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LAS_VEGAS -- An announced crowd of 4,000 registrants met here April 21- 24 for the United Fresh Produce Association's annual convention and trade show.

Outgoing Chairman of the Board Tom Lovelace of McEntire Produce in Columbia, SC, told the opening general session participants that the registration for this stand-alone show topped last year's number when United shared its show with the Food Marketing Institute. FMI is returning to Las Vegas next year, but United will again go it alone at the same venue and roughly the same timing.

The opening session Wednesday morning, April 22, also featured an endowment announcement by Bayer CropScience and a keynote address by former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, who is chairman and chief executive officer of Forbes Inc., and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine.

Bayer CropScience announced that it will donate $1.1 million to the United Fresh Foundation over the next four years for the association's Center for Global Produce Sustainability. Bayer's John Smith announced the collaboration, stating that creating tools to help the industry produce improved products in a sustainable fashion is consistent with the company's mission.

Mr. Forbes entertained the crowd with his take on the current economic conditions - including how the situation was created and when the economy might turn around. He laid much of the blame for the current recession on the Federal Reserve Board's monetary policy in 2004, noting that the U.S. economy is like an automobile that needs just the right amount of fuel to run properly. Too little fuel and it cannot get going; too much fuel and the engine will flood. In 2004, he said, the Federal Reserve believed the economy was stalling and it pumped way too much money into the economy.

Those increased funds led to spikes in prices for virtually all commodities, Mr. Forbes said, and also fueled an already-booming housing market. The market spiraled out of control as lenders allowed borrowers with insufficient income and no down payment to buy houses.

In addition, the Forbes CEO said that some changes in accounting rules and stock purchasing regulations over the past several years also had a detrimental effect on the economy. This perfect storm of mistakes led to a drying up of the mortgage market beginning in 2007, which is when the economy started to falter.

Mr. Forbes does see some reason for optimism. He said that some of the misguided changes in regulations have been amended and that the Federal Reserve does appear to be moving in the right direction with regard to balancing money supply with the needs of the economy. He predicted that within several months, conditions will improve and the U.S. economy will be well on its way to recovery in 2010.

But the former presidential candidate warned against some "big battles" on the horizon that could hurt the economy and the business community. He was especially critical of the card check legislation being put forth by labor leaders and their congressional supporters. That legislation would allow a union to become the bargaining agent of an employee group without a secret ballot election.

Mr. Forbes also railed again creating a national health care plan. He said that such a plan will be advanced this summer ostensibly to insure only the uninsured. But he said that the same vehicle will be used in the future to undercut the current system. Instead of national health care, he said that the system needs free-market forces to reduce costs. He argued that medical procedures such as Lasik or cosmetic surgery paid by patients rather than insurance companies have seen a decrease in cost over the past decade because consumers are free to choose where to procure the services and providers of those services must be competitive. He advocated health care plans that create a financial connection between the provider of the service and the consumer.

Mr. Forbes also discussed the topic on which he launched his runs for the presidency: income taxes. He favors a flat tax, but in any event, he would like to see the current tax code dumped in favor of a new, less complicated system. He said that the current tax code wastes billions of dollars.

Among the seminar sessions on the opening morning of the convention were a number of workshops exploring the poor economy and its effect on the fresh produce industry. In a foodservice session, Steve Grinstead, president and CEO of Pro*Act, quipped that his company "has chosen not to participate in the recession." He said that he has been through a number of economic downturns in his 35 years in the business, and each has provided good growth opportunities. "If you are waiting for a rebound in the economy, you are focused on the wrong thing."

Mr. Grinstead said that a company should be focusing on its own strengths and trying to grow its own business, and the economy will take care of itself.

In another session, Steve Lutz, executive vice president of The Perishables Group, said that consumers are reacting to the economic downturn and shifting their buying habits. More consumers are being driven by price, and they are developing strategies to cope with their shrinking wallets. For example, consumers are buying in larger quantities to take advantage of value pricing, and they are also trading down both in the products they buy and the venues at which they shop.