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WASHINGTON -- While food-safety recalls and third-party audits may be top issues at this year's United Fresh 2009 convention in Las Vegas, the networking opportunities still offer value for attendees during tough economic times, according to organizers.

Given the prevalence of food-safety issues, United Fresh returns to Las Vegas April 21-24 with a new push to tackle the issue of harmonizing third-party audits, Patrick Delaney, communications manager for United Fresh, told The Produce News. The two-day Global Conference on Produce Food Safety Standards is a chance for industry, federal regulators and auditors to tackle the critical issues of produce industry audits and harmonization, he said.

But with the nation's produce industry far from immune to the economic downturn, Mr. Delaney stressed that the gathering offers an opportunity for attendees to meet new clients, see new equipment and find new ways to boost efficiency.

Another pressing issue is the industry's commitment to establish full supply- chain traceability by 2012, so for the first time, United will be offering a Produce Traceability Demo Center in an 8,000-square-foot area of the exhibit floor where growers, packers, shippers, wholesalers and retailers can get answers to their most pressing questions about traceability.

Attendees will have the opportunity to speak with experts, view table-top displays and listen to daily roundtable discussions on traceability systems. Speakers from GS1, Food Lion, Pro*Act and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association will speak at an April 22 workshop on traceability.

Also new on the Sands Expo & Convention Center exhibit floor, the FreshTech and Fresh Marketplace co-expos will feature learning centers devoted to educational sessions on various topics presented by exhibitors. These 30- minute workshops, slated for April 22-24, are offered by exhibitors and focus on pressing issues, such as packaging, marketing and traceability.

There are 250 exhibitors signed up for this year's trade show, a slight dip from last year, along with 5,000 pre-registered attendees, according to Mr. Delaney.

Keynote speaker Steve Forbes, chairman and chief executive officer of Forbes Inc. and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, will kick off the April 22 general session by delving into one of the bigger questions facing the produce industry: What needs to happen to make the economic crisis pass quickly? Family-run businesses have unique challenges when it comes to managing a produce business, so this year United Fresh is offering a two-and-a-half- hour seminar on ensuring a successful business. The session will help attendees with questions about day-to-day operational issues and preparation of long-term succession plans, said Victoria Backer, senior vice president of member services for United.

At another workshop, Shifting Consumer Purchase Patterns: Reactions to a Tight Economy, Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Perishables Group, will release new research on consumer behavior at the store level, and speakers from Eurofresh Inc., Crunch Pak, Dovex and Chiquita Brands International will respond. "This will be an exciting session," said Ms. Backer. United is offering a workshop to help sales and marketing staffs at produce firms better understand the nuts and bolts of food-safety investigations. Other workshops will explore growth opportunities for foodservice and restaurant sectors and new markets under the federal feeding programs, along with briefings on the congressional outlook under the new Obama administration and immigration reform initiatives.

This year's speaker at the Women in Produce reception will be Heather Shavey, assistant general merchandise manager for fresh foods and produce at Costco, who will tell her personal story of how she started in 1984 as a warehouse caller and climbed to her management post.

Rather than hosting more general workshops on April 23, United opted to host networking and educational super sessions for each market segment board to focus on issues most critical to their sector of the industry, said Ms. Backer.

The town-hall formats will allow attendees to ask questions of the newly created teams: retail-foodservice board, grower-shipper board, wholesale- distributor board and fresh-cut processor board.

Finally, Ms. Backer said that FreshPAC's Strike it Rich bowling night returns to the Las Vegas convention because it was so popular last year. Registration is capped at 100 bowlers; tickets are $100 per person or $500 per team.