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Content Guy’s Note: During the coming month, MorningNewsBeat will feature a series of articles previewing some aspect of the annual Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show, scheduled for May 2-4 in Chicago.

As various segments of the food industry consolidate, it only makes sense that the nation's largest food industry trade show would incorporate other industry events under its umbrella. For the first time this year, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show in Chicago will include the United Produce Expo & Conference, which the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association (UFFVA) bills as "a new opportunity… to grow sales, market share, profitability and consumption."

To get some details and context behind this new arrangement, MNB turned to Tom Stenzel, president of UFFVA.

MNB This is the first year that UFFVA and FMI have co-located their shows. What exactly does this mean in terms of the show floor and the educational sessions?

Tom Stenzel: The combined event will be give attendees actually five trade shows for one admission ticket. The traditional FMI Show is the largest, occupying the South Hall, with the U.S. Food Export Showcase tucked in. The United Produce Expo is next, occupying about 60% of the North Hall, adjacent to the Fancy Foods Show with the other 40%. The All Things Organic Show is one floor below.

For FMI traditional attendees, this means that for the first time, they’ll get to see 185,000 sq. ft. of exhibits of fresh produce, new merchandising and marketing solutions, innovations and technologies for supply chain improvement, etc. Produce VPs and directors can take their rightful place alongside other department heads at FMI, and top management can get a first-hand look at the department which has the potential to change their lives in the next decade.

We also believe the traditional FMI exhibitor will find the Produce Show of interest, as fruit and vegetable companies are often suppliers to these processors, as well as co-marketing partners. Every grocery guy wants to get into the produce department with co-promotions. They can now come find a partner across the aisle at FMI.

The produce education program will focus on three areas – general sessions together with FMI bringing new solutions to the retail business; Expo Theater sessions right on our show floor to reach retailers with key marketing and merchandising issues; and a slate of workshop sessions in McCormick Place meeting rooms on supply chain issues from food safety to family business.

MNB: What’s your sense of the food safety/food security issue right now when it comes to produce...especially in terms of some of the problems we’ve seen this year with items coming from south of the border.

Tom Stenzel: Food safety is our industry’s top priority – produce companies around the world are working every day to make sure we don’t have a problem. A small number of high profile events do not signal a trend, nor should be exaggerated to indicate a problem in any one area. With the green onion outbreak last fall, major responsibility has to be shared with the food service practices employed in making and holding the salsa involved. Study after study confirms the very low incidence of any potential problem. But low isn’t good enough, and we’ll continue to focus relentlessly on driving improvement.

The law requires that all food offered for sale – whether grown in the U.S. or imported -- must meet the exact same safety standards. Produce companies and retailers know that, and are working to make sure they only move product from those growers who meet the absolute highest safety standards. It’s not like you’re walking into an open-air market in a third-world country and buying produce. The majority of imported product is grown intentionally for the U.S. market with specific controls to meet U.S. standards in place.
U.S. farmers face higher regulatory burdens and costs than most other countries in labor regulations, workers comp, environmental rules, taxes, etc. That’s a problem that we need to address if we want US producers to be competitive. But, when it comes to food safety, we all have to meet the exact same standards.

MNB: Are you seeing any new technologies on the horizon that will help assuage people’s fears about security and safety of the products they eat?

Tom Stenzel: We don’t accept the premise that most people are afraid of what they eat. There’s not much evidence of that in consumer behavior today. Rather, they have overwhelming confidence in the retailer and supply chain to manage food safety. Even the rare occasion problem – mad cow and green onions – did not result in changed eating patterns. We don’t take that trust lightly, and are working to reduce the chance of outbreaks, but you shouldn’t assume people are scared based on word on the street. The best new technology to address this would be a television camera in the fields and packing houses to let people see the care taken to prevent any problems.

Where there are fears we’re likely dealing with that age-old phenomenon – we’re safer than ever and have less real problems to truly worry about.

MNB: Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) continues to pop up as an issue...there just has been a move in Congress to reinstitute COOL regulations by September of this year. What’s your prognosis?

Tom Stenzel: We strongly support the consumer’s right to know where produce is grown. The problem was the terribly flawed law passed in 2002 attached at the end to the Farm Bill with no Agriculture Committee hearings and no debate. It was a terrible piece of legislation, and anyone who hopes to reinstate enforcement of that law is seeking to penalize consumers, not help them. People who made this debate into a question of whether you’re for or against COOL did a huge disservice to the public. It’s about putting in place a program that identifies COO for consumers, without the cost, hassles, fines, liability and nightmares of that bad law.

We’ve been meeting with our produce industry partners since the day we helped pass the two-year delay, and believe there is good consensus for a voluntary system that combines COO labels on bags, clamshells, PLU stickers, twist-ties, and in-store signage to get the job done. We as an industry can do it ourselves, and then let USDA measure that we’re getting the job done. We will be working with allies in Congress to generate that debate, and hopefully, pass a real COOL law that can work for consumers, retailers and suppliers.

MNB: How about RFID and the produce business? What’s the status, what’s the potential, and what’s the time frame?

Tom Stenzel: This is likely to be an evolution, not revolution. Dealing with certain customers will require companies moving more quickly, but it’s clear that produce is not the driving factor nor the first sector where you’ll see wholesale changeover to RFID.

MNB: We seem to be living in a culture where misinformed consumers believe that bacon cheeseburgers are good for you, and fruits and vegetables have too many carbs to be healthy. How has this affected the produce business? And what must retailers do in terms of better communicating with consumers in order to combat mistaken perceptions?

Tom Stenzel: Again, I’ll say not to assume how most consumers think. Some may think that way, but they’re pretty ill-informed. Overwhelmingly, people know that fruits and vegetables are good for them, and they know they should be eating more. The fundamental challenge is how to move awareness and knowledge into action. Atkins packages questionable dietary advice neatly into a diet that can work, in the short term. If most people became vegetarians for two weeks, they’d lose weight too. It’s not about dieting though – it’s about healthy choices for a lifetime.

At a time when the public health crisis demands that we eat 5 to 9 servings of day of fruits and veggies, retailers and produce suppliers both are failing miserably. We need to DOUBLE consumption, not play around the edges. That means a fundamental reassessment of what we’re doing to increase volume. The high end convenience sector is a wonderfully exciting area for fresh produce. But public health demands that we move increasing volume of boring old commodities too. We need to examine every aspect of the retail-produce partnership to begin making a difference – volume incentives; in store labor, merchandising and promotion; produce quality from the ground up; pricing; etc.

MNB: Finally, new product introductions are the life blood of this industry. What are the coolest new products (or new product trends, if you prefer) in the fresh fruit and vegetable business?

Tom Stenzel: New products are exciting, and top-end convenience items are doing very well. But within the produce category, retailers have huge opportunities to blow out volume on traditional commodities to help meet the public health need. Old line staples cannot become afterthoughts.

MNB: And, as you look a couple of years down the road, do you have any thoughts about what the next big thing will be?

Tom Stenzel: The next big thing is likely to be FRESH PRODUCE. Can you imagine any retail category that is already 11-12% of store sales that is poised to DOUBLE? It’s not going to happen overnight, and it will take some fundamental change in the way retailers buy and sell produce, but the stars are aligned to see that happen. If it doesn’t, we’re not just talking about lost sales opportunities, we’re talking about lost health and continual explosion in federal health care costs.
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