It's been a great year for the United Fresh Produce Association. The Washington-based group scored a major victory recently, when the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children finally allowed its participants to begin purchasing fruits and vegetables with their food vouchers in all 50 states in October 2009.
Now, the group is setting its sights higher, hoping to get salad bars installed and stocked in all of the nation's 100,000 schools. They may have found a friend in first lady Michelle Obama, whose “Let's Move” campaign to curb childhood obesity has become her signature project during President Obama's first term in office.
And, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration moving ahead with its efforts to reform the nation's food safety and traceability systems, United is there, communicating to FDA what the produce industry has found through its own efforts to improve produce safety and traceability.
This year's United Fresh show in Las Vegas, April 20-23, will feature a new Food Safety Research and Demo center. Its popular Traceability Demo Center will also return for a second year.
SN spoke with Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh, about these issues, as well as the upcoming show. The following are excerpts from that interview:
SN: The Obama administration has been looking to overhaul the food safety system in the U.S. and improve traceability measures. How is United Fresh working with the administration on issues such as the Produce Traceability Initiative.
RG: Food safety remains the No. 1 priority for the produce industry right now. And, United membership and our staff and leadership, we treat that as a day-to-day top priority. The new administration has embraced food safety as an issue, and the White House now has its own food safety working group that we've contributed to. We've provided input. Mike Taylor, who's the No. 2 for food at the FDA, is someone who knows the industry very well, and someone who will be a great partner for us in terms of helping foster dialogue and making sure that everyone is on the same page.
In just the past couple of weeks, the FDA announced their intention to start writing some rules on food safety that are across the board, for every commodity in fresh produce. And, it's actually a good sign that they really sought input from industry stakeholders before writing the draft rule. The way it usually works is that FDA or another federal agency will write a rule first, and then put it out for comment, and you hope that they're willing to revise their rules to match input from the public comments.
It's very encouraging to know that there is legislation currently pending on Capitol Hill regarding food safety, and that the industry as well as the consumer public want action on improving food safety right away. It's very gratifying to know that they are working on an initiative that will help standardize practices across the board, that will minimize chances for foodborne illness outbreaks in the future, and that they're seeking industry input from the very beginning.
What FDA has told us is that their objective is to have a draft rule ready by the end of this year, and a final rule ready by the end of next year. Everybody in the supply chain, from the farm right up to retail would like to have a standardized set of practices, so that there's not different standards according to different vendors or different customers.
Of course, any logical food safety system for produce will have to be commodity specific. There's not a one-size-fits-all approach. There's such a variety of different production cultures and handling procedures and certain products present higher risks than others. But the notion of trying to standardize food safety practices as much as possible is one that I think everyone in the supply chain would welcome it would help reduce costs, improve consumer confidence and minimize [risks].
SN: United Fresh will be introducing a new sustainability conference at the end of the trade show this year. What issues will it cover, and what are you hoping to achieve out of it?
RG: Sustainability is still a moving target for a lot of us in the produce industry. I want to stress that, at this conference this year, we aren't aiming to set any new metrics or benchmarks for how sustainability should be measured.
But, sustainability is a broad topic that can encompass a lot of different components of how companies operate. … For instance, at this conference we'll look at how sustainability can be used to make yourself a viable customer to your business partners, as everyone throughout the produce supply chain, from the grower to retail and foodservice, looks to achieve sustainability goals and [put in place] sustainability practices.
A lot of our members are asking themselves questions like, ‘What is the greatest [return on investment] in sustainability, in terms of improving and increasing my sustainable practices? What can we do that will have the most benefit to the environment that still ensures that my business plan remains sustainable? What is the most efficient investment?’
SN: Fresh produce was incorporated into the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children last year, thanks in large part to efforts by United Fresh. What kind of impact has that had during the past year?
RG: Those customers are coming into stores and using WIC vouchers for fruits and vegetables, which helps drive traffic in stores. It has been a 10-year initiative for United Fresh, to get WIC vouchers available for fruit and vegetable purchases in all 50 states. Because it's administered at the state level, we had to fight state-by-state-by-state in some cases.
At the end of the day, though, we know now that WIC families have access to fruits and vegetables with their voucher money. It only went into effect last October, and the research isn't back yet indicating a definitive impact. But we know that initially, we know that during the first year, there will be an increase of $60 million in produce sales. So, we're confident that it will not only have an immediate economic impact in terms of sales at retail for fresh fruits and vegetables, it will also give WIC moms a reason to go into produce departments now, whereas before they may have bypassed fresh perishables altogether.
SN: Could you tell our readers a little about United's new salad bar campaign for schools?
RG It's in the initial stages. It was launched about a month ago, the same day that first lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let's Move” childhood nutrition and anti-obesity campaign. We're excited about the potential. This is an idea that was sparked about a year ago, in discussions about the child nutrition reauthorization legislation, which is coming up this year.
School salad bars have really become a great strategy for getting kids to change their diet and change their habits when they eat school lunches. In the pilot programs that we've run so far, kids really gravitate toward salad bars. They like the options involved in making their own plates and picking out what they want to eat. Sampling fresh produce is something they really seem to enjoy. They seem to develop a great affinity for fresh fruits and vegetables in their routine.
It's a win-win, because the schools certainly like being able to offer more nutritious options. They like that they don't have a lot of waste. The way nutritionists [analyze] this, is they look at waste at the end of the day to see what the kids are eating and what they're not eating. And the kids are eating just about everything they pick up from the salad bar. It's really gratifying to see that this is a strategy that is having an impact on kids' health, and also advancing the market for fresh fruits and vegetables.
The salad bar in every school campaign is an initiative to generate several demonstration schools with salad bars installed and supplied with fresh produce every day, to show the efficacy of this strategy in changing the lives of young Americans. And using these demonstration schools as an example, we can march back to Capitol Hill and the White House and USDA, and say this should really become national policy — we should have salad bars stocked with fresh produce in all 100,000 schools in the United States.
It was something that was a topic during our Washington Public Policy conference. It has really grown on its own. We've been really gratified with how much traction this concept has received from all different parts of the produce industry, the education community, at USDA.
SN: What are some of the other legislative priorities that United Fresh has for the coming year?
RG: There is always an undercurrent of us wanting to ensure that we have good immigration policy, so that the labor needs of agricultural employers can be met. I think in this administration, with this Congress, [immigration reform] is something that is in play again, and we're going to have to watch that carefully. That means good immigration policy and guest worker policies that allow farmers to get the seasonal workers they need to ensure a steady workforce and a steady supply [of domestic produce].
One of the other things we're looking at is what the notion of locally grown constitutes. We think it's an exciting way to drive traffic and interest in fresh produce at the retail level. We just need to make sure that we capitalize on that as best we can in a way that works for the entire supply chain. What is local? And what constitutes local for seasonal products that may not be available locally year-round? We need to find ways to promote locally grown and [the USDA's] Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food concepts in a way that allows us to maximize sales 365 days per year.
SN: United is debuting a new Food Safety Research and Demo Center at this year's show. Could you tell our readers and other attendees what to expect?
RG: We also have a traceability demo center again this year as well. The concept for both of those centers is that they are both technology related. They both require technology to get the job done. We've invited the top companies in the field that are providing solutions. In the traceability center, you can visit with companies that provide tracking, bar coding, laser reading, RFID technologies — all of the things that go into what traceability solutions could be for someone in the supply chain.
Those companies are there and they've got their products out, showing attendees how to use them and implement them in a way that minimizes costs and helps you meet new [safety and traceability] standards that we will likely have to meet in the future.
So, both of those demo centers are really hands-on. You sit across the table from someone who is an expert, and discuss applying technologies and finding solutions for you. Certainly with the new legislation that is on the Hill, and with the new draft rules that the FDA is expected to write this year, we think that food safety is going to be something that requires new infrastructure and investment in the near future for a lot of folks.
And, traceability is a huge, huge tool to minimize the impact of any recall, should it occur. You want to know where your product comes from, and be able to identify which products or lots are affected by an incident, and minimize collateral damage.