The produce industry is once again gearing up for the Produce Marketing Association's annual Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition, which will be held this year Oct. 24-27 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. In this special preview supplement, SN takes a look at some of the topics that will be highlighted in the show's extensive educational program. We begin with excerpts from a recent interview with PMA President Bryan Silbermann, who will present his annual State of the Industry address during a lunch general session on Friday, Oct. 24.
SN: This summer's salmonella outbreak is obviously still at the forefront of a lot of growers' minds. How is PMA working with the FDA to ensure that similar mistakes won't be made in the future?
BRYAN SILBERMANN: As you know, [United Fresh Produce Association president] Tom Stenzel and I wrote to the secretary of HHS, and we've had discussions with the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and we are going to be planning follow-up meetings. There is a lot still to be done — lessons to be learned by these federal agencies as well as by our industry. We are also working with FDA in terms of beefing up their capabilities on the ground as far as testing goes, so that they have faster response times, and aren't waiting for weeks for samples to be sent to labs. But there's a lot that still needs to be done, and we've really just started down that path. At the convention, we are also holding a town hall meeting with senior experts at the FDA and the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] we hope, as well as our own [chief scientific officer] Bob Whitaker, and we'll be holding that town hall meeting Friday, Oct. 24, at Fresh Summit. So, we're expecting a good turnout, and I think there will be a lot of probing questions from industry. Because clearly people have been hurt by this, people's businesses were affected, mistakes were made and we have to do everything we can to avoid that happening again.
SN: Did this outbreak lend a new sense of urgency to the Produce Traceability Initiative, which PMA, along with the United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, were already working on?
BS: Well, I would say yes and no. It's been a blessing and a curse. Let me be very clear about what I mean by that. Some of the lessons coming out of this summer's salmonella outbreak show that even better traceability than we currently have could have speeded things up; however, it's also very clear that no amount of enhanced traceability by the produce industry can solve the problem of a government agency identifying the wrong product at the beginning [of an investigation]. Improved traceability is what the industry does after the government says ‘Here's where we have identified the problem through our epidemiological studies.’ If the epi is wrong, and the analysis from those epi studies is flawed, then all you're doing is being very effective in tracking back the wrong thing. Some people have just said, ‘Well, what is the point of this if the government is going to identify the wrong thing?’ On the other hand, I think the vast majority of the industry has said yes, we have traceability systems in place. Yes, we need to improve them, in terms of speeding up the process. And I think we're seeing a lot of that already under way. I know dozens of companies that have already speeded things up as a result of what happened this summer — not just with tomatoes, but with a whole range of things. So, I think there's two separate issues: One is, did it create a greater impetus? Yes. Did it also create tremendous frustration and questioning of ROI? Yes, it has done that as well.
SN: COOL requirements will soon be implemented, beginning at the end of September. Does everything appear to be going smoothly at this point?
BS: As smoothly as one could expect, with final regulations coming out so close to the date. I take my hat off to USDA. I think they've done an exceptional job reaching out through various associations, including PMA and Western Growers. Their folks have really been pounding the pavement, doing a lot of webinars and presentations in person. We'll be doing that again at Fresh Summit. They've been going out of their way to help educate the industry and make sure that everybody understands the USDA's expectations. So, thus far, [implementation] has been going about as well as one could have hoped.
SN: With COOL coming on the heels of the salmonella outbreak, which was ultimately traced back to Mexico, is there any concern that shoppers may come to view produce from certain countries as safer than produce from other countries?
BS: Ensuring safe food on the shelf is something that applies to every single country and every single state. There shouldn't be unsafe food on the shelf or in a restaurant to begin with. Country-of-origin labeling, to me, is about consumers' right to know where a product is coming from, and making that determination about whether they want to buy a product grown in a particular place. I think those who try and tie those two things together would be doing a tremendous disservice to consumers.
SN: PMA's Lorna Christie is moderating a session on brand building called “Telling your story to drive sales and generate profits.” Urging growers to build a narrative around their products was also one of the themes of your speech at last year's show. Why is this critical, and how is the industry faring on these goals right now?
BS: It's been very gratifying to see the kind of developments that we have seen. Take a look, for example, at the California Avocado Commission and its strategic communications direction, telling the story in all of their materials, showing farmers, getting onto the land, really making the connection between where the product comes from, who the people are behind it and the product itself. Why is it important? In a time when people are focused on local produce, people want to be more connected to the food they eat. Whether that is answered when they walk into a store and see a product from [an independent] orchard down the road, or whether they go into a restaurant and see a salad with microgreens grown 25 miles away, that is really where a certain, select demographic develops a connection with their food. There's all kinds of reasons — feeling connected to the local community, feeling a sense of being more sustainable and not using as much energy to ship product. All of those tie into the sense of connection. There are a lot of different forces that are driving it. But that's not to say that imported foods [and large regional growers] shouldn't also show their face. Look at what people like Stemilt are doing on the apple, pear and cherry side of the business — it's really getting into that message that it's not just the product itself, it's the people who stand behind that product.
SN: In terms of the local movement, last year you said that many large growers were starting to look into regional farms. Is that a trend — major growers trying to get closer to their consumers?
BS: It's huge, especially on the processing side. You'd be hard pressed to find a major processor on the West Coast that isn't looking at how they can grow product in places like Ohio, New Jersey, New York or Canada, so that (a) they don't have to face high transportation costs, and (b) they can hopefully drive some of this locally grown appeal. Other factors that are driving that are labor demands. All of those factors are pushing people to find ways to grow food closer to where it's going to be consumed.
SN: Most sectors of the food industry are facing inflationary conditions right now due to rising energy costs and other factors. How are these factors affecting the produce industry?
BS: Certainly energy costs have had an impact. But it's not just that. Take a look at fertilizer costs — they've gone through the roof, spiking sometimes more than 200% in the past year. Packaging costs — the cost of corrugated containers has skyrocketed, the price of plastics for clamshells has gone up. All of that has been driven because so many things require fossil fuel for production. It's not just energy and labor, it's all of those inputs.