In light of the ongoing recession, the California drought and last summer's salmonella outbreak that devastated the tomato industry before finally being blamed on contaminated peppers, it might sound a bit off to say that the produce industry has had a fairly good year.
But looking on the bright side, during the past 12 months, the industry has enjoyed legislative victories that limited some of the more onerous country-of-origin labeling requirements that were in the original 2007 Farm Bill, and also expanded funding for fruits and vegetables in school lunches and food assistance programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. And through the Produce Traceability Initiative, the industry made significant strides toward developing a standardized electronic traceability system that will ultimately help nip foodborne illness outbreaks in the bud.
Growers, packers, distributors and retailers will gather this week at the United Fresh show in Las Vegas April 21-24, to network as they study and discuss these issues. This will be the first time since 2004 that the United Fresh Marketplace Expo will not be co-located with the Food Marketing Institute's expo, which has transitioned to an every-other-year format. But with an expanded educational program, and new show floor features including a “Produce Traceability Demo Center” hosted by experts on both the retail and supplier side, the show promises retailers and produce industry leaders a focused, up-to-the minute view of trends affecting their businesses.
SN talked to Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh, about what to expect. The following are excerpts from that interview:
SN: What are a few things that retail attendees can look forward to at this week's United Fresh show?
TOM STENZEL: I'll mention three key highlights for your supermarket readership. First would be traceability. Probably the No. 1 issue facing the industry right now is tracking produce from farm all the way to the retail store. At the show, one of the key things we've added this year is a 10,000-square-foot center on the trade show floor that we're calling our “Produce Traceability Demo Center.” We'll have a number of computer vendors and software solutions vendors who will have displays and will be able to talk with retailers and shippers about what they need to do in order to comply with the new Produce Traceability Initiative. Part of that also includes a number of industry folks who are going to give Q&A sessions in a roundtable forum. Reggie Griffen from Kroger is going to be available. Any attendees can come to that and ask questions — “What is Kroger's thinking on traceability? What do you want us to do as suppliers?” — that kind of thing. Jim Corby from Food Lion is also going to be there, as well as Roger Harkrider from H-E-B and several suppliers. That's one of the key new things at this year's show.
Second, we've got an add-on conference right at the end of the trade show called “The Global Conference on Produce Food Safety Standards.” It's a Friday afternoon and Saturday meeting on how the industry can move toward harmonizing all the produce safety audits. We have a lot of retailers, shippers, foodservice and restaurant companies that are going to be there for that. I think everyone has realized that having multiple audits, all asking a lot of the same questions, is leading to duplication and added expense. This conference is really about getting all of the players in the room together and start talking about how we can harmonize that process. Right now, a lot of the auditors themselves seem to be going in different directions, and I think the industry has got to make sure that all the different auditors aren't just competing with each other at the expense of the industry. We have to establish a common set of standards and then let the auditors compete on who can do the job the best, rather than compete on what the standards should be.
Third — this just came up [this month] actually — is the concept of a national research and promotion board. The Produce for Better Health Foundation has proposed for the industry to consider a mandatory checkoff program, similar to the Beef Board or Dairy Board, for all fruits and vegetables. Right now, there are special groups for grapes or mangoes or watermelon, but there's nothing that encompasses all fruits and vegetables. So they have proposed that the industry consider this over the next several months. So, we're going to be having a town hall meeting at the convention, where everyone's invited to come in and listen to concept and share their opinions on whether they think it's a good idea.
SN: You mentioned produce safety and traceability earlier. You guys have had a busy spring in Washington, D.C., already.
TS: No kidding. It's one of the top agenda items in Congress. We've had three congressional hearings that we've testified at — I've done two personally, and [earlier this month] we had two board members, one from California and one from Florida, testify. I do think food safety legislation is going to move this year, so we're trying to shape that as best we can to ensure strong standards for the industry, but also make sure that Congress doesn't do unnecessary things that would add costs and not improve safety.
SN: Are you feeling optimistic about these efforts?
TS: I'd say cautiously optimistic. We've been working on this for a couple of years now, and I'd say it's pretty clear that most members of Congress understand that when it comes to produce, one size doesn't fit all. Every commodity is a little bit different. The food safety practices that you'd want for, say, apples, which grow on trees, are very different from greens that grow along the ground. So, we've got to make sure they understand that. I think they do. That doesn't mean the rules can't get mucked up during the process of making legislation, but I'm still cautiously optimistic.
SN: Could you also tell our readers a little about the produce industry's recent legislative victory with the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children?
TS: It's big news for retail. Last year was the actual policy victory, but this year it's being implemented. Every state in the country will be rolling out a new system of fruit and vegetable vouchers, so that WIC moms can go into their local grocery store — wherever WIC is accepted — and they'll have a coupon for either $6 or $8 per month that they can cash in to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. It's very exciting for retailers to be able to get WIC recipients into their produce departments. New York and Delaware have already launched their programs to great success — the moms like it, the retailers like it — but every state will have to have a program in place by October 2009. Total estimate is $600 million in new fruit and vegetable coupons, and that will be a big deal to retailers across the country.
SN: United Fresh also recently began releasing a new series of free quarterly reports on retail produce sales called “Fresh Facts on Retail.” What inspired you guys to launch that service and how has it done so far?
TS: It's gotten a lot of good attention from our membership. I think [they're] now one of the most downloaded items on our website. We were looking at the fact that there's not a lot of information out there, publicly available, on retail sales [of fresh produce]. Our predecessor organization, the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, that was merged with United Fresh a couple of years ago, used to do similar reports that were just focused on fresh-cut and value-added produce. So, we wanted to keep that going, but we expanded it to include the top 10 fruits and top 10 vegetables as well. I think it's gotten pretty good reviews, and retailers are looking at it to judge the national averages for sales, pricing and year-to-year changes, and they can benchmark their own results against that.
SN: One final question — a big issue on a lot of growers' minds right now has been the California drought. Could you explain for our readers what's going on there?
TS: It's a big deal. It's still mostly a state issue, but I think it's going to become more and more important at the national level as well. Growers out there in the Central Valley just aren't getting any [irrigation] water. They're not going to be able to produce their typical crops.