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Food safety and promotions take center stage at NWA convention

by Joel Gebet | March 01, 2009
CHARLESTON, SC -- Although uncertainty about the economy may have kept attendance down slightly at this year's National Watermelon Association convention, that didn't stop the approximately 400 members of the trade who turned out for the event, now in its 95th year. The event was Feb. 18-22 at the Francis Marion Hotel, here.

The economy was a concern for some, but Bob Morrissey, the association's executive director, was upbeat about the industry during his state of the NWA address, given Feb. 21 during the celebration breakfast and general session. Mr. Morrissey said, "2008 had many significant accomplishments and was a great year for us as an association."

He added that some of the more noteworthy milestones for the association were the numerous promotions in celebration of National Watermelon Month in July, including about 530 retailer advertisements, and several events across the country.

Next year, the association and the National Watermelon Promotion Board will partner in a display contest during National Watermelon Month for the association's 10 chapters, which will then compete in a national competition, with the winner being announced at the 2010 convention Feb. 20-24 in Dallas. The association released the second edition of its Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Fresh Watermelon Supply Chain at its third Food Safety & Traceability seminar Feb. 19, and Mr. Morrissey said, "We have come a long way in a quick two years. We have had no outbreaks from any farm or packingshed on record at all, but complacency is not an excuse to not do anything. The media is ready. Are we? Our whole goal now moving forward is to educate the entire industry as soon as we can."

Mr. Morrissey added during his address that the guidelines were "a significant step to assure consumer confidence. It's a fully encompassing program, and it parallels anything we've seen in federal legislation. There is federal legislation coming down the pike. It's not if, it's when."

He also noted that the 2008 farm bill included a grant "in excess of $920,000" to study watermelon vine decline in Florida as well as a $50,000 block grant for promotions for the Florida Watermelon Association.

"There will be significant increases available in funding for nutrition, research, marketing and conservation," he said.

"My commitment is to continue to grow this organization and to make the convention bigger and better," he concluded.

John Lapide, the third generation of his family in the watermelon industry and the president of Brooklyn, NY-based Melon 1 Inc., became the association's new president at the annual awards banquet Feb. 21, while Maggie Bailey, the 2008 Illiana Watermelon Queen, was crowned the 2009 National Watermelon Queen. Brent Harrison, president of Nogales, AZ-based Al Harrison Distributors Co. moved up to the NWA's first vice president position, while Jim Schmidt of La Quinta, CA-based Sunterra West LLC was chosen as the organization's new second vice president.

Mr. Lapide told The Produce News that he was "looking forward to following his predecessors and continuing their leadership. We are trying to get in front of the chainstores to show them that we are being proactive [with food safety]."

The NWA officers said that they were proud of Mr. Morrissey's efforts on behalf of the watermelon industry.

Nowell Borders, president of Borders Melon Co. Inc. and the association's new chairman, told The Produce News that "Bob Morrissey has done an excellent job."

Mr. Borders, who was the president of the association in 2008, said that his most significant accomplishments were "getting July [named] as National Watermelon Month and building [the organization's] membership. I'm looking forward to moving forward with food safety."

Bradley O'Neal, president of Coosaw Farms and outgoing chairman of the association, echoed Mr. Borders and told The Produce News that "Bob Morrissey has done a great job, and Nowell Borders has done a wonderful job as president. I'm looking forward to John Lapide coming in."

He continued, "I'm excited about the upcoming season. Our biggest focus is on food safety, everybody is on board and behind it. We need to stay out in front of the problems and not behind them. This has been a good convention, even with a cloud over us, and I'm real pleased that we had really good attendance. We are presenting a product that has a lot of potential, and we'll have a real competitive edge this spring and summer."