing the industry this year, Stenzel said.

Food safety is a major concern on more than one front. "One aspect is pesticides. Because we're getting down to the final stages of passing real reform for the Delaney Clause, that's creating such stress on groups like Food & Water that they're pulling out all the stops," Stenzel said.

He was referring to the consumer advocacy group that created a controversy in December with an advertisement in Supermarket News that compared the effects of pesticides on produce to assault weapons.

"They'll do anything they can to stop us from passing sound, scientific-based legislation, particularly in an election year. So I think it's going to be very hard to get food safety reform," he said.

Stenzel said microbiological concerns are another emerging food safety issue.

While legislative rules on microbiology are not likely, Stenzel said there is a strong chance of regulatory action from the Food and Drug Administration, which could develop standards for the produce industry similar to the stringent Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point program in seafood.

"FDA is increasingly looking at produce. We're working closely with them to make sure that they look intelligently, that they learn the industry," he said.

"We are absolutely opposed to any mandatory regulation that isn't absolutely necessary. It's too easy to come in, slapping on regulations."

Duda agreed. "We need a voice in legislation to modify and eliminate some of the legislation and rule-making that impede our industry's ability to function, and that also raise our costs," he said.

The prospect of ongoing negotiations with PMA also looms in 1996, Stenzel said. While a merger of the two organizations is no longer on the table, consolidating both groups' trade shows is still very much a possibility.

"The concept of the single trade show is the one area of duplication that I haven't heard anybody saying doesn't need to be dealt with," he said. "I don't think the industry will let that question die.

"So we'll see how that plays out over time. There's not an urgency on our part. We're not going to try to beat them up to make it happen," he said.

Stenzel said the issue will probably be raised when United's leaders meet with PMA's at the United convention, FreshWorld 96, which starts Feb. 24 in New Orleans. The two groups have made a tradition of convening several times a year to keep lines of communication open.

But it is not likely such a complex question will be resolved at such a meeting. "We'll sit down with PMA's leaders and seriously let them know that we want to resolve this trade show issue," he explained. However, "we don't anticipate any serious discussion," he said. "There are no new proposals being tabled.

"We got into a lot of posturing back and forth last year, and it wasn't helpful. What we want to do is break through that and help them realize how serious the industry is about this; see if we can't work together to resolve this." Meanwhile, the trade show field continues to crowd. In one incident that upped the ante, for example, FMI last year began developing a new show called MealSolutions, which will focus on fresh, prepared foods.

And other players are eyeing the fertile ground for cultivation. "I think people have realized trade shows in the food sector are successful. Ours is successful, PMA's is successful and FMI's is hugely successful. It is attracting some of the for-profit companies."

Stenzel cautioned, however, that the dynamic in the industry is working toward fewer, not more, trade shows.