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ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- With a new executive in charge, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association here is working to better define its place in the produce industry.That place appears to be one that focuses on the supply side of the business and on government relations, but at the same time reaches out to all sectors, including retail, according to the executive, Tom Stenzel, who has been president

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- With a new executive in charge, the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association here is working to better define its place in the produce industry.

That place appears to be one that focuses on the supply side of the business and on government relations, but at the same time reaches out to all sectors, including retail, according to the executive, Tom Stenzel, who has been president of the national trade group since last August.

Stenzel has used his first months in the job to learn about the needs of the fresh produce industry -- he left his post as president of the International Food Information Council to join United -- and to see how the trade group's members can best be served.

He's learned that there is a need for better cooperation among the various sectors of the produce industry, and is putting that knowledge to use at United's upcoming annual trade show with sessions that bring together everyone from growers-shippers to wholesalers to retailers to mull over key issues.

That supply orientation does not ignore retail, he stressed in an interview with SN on the eve of his first-annual convention and trade show as the individual in charge at United. The event will take place Feb. 12 to 15 in San Diego. "I've talked to a number of retailers involved in the association, and they've said, 'One of the most important things for me as a retailer is to understand my product. I want to understand the seasonality. I want to get to know my suppliers so I can get to be a better retail buyer.' "We're not going to focus on being the retail merchandiser per se, but [we're going] to make sure we bring the retailer the best quality product and good trade practices."

To that end, for the first time this year, the United convention

and exposition, called Fresh World '94, has opened up its formerly retailer-exclusive Retail Education Forum to other sectors of the produce industry. The forum, slated for Saturday, Feb. 12, will include seven roundtable sessions on such issues as partnering, merchandising new products, quality versus cost, building retail profits and new technologies.

Participants include produce executives from major supermarket chains and wholesale companies and marketing executives from leading produce suppliers, as well as retail consultants. Registration for the event includes a one-day pass to United's exposition, which will have some 600 exhibits.

"In the past they tried to do this as a program to educate retailers alone, and maybe that wasn't really our forte. I think the true benefit will come from people who are from different industry segments," he said. "That's where we get the benefit."

Another new take on opening communications between all sectors of the industry is a breakfast session that looks at the future of the produce industry, to be held on the last day of Fresh World, Tuesday, Feb. 15.

Participants include Karen Caplan, president and chief executive officer of Frieda's, a marketer and distributor of specialty produce; Thomas Churchwell, president and CEO of Calgene Fresh, which is awaiting government approval to market its genetically engineered tomato; Robert Castellini, president and CEO of Castellini Co.; Lenny Pippin, CEO of Albert Fisher North America; Jim Richter, director of produce merchandising for Marsh Supermarkets, and Ernie Townsend, president of Dole Food Co. North America. Stenzel will serve as moderator. Questions will cover issues that affect all sectors of the produce industry, including partnerships, consumer branding, value-added produce, needs of buyers and sellers and general pricing.

"This is a good set of speakers," Stenzel said. "I think it is an opportunity for retailers and suppliers to interact. You see the produce buyer being squeezed for time. The more opportunity they have, the better they learn about key issues they have in pricing. We'll talk about contract pricing, talk about EDI, talk about ways all of us in the produce industry can do better in the future.

"It's my perception that all of the industry needs to get a real good jolt of future thinking. You can't sit behind closed doors and do it."

In addition to seeking better cooperation between industry sectors, Stenzel also is pushing for better cooperation between national and local trade groups, both within the produce industry and with complementary organizations, such as the Food Marketing Institute in Washington.

"What I've received from the industry is that there's almost unanimous agreement that government relations is our No. 1 mission and that we've got to do it well. Even beyond the government side, there's a real desire for United to focus its programs to let members know where we're going to be in the future," he said, adding that United pinpointed the supply orientation as part of its strategic planning last year, but is now refining it.

One of the biggest steps United has taken during the past year is to join forces with the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., the country's other major national produce trade association, to open up talks to seek ways to eliminate duplication of programs.

Prompted by a letter from big players in the produce industry critical of program overlap, the two groups have been meeting since last spring with what Stenzel views as positive results.

Evidence of what industry members call a new era of cooperation between the groups will be seen at United's Fresh World show with the presence of the Produce for Better Health Foundation's 5-a-Day for Better Health program to boost national produce consumption.

"In many ways, what we're trying to do is embrace the 5-a-Day program and make it truly an industrywide program," Stenzel said.

Just a year ago, United announced that it was creating a health-oriented marketing program with the American Institute for Cancer Research that was perceived to be similar to 5 a Day. As a sign of increased cooperation in the industry, United decided to abolish that program last fall and to throw its weight behind 5 a Day. "United's programs were seen as competitive to 5 a Day, and that wasn't our intention," Stenzel said.

What about the outlook for merging the trade shows of United and PMA, given this new era of cooperation?

While many players involved in both trade associations have said a merger of shows could not happen, Stenzel said he doesn't think "anything is ruled off the table. "The initial reading from both boards is that they feel the marketplace will determine if there should be two shows or if one show is going to be the ultimate solution. I don't think you should rule out anything. You've got to be open to doing what the best thing is for the industry. For now, the decision has been made not to join. I think we'll keep revisiting it."

As for his own experience since he took over, Stenzel said he has found the produce industry to be more fragmented than he expected. "I was astounded that the produce industry has retail sales of $55 billion, yet we have nowhere near the clout that other industries do," Stenzel said. "Each commodity does its own thing, each region does its own thing."

A united voice is beginning to be heard, Stenzel said. "I think it is starting, but it's not overnight," he said during a phone interview with SN from a recent meeting he was at of the National Potato Council in Florida. That week he had stops planned for produce groups in Canada and Los Angeles, all while the finishing touches were being put on the big show.

"It's going to take a while for the industry to believe that we're all in it together," he said.

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