Pretty soon, retailers, suppliers and other produce industry leaders will head over to the Produce Marketing Association’s annual Fresh Summit Convention and Exposition. The conference, held in Anaheim, Calif., on Oct. 26-28, has a new, shorter schedule, with the education panels consolidated on the first day.
This year’s show comes at a time when the produce industry has continued momentum from last year’s marketing initiatives, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate campaign. And the industry is also ready to keep moving forward — with the 2012 Farm Bill, with the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act and with engaging consumers in new ways. Both produce retailers and suppliers are getting creative in how they market “freshness.” In this special annual produce supplement, available in SN’s Oct. 1 issue and at Fresh Summit, SN profiles both a rooftop grower in Canada and a New York two-store independent retailer that sources some produce from its own farm.
This issue also reports on how the industry is responding to the delayed implementation of the produce guidelines in the Food Safety Modernization Act and how the spring and summer weather has impacted local produce offerings.
SN Asks: PMA's Bryan Silbermann Talks Fresh Summit
As the industry gets ready for this year’s show, SN spoke with Bryan Silbermann, PMA’s president and CEO, about show highlights, food safety, legislation and PMA’s plan to rethink its social media strategy.
Here are excerpts from SN’s talk with Silbermann (pictured left). Usually SN asks the questions, but Silbermann started the conversation with his own.
Bryan Silbermann: Tell me what you like most about covering the produce section.
Supermarket News: I like how consumers are becoming more involved and interested in where produce comes from, so I think that’s the most interesting aspect for me. What is the most interesting aspect of produce for you?
Silbermann: The people.
SN: The people?
Silbermann: The people, absolutely. First of all, we’re the ones who wear the white hats. We’re the good guys in produce. And the people are very genuine and the people really care and the people have a very deep feeling of providing great food at good prices for the people of America and the rest of the world. So it’s a lot of fun. I’ve been here for 29 years, and I don’t regret a single one of them.
Read more: PMA, United Fresh End Merger Talks 
SN: So the Fresh Summit show has a shorter schedule this year. What are the benefits of this new format?
Silbermann: Well, one of the things is really to provide the greatest ROI to our exhibitors and our attendees. To pack as much as we could into two days rather than have two and a half days, which is what the show used to be. So we’ve lengthened the hours on those two days, so that the net effect I believe is just an hour and a half shorter show, but to increase the amount of the time it’s open on those two full days. So we’re really giving people a jam-packed schedule. That means they’re going to have to be better at managing their time.
But we didn’t do this lightly. This took us about 10 years of discussion and debate and research and finally we bit the bullet because we just felt like we had enough clarity to make what is, for us, huge change. … People said that wanted to have it shorter; we’ve shortened it.
SN: One interesting aspect of this year’s show: I saw there’s going to be a new kids’ showcase. What will this look like?
Silbermann: Well, the new kids’ showcase, think of it as a subset of the new product showcase. Eighteen of the slots, rather spaces, in the new product showcase have been devoted to “Just 4 Kids.” And the purpose of that is really to highlight and to bring into focus what innovative companies are doing to market produce, to promote fruit and vegetables to kids.
SN: Last year PMA introduced a new networking site. Have PMA members been taking advantage of the new platform? Are they on there discussing different aspects of the produce industry?
Silbermann: Yes, that’s called PMA Exchange and by the end of this year we expect to have probably 3,000 members who are signed up on that.
But I think what’s really important to understand is that’s just one component of our social media strategy. And in fact, we’re in the process in a couple of weeks of launching a major research project with an expert firm that we’re working with to look at the whole social media online strategy for our marketing and communications platform. So the Exchange is one piece of that.
We want to know what members are looking at, where they are spending more of their time, what they find most valuable and so forth. So Exchange is one part of that. I’m sure it’ll change over the next several years, just like all the social media strategies are changing because people’s habits change.
So whether it’s using Twitter, whether it’s using Facebook, whether it’s using LinkedIn, whether it’s using Exchange, whether it’s using whatever — online marketing through email blasts and so forth — all of those pieces play a role in the overall strategy, and I think what you’re going to see in 2013 is a much more cohesive and targeted strategy that we’re going to use at PMA that’s probably going to put more emphasis on some things than others. But we’re very happy with Exchange. It’s become a very useful platform, especially for us to do business with members. And what I mean by that is the work of committees and so forth is really a great area of value. Having internal conversations, if you like, doing work with groups of members, that’s a very, very valuable part of the platform.
SN Asks: Silbermann Talks Produce Traceability Initiative
SN: On the food safety side, there’s been recent produce-linked foodborne illnesses that have been highlighting the importance of food safety along the supply chain. I was wondering if you could give our readers an update on progress with the Produce Traceability Initiative.
Silbermann: Well, the Produce Traceability Initiative is one component in better food safety practices, but certainly not the only piece. Let me just talk about traceability and then I’ll go to food safety as well because there’s two separate points I want to make.
PTI I think is reaching a tipping point right now, and I certainly believe over the next six months you’re going to see adoption by some of the major buying companies that will really drive this much further than it’s gotten so far. This has been an incredible effort by the supply side in terms of getting the five milestones taken care of, and now you’ve got the major buyers having to implement in terms of their receiving systems and also their distribution systems from DCs out to stores. And you’re going to start to see that really flow in early 2013, in the first half of next year. So, stay tuned for some big progress there.
I would draw a parallel to where we were in about 1993/4, with the rollout of standardized price look-up codes on produce. You know, we actually rolled those codes out in about 1990, and it took about three years to get to what I’d call a tipping point and then all of sudden it was everybody that was doing it in 1993 and ’94. I think 2013 will definitely be the year in which you’re going to see the PTI get a critical mass.
That’s traceability, specifically, OK. Some comments about why it’s taken longer than we’d originally thought: Certainly, the economic downturn had an impact, no question about that, because this is expensive stuff to do. I think the delay in the federal government issuing its draft regulations on FSMA, that’s also slowed things down. And I continue to be frustrated, as most of the industry is, by that delay. And then thirdly, I would say just the complexity of the technology implementation for PTI. We were very aggressive and it is complicated. So I think for all of those reasons it’s taken longer than we initially hoped, but we are where we are.
Read more: PMA Guide Supports Sharing of Produce Data 
On food safety, one of the key messages that you’re going to be hearing from PMA over the next year is that responsibility for food safety doesn’t end at the farm gate or the packing house gate or the distribution center dock at the supply side. I think some of the more recent food safety outbreaks show there has to be a shared responsibility for enforcing food safety requirements from every supplier. That it doesn’t do anybody in the food industry any good if buyers take shortcuts and don’t hold all suppliers accountable for similar food safety steps. And certainly the more recent cantaloupe outbreaks have shown the validity of that comment.
So you’re going to see us really focusing on, not just the responsibility that has to go into Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices when it comes to fresh cut products but also there really has to be a change in attitude that is shown by the buying community as well. And they realize that. Buyers have to hold themselves accountable just as much to ensure they are buying products from people who’ve shown they meet the same level of care across the board.
That’s really a critical piece of food safety in my opinion over the next five to 10 years.
SN: In addition to the delay in the new FSMA guidelines, Congress hasn’t passed the new Farm Bill yet and there’s talk of extending the old Farm Bill. What’s PMA’s position on how the government should proceed?
Silbermann: We’ve certainly been in favor of the position put forth by the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance on the new Farm Bill, and we’re working with … more than 60 organizations … in something called the Farm Bill Now Coalition that’s staging events, media relations activities to put some more of a spotlight on it, to get Congress to move the Farm Bill forward.
Read more: Coalition Rallies for New Farm Bill Now 
I think it’s a shame that such a critical piece of public policy has been left on the back burner, especially at a time when bad weather this summer has put pressure on food prices, and it’s caused uncertainty. But that is just one piece of it. It really is critical for Congress to realize how important agriculture policy is to the strength of our economy. It’s one of the few strong pillars of the U.S. economy. Exports play a critical role and it really is so important.
It’s not just also that the Farm Bill is about farmers. That’s one of the misconceptions I think that so many people in Congress have, and so many people quite honestly in the general public have.
The Farm Bill is about a jobs bill. A food bill. A conservation bill. A research bill. A trade bill. And an energy bill.
It really affects just about every single American and the sooner we can get Congress to understand that, the better off we’re all going to be.
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