The past year has been one of successes and setbacks for the produce industry. Notably, in November, the United Fresh Produce Association, together with the Produce Marketing Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, announced the formation of a Joint Traceability Steering Committee. Consisting of representatives from more than 30 retailers, foodservice companies and produce suppliers, the steering committee has been working to develop farm-to-table traceability solutions, as well as an action plan to help set timelines and adoption targets for the industry.
The committee is part of the larger effort that United Fresh is making to help solidify the industry's recent gains in improved food safety and traceability. In recent months, United Fresh has also hosted several informational courses on product recall training and crisis management, and testified to the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding recent safety research.
Unfortunately, the industry has also endured delays with important pending legislation, including the 2007 Farm Bill, which, in its current form, would improve federal investment in specialty crops, and would help rectify many of the most unpopular country-of-origin labeling provisions. Attempts at immigration reform have also stalled, with most politicians hesitant to bring up the controversial topic during an election year.
Growers, retailers and suppliers will have opportunities to discuss these topics and more at the upcoming United Fresh show in Las Vegas, May 4-7. Back in Las Vegas for the first time in 23 years, United Fresh this year has expanded its educational offering, combined the United Fresh Marketplace and United FreshTech shows for the first time, and will feature a keynote speech by Steve Burd, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Safeway.
SN talked to Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh, about what to expect. The following are excerpts from that interview:
SN: What can attendees expect at this year's show? It looks like the educational portion has been ramped up significantly, for example.
TS: We really made an effort to make sure that not only is the trade show a really important place to be, but also that the education side is valuable to attendees. The Steve Burd keynote on Monday morning is going to be really interesting to people. The senior management of [Food Marketing Institute] has heard Steve before — his passion for health care, improved lifestyles and better nutrition. But, for the produce audience, in particular produce directors and VPs from retail, as well as suppliers, it's going to be eye-opening for them to hear him talk about some of the things that Safeway is doing in that regard.
Also, [retailer attendees] are probably used to our Chicago show, but this year, for the first time, we're putting the Marketplace show together with our technical show. I think they'll find it interesting to see recent innovations in food safety technology and other technologies that really help bring produce from field to retail to table in a way that ensures quality and safety. I think that's going to be interesting to the retail community as well.
SN: There's an entire track of seminars dedicated to food safety and traceability at this year's show. Obviously, food safety is still very top of mind for the produce industry. How much progress would you say has been made in terms of safety and traceability during the past year, and what are some of the challenges that lie ahead for the industry?
TS: I don't know that food safety is an issue that's ever going to be resolved, because it's not something that you achieve and then just stop. What I think we're really finding in the industry is that this is a process, not a destination. There's been a tremendous emphasis in the supplier community on Good Agricultural Practices. The leafy greens segment, which was most under the spotlight, has done a tremendous job putting in place audit systems and ensuring that everyone is complying with the best [agriculture] practices. There's been a lot of discussion back and forth in the supply chain about how we make sure we're all doing the right thing.
Looking ahead, the bigger area that is shaping food safety right now is supply chain alignment. We've got too many different standards, too many different audits, too many different auditing platforms, too many different buyers in retail and foodservice wanting their own special [systems]. And food safety ought to be across the board. Quality specs that vary from buyer to buyer are fine, but when it comes to ‘is the food safe, is the produce safe,’ I think the total supply chain needs to work more strongly to align itself and come together, agreeing on what is the baseline for safety that's essential for everybody. That's something we're working on, and you'll see it in the workshops and the meetings that are taking place [in Las Vegas].
There are also going to be federal legislative efforts on food safety. It's looking fairly likely that [Congress] is going to seriously consider food safety reforms this year. So, we want to make sure that there's a strong [produce industry] voice in that process. We do support strong food safety laws, so we do want to be part of that process — we don't want to block it. But we want to make sure that any new laws are based on good science.
SN: Speaking of legislation, the produce industry was generally pleased with the 2007 Farm Bill that was passed last year by the Senate. But that bill has since stalled out. Is there any sort of update on what's going to happen this year?
TS: It's still stalled, but as of April 3, I'll give it a 50-50 chance that we ought to have this thing done before we get to the convention in May. I'm still very hopeful. The Senate version and the House version are not that far apart, and the [Bush] administration has weighed in on their part of the debate. The essentials that were there in the Senate version, we think we can drive across the finish line. If it doesn't get done, we're not going to stop — we'll keep pursuing it in the coming months — but I do think there's a fairly good chance that we can get this done soon.
SN: Similarly, United Fresh just published an instructional white paper advising the industry on country-of-origin labeling compliance. Is that expected to finally go into effect this fall? What should the industry expect?
TS: That's a key piece [of the 2007 Farm Bill]. Embedded in that big Farm Bill are some reforms to COOL that are really essential. The 2002 version was just awful in terms of its liability structure and proposed fines on retailers. It would have meant huge costs to the total supply chain. So, some of the reforms that are in that Farm Bill are really key to making COOL more palatable. We believe that even if the 2007 Farm Bill doesn't pass, there will be an opportunity to pull that COOL provision out and probably pass it separately somehow.
But as we said in that white paper, COOL is likely to go into effect in the fall, and the supply chain really needs to start wrapping our heads around that: How are we going to do it? How are we going to minimize the cost burden for everybody and make it as easy of a process as we can?
SN: Immigration reform is another major point of concern for growers, but it's another issue that has stalled out since last year. But looking at this entire field of candidates currently running for president — John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — all of them seem to support some measure of reform. Are you generally hopeful about where the debate on this issue will head after the election in November?
TS: There are still some ongoing efforts that we're making prior to the election, but as you said, the concept of comprehensive immigration reform is probably off the table for right now. But as you look at all three presidential candidates — two Democrats, one Republican — they have all supported both agricultural immigration reform and more general reforms. The country can't afford to keep ducking this issue, and it strikes me that any of the three candidates are going to give it serious consideration after the election.
SN: There was a small story recently that got a bit of attention in the national press, about a tomato grower in Pennsylvania that switched to growing corn. With the ethanol boom forcing corn prices higher and the price of other commodity crops rising as well, could this become a trend with more independent farmers?
TS: I don't think that there will be a shift to corn based on the [ethanol] issue. But that particular grower, I understand, was concerned with labor, because tomatoes are so much more labor-intensive [than corn]. He was afraid of not being able to find adequate farm workers. And that issue will continue. We see shortages in the agricultural workforce in different parts of the country now. There may be some temporary relief because of the economy slowing and more people looking for work, but once construction heats up again, and the restaurant industry [resumes growing], we're back right where we were with an inadequate number of workers. I think that's the bigger issue that could move growers out of fruits and vegetables.
SN: United Fresh recently launched a new competitive program to honor chefs that use produce in foodservice operations. What brought that about?
TS: This is the fourth year that we've given our Retail Produce Manager Award, and that has taken off really well. It's been amazing to me how many chains join in to honor their people on their front lines, but that kind of tells me that they just don't get that many opportunities to recognize these key people. So, we talked to some of our members to see if there was something comparable that we could do in the foodservice arena. We'll be announcing five winners, [focusing on] chefs who have developed special menu items using fresh produce or other innovations in dining concepts.
SN: Thanks for your time, Tom. Is there anything else you'd like to add about this year's show?
TS: One other issue that has become really important to retailers and suppliers is sustainability. We've got a workshop on sustainability scheduled at the show, and we're starting to really push hard to define sustainability in the produce industry. What does it mean? Environmental impact? Energy use? Labor and social welfare standards? We think that we're a little ahead of the issue this time, compared with food safety, where — as we discussed earlier — there are a lot of different audit standards that are almost competing. We want to work hard with retailers to develop a consistent approach to sustainability so that it doesn't become a marketing issue between companies, but instead is something that we can all work on together.