ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- At almost the last minute, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association here squeezed a food-safety discussion into its show, which will convene two weeks from now in Orlando.The association moved fast, in direct response to a number of high-profile food-safety crises involving pathogen-infected produce that culminated in November with contaminated nonpasteu rized apple juice.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- At almost the last minute, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association here squeezed a food-safety discussion into its show, which will convene two weeks from now in Orlando.

The association moved fast, in direct response to a number of high-profile food-safety crises involving pathogen-infected produce that culminated in November with contaminated nonpasteu rized apple juice. According to Tom Stenzel, that is just the latest example of United adapting to a changing produce world.

"The microbiological issue is the single most important issue for us this year, and in the next couple of years," said Stenzel, entering his third year as United's president, in an interview with SN.

Stenzel said he believes the industry is worried, even close to panic, because of the increased number of cases in the past few years. But what he is worried about is the tendency of some to believe produce is just as likely to carry pathogens as raw meat.

"We can not let produce get lumped together with raw seafood, raw poultry and dairy," Stenzel said. "Produce is extraordinarily safe. There have been a few more cases reportedly linked to produce in the last couple of years, but no where near the level of concern as with any other product."

While United does not belittle any concerns over the consuming public's health, Stenzel said a greater threat may lie in the hysteria and potential drops in consumption that could quickly engulf produce in the face of a scare.

And while some industry players decry public regulatory agencies for being too quick to indict produce in some cases, Stenzel said the industry must share some of the blame.

"We have a challenge in the industry," he said. "You don't want to let a situation become exaggerated -- but you don't want to dismiss it either."

Stenzel said the balance tipped toward exaggeration recently during the incidence of cyclospora outbreaks last summer, which were initially and mistakenly linked to strawberries. The biggest problem, in Stenzel's view, turned out to be the fact that retailers quickly pulled product off the store shelves.

"The Houston Health Department said it might be strawberries. That was bad enough, and we'll work really hard to try to control that," he said. "But until a major grocery chain pulled strawberries off the shelf and put a little sign up that said they're dangerous, we didn't have a problem.

"And once one store does it, everybody has to, in that particular market."

There is also a lot of industry talk about getting consumers to play a greater role in fostering food safety, but Stenzel said the responsibility of ensuring safe produce does not belong to the consumer.

"We don't think produce safety is a consumer issue. We don't want to make it a consumer issue -- it's a production issue. If we're not careful we're going to create this fear among the public that all of a sudden produce is unsafe."

Instead, Stenzel said, United officials are encouraging the industry to look inward, to examine its growing and harvesting practices -- and its distribution systems as well.

"Distribution is another area in which I think food safety is going to be increasingly important -- handling, storage and maintaining the cold chain," Stenzel said. "We have been talking with some of our members about the pros and cons of field packing vs. running product through a packing house."

United will also be keeping its eye focused on the implementation of the new pesticide law, developed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We've worked so long and hard to finally pass that law; now we're going to see how the EPA implements it," Stenzel said.

"We're into debate and negotiations with the EPA on exactly how should they interpret the new law."

While the proposals by the EPA are less rigid than the former Delaney clause, United is lobbying in the best interests of its members.

"It's not a panacea, but at least there's a scientific debate going, and that's really all you can ask for," he said. "If we can't convince EPA to see things the way we [think they should] see them, that's our fault."

The United convention will offer the industry benefits with regard to food-safety education and the application of new technology, Stenzel said.

"We're having a big panel discussion. We'll have workshops, and also a lot of the exhibits of companies that have equipment and technology to reduce the likelihood of contamination."

Stenzel told SN the food-safety issue in not going to go away easily. In fact, he said he believes it is headed for Congress, unless the industry can rein it in.

"There's some guy out there now who's selling dirty produce and shouldn't be doing it," he said. "Unless the marketplace can sort that out, we're liable to have the government come in and lay down regulations on everybody."

Sorting it out may be easier said than done. Stenzel pointed out he sees a lack of uniformity in safety procedures, as well as a general feeling among produce companies that their commitments to safety are not always reciprocated at the retail level.

"These companies spend millions of dollars ensuring safety and then see the retail buyer go to some two-bit guy who doesn't bother," Stenzel said.

"It undercuts the industry's commitment to really invest heavily in new technology to prevent the problems.

What Stenzel is hoping to encourage is communication between retailers and the companies from which they buy their products.

"If we could help retail buyers understand the value of food-safety investments the suppliers make, then an extra quarter a box is well deserved," he said.

"If you can assure that you're getting the best quality and the safest product, then I'd suggest paying that for the consumers' benefit. And I think consumers would pay." Meanwhile, United's most imminent concern is its convention and exhibition.

Much has already been said and written about this year's show and how it fits into United's plan to focus its efforts more toward its mostly grower-shipper membership.

Stenzel said this plan has been in the works for some time, and the changes to the trade show are the latest result of years of work.

"I'd put the convention change at the end of the transition," Stenzel said. "People have said, 'Oh, you've changed it -- what does that mean for the rest of the association?' Actually, I think the convention is catching up to where we have been."

Stenzel maintains the convention still offers plenty of benefits to retailers, but United will be content to let retailers come to that conclusion on their own.

"When we made this transition, we didn't really push too hard to get retailers to come [to United 1997]," he said.

About 86 new companies plan to be on this year's trade show floor, Stenzel said. Roughly 10 new companies were signed up in the past month.

"It's going very well," Stenzel said.

On a larger plain, United's shift in focus really began about three years ago, when the debate over the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act drew a line in the sand between the grower-shipper and retail industries.

The debate ultimately was healthy for the entire industry, Stenzel said. "Two or three years ago, I can't tell you how many people said, 'What's the difference between you and PMA, and why do we need two?' Nobody in the industry asks me that anymore, and that's very satisfying."

United membership levels so far this year are at about 80% of what they were was last year. Stenzel said that is due more to members waiting until the last minute to renew, rather than to companies deliberately canceling their memberships.

"Out of about 1,400 members, 15 or 20 have canceled -- that's around 1%," said Stenzel, who believes the rest of his members will most likely renew in the near future.

Beyond United's internal health, Stenzel said the association's refocus has also made its relationships with other groups in the industry stronger.

"The level of cooperation is very good," he said. "If you're not partnering in the business today, then you're not going to be very successful."

One of the most recent instances of interassociation discussion occurred in Dallas several weeks ago, when Stenzel met with representatives from Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, retailers and a number of packaging manufacturers to discuss the issue of the industry's use of returnable packaging.

Stenzel said he believes the only set standard should be uniformity within the industry. "What we could do, as a voluntary industry group, is say every recyclable bin needs to be a certain size.

"Then let 20 different companies manufacture them, let different guys buy from different companies, encourage technological innovation -- but make sure they're all the same size." Officials for both organizations do not want to see a repeat of the chaos that occurred when the industry revamped the pallet design or first began looking into price-lookup codes.

The controversy surrounding the use of slotting fees, which raged during the PACA debate, is another area which Stenzel would like the industry, and United, to explore.

But while many have challenged the legality of this longtime practice, Stenzel said he hopes suppliers and retailers can find a way to deal with the issue without the imposition of regulations that would make slotting fees illegal.

"I would rather talk retailers out of trying to do slotting fees with produce, than fight over it or legislate it," he said.

"Would you really want to sell a slot to a produce company that isn't necessarily able to maintain quality, distribution and consistency year-round?"

Another issue involving, as Stenzel sees it, both the retail and supply side of the industry is who is paying what for fruit and vegetable promotional activity. Stenzel said he is offended by the notion that the grower-shipper community is not adequately funding the promotional efforts, and specifically the Produce for Better Health Foundation's 5 a Day campaign.

Stenzel believes the problem is that retailers are comparing produce to the beef or dairy industries, which, unlike produce, essentially market one product.

"We don't have one industry -- we have 100 different commodities that do their own promotions, and if you added it up, we spend a lot more than milk or meat or anybody else," he said.

"It's just that we don't have this homogeneous product that puts it all in one pot. We do it on a commodity-by-commodity basis."

But Stenzel also can see the logic behind retailers making comparisons with the marketing campaigns of other industries.

"I can understand why some guy sitting at the end of the chain would ask why we don't have this national promotion like 'Got Milk,' " he said.

"There are a lot of reasons, but it doesn't mean that produce guys aren't putting their money into supporting the industry."

Stenzel believes the industry as a whole should focus, first and foremost, on serving consumers better.

"That's a place where I'd like to see the produce suppliers and retailers work more closely together," he said.

"You ask how do we increase sales of produce; I think a new mammoth focus on quality, taste and flavor would make a huge difference. We've spent so much of our time on durability -- to make sure that it holds up through distribution."