NEW ORLEANS — The United Fresh Produce Association kicks off its annual trade show here this week, May 2-5, and attendees certainly won't be at a loss for topics to discuss. The Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law this winter, the Produce Traceability Initiative continued progressing toward its goal of electronic traceability throughout the produce supply chain, and Congress was embroiled in a budget debate that ultimately led to cuts in national nutrition programs, in addition to other domestic programs.
SN spoke about these and other issues with Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh. The following are excerpts from that interview:
SN: United Fresh recently announced that it would be donating salad bars to 33 New Orleans schools during the convention. Could you tell our readers how this came about?
RAY GILMER: The convention is going to be in New Orleans for the first time in many years. It seemed a natural, since the city is still rebuilding from when Hurricane Katrina hit. Our members stepped up and helped out and we were very gratified to make that donation.
We became a supporter of Michelle Obama's “Let's Move” program, and we were a founding partner, last November, of “Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools.” We're working with the National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, which includes the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] as well as other industry and government organizations. It's a whole group of industry- and nutrition-minded organizations that are working to get more fruits and vegetables in front of kids.
SN: Do programs like this help carry over healthy eating habits in a way that produce departments might notice at retail?
RG: Not surprisingly, there is research that indicates that exposure to a salad bar environment in school gives young kids the motivation to get more involved in experimenting with new foods and trying new things, especially fresh produce. That exposure, that option at the school, can actually change dietary habits at a very early age.
And allows these kids to make choices that will impact their health for a lifetime. And they take those dietary preferences home with them, and they express a preference for broccoli, a preference for salads or carrots to their parents, and they have an impact on the dietary and grocery purchasing habits of their families. It's a win-win for everybody, because [the program] is basically educating and introducing fresh produce to young consumers at a very early age.
SN: United Fresh enjoyed a victory more than a year and a half ago, when fresh produce was added to the government's Women, Infants and Children nutrition voucher program. But, like a lot of programs, WIC is facing significant budget cuts. What is United Fresh doing to ensure continued funding for fruit and vegetable programs?
RG: Obviously, we are concerned that as the budget cutting goes forward, some of the most important nutrition programs — that benefit not only the produce industry, but also the health and well-being of millions of Americans — can be hurt. … There's dozens of federal programs that are critical to the produce industry, that are going to be under the watchful eye of all of us here in Washington.
SN: Another big topic that's continually on retailers' minds is food safety. United Fresh has been partners in the Produce Traceability Initiative. Could you give a progress report on that and other food safety and traceability initiatives?
RG: Cathy Green Burns [chair of the PTI Leadership Council and chief executive officer of Food Lion] will be speaking at one of our general sessions at our convention in New Orleans. She's going to give an industry update on the status of PTI. Obviously, traceability is something that remains a priority for the industry. PTI is not something that is mandatory, but it certainly makes sense for a lot of [companies] in the industry, no matter what part of the supply chain they're in. PTI's mission is still to provide information and education on how companies can best implement the right kind of traceability that fits their needs, while also meeting the broader mission of whole chain traceability. It's important to note that traceability is not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution, and we recognize that.
SN: What are some of the legislative priorities that United Fresh will be working on during the coming year?
RG: Well, let me start with regulatory [legislation]. The Food Safety Modernization Act has been passed. But, where the rubber meets the road is in the regulations, the rule making. A lot of details still have to be hammered out, and how that law will impact the day-to-day business for every member of the produce industry. And, United is working closely with [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to make sure that we are providing input.
FDA has, to its credit, been seeking a lot of information early on, before the first draft of the rule comes out, to make sure that they're on the right track. We've all spent a lot of time and there's been a lot of back-and-forth to reach what we think is a workable, fair and beneficial set of regulations that is really going to embody the spirit of what this food safety bill is all about.
Other issues include the upcoming farm bill. United Fresh was a leading member of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, helping to organize meetings during the last farm bill process. We're doing that again. The Alliance of Specialty Crops is stronger than ever.
Also, we're going into a period of governmental austerity. Budget cutting is the name of the game these days. And a large-scale legislative process like the farm bill incorporates lots of different programs — nutrition, conservation, you name it.
There are so many things that need to be settled in that negotiation, and the prospect of having reduced budget availability is going to shape how that bill will be debated.
SN: I was surprised that row crop subsidies have received very little attention during this round of budget cuts, while nutrition programs are being targeted.
RG: A lot of money is being spent on [agricultural] market-support programs for different commodities. Specialty crops have not traditionally been part of a large budget appropriation. Our programs are minor. But we recognize that everybody's budgets will be scrutinized during this time of deficit cutting. There's no way to know for sure what will happen, but we're confident that we can make a very strong case that the programs the produce industry has been proposing over the past couple of farm bills are the right way to go.
It's not a handout. It's supporting programs that improve nutrition, that improve quality. The block grants are an ideal way of customizing local needs through local management by state departments of agriculture. They're a key component for addressing the diversity of needs that the specialty crop industry has. We're confident that we can make a very strong case that supporting specialty crop programs in the farm bill is an investment in the future. Not just for the benefit of the produce industry, but for the benefit of 300 million Americans.
SN: Regarding the Food Safety Bill, many produce industry groups were disappointed with the exemptions given to small growers in the final version of the bill. What should retailers do to ensure that the small growers they work with are following the best food safety practices?
RG: We had a section of our Washington public policy conference in September  that was exactly about that — how smaller farms can embrace the same kind of food safety programs and practices that larger operations use. And, how we can try to ensure a consistent food safety standard no matter what size the producer. That's why we had so much concern about the exemptions. It essentially created a double standard.
We're still opposed to [the exemptions]. It's now part of the law, so we're going to have to work with the FDA and see what can be done to ensure a more consistent standard. And, if the opportunity ever presents itself that the bill's language could be modified, we might take action on that.
In the meantime, retailers need to ensure that the [safety] standards that they are using for their produce products — no matter what size the farm — protect consumer health. We're confident that, even though the Tester Amendment is there [exempting small farms from FDA inspections and other regulations], this is leading toward a food safety standard that we think is constantly being evaluated and improved as science allows. We think that overall, this is a big step forward for the industry no matter what size the operation.
SN: In terms of small growers who were opposed to the Food Safety Bill, what message did United Fresh have for these groups? It seemed like there was a lot of misinformation being spread about the bill on the Internet last year.
RG: Well, it's hard to know what your costs will be before you know what the regulations are going to be. It's plain to see, if you consider the advances that technology has made in the industry during the past few years, that we [currently] have the best food safety that we've ever had. For example, look at what we're doing in California with the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. That is an industry-driven program that is raising the bar to ensure confidence in the food supply. This kind of operation makes a big difference in setting standards that we all have to meet.
The industry has been making some significant advances. … You go to our convention, and there's going to be 250 exhibitors there, and many of them are introducing new technology that is going to allow more efficient and higher levels of food safety than ever before. We're on our way, no matter what's in the [food safety] bill, to improving the safety of the food supply every day.
SN: What can retailers and other attendees look forward to at the show this year?
RG: One of the most exciting things we're doing this year, we're having a Super Session in the Grower/Shipper part of the show, on putting a local face on your product. So many retailers have told us that locally grown and creating an identity and a connection to their fruit and vegetable suppliers are creating excitement in their stores.
Not everybody can be local. There's a lot of outstanding national suppliers out there who are sourcing from multiple locations during different parts of the year. That's not going to go away. But, we've found that the benefits aren't just from being local; it's about creating a real identity for your brand.
What does your label represent, and how does that create excitement? Is it a family farm? Is it a farm that has been in the family for multiple generations? Is it a farm where customers can know the names of the owners? Those kinds of nuances of marketing, we think, are making a real difference in loyalty to brands and repeat customers in the produce section.
Also, retailers and chefs will be recognized with our annual Excellence Awards. We're recognizing the best chefs and the best retail produce managers. We'll have television programs and will be putting them on the Internet at www.unitedfresh.tv where you'll get to meet them, even if you don't get to go to the show in New Orleans.
There's lots of things to see. And plus, New Orleans is an experience in itself. Stepping outside the convention center, there's probably 100 world-class restaurants that will offer all kinds of great-tasting cuisine, and there's plenty of entertainment.