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Produce Marketing Association's 2009 Foodservice Conference & Exposition, the only conference dedicated to produce and foodservice, heats up July 24- 27 with a new daylong food-safety session and the release of a new study that will help the produce industry, foodservice distributors and restaurants break down barriers to offering more produce on menus.

The popular annual conference in California is expected to attract some 1,500 attendees this year and is currently sold out for exhibitors.

"We fill Monterey to capacity," Julia Stewart, PMA's public relations director, told The Produce News. She added that when the association explored moving the conference to another location, attendees told them that the intimate atmosphere and location should not be changed.

"We're all watching every dollar we spend today, and that's why this conference was designed to deliver maximum return on attendees' time and travel investment," said Bryan Silbermann, PMAs president and chief executive officer. "The high level of interest from registrants and exhibitors tells me that the program is resonating with our membership. I can't recall a stronger lineup of expert speakers on hot topics that are driving the foodservice business today."

For the first time, the conference will host a full-day Food Safety Symposium, which will feature Bob Whitaker, PMAs chief science officer. The symposium will be held July 27 and will target high-level corporate officials.

"This is an opportunity for executives to sit down with Bob, who is one of the leading minds in food safety," said Ms. Stewart. "He's trying to get the industry to think differently about food safety."

Managers often relegate food safety to developing a plan that sits on a shelf or passing an audit, but the industry needs to make a much deeper commitment all the way up the chain of command, she said.

PMA is urging managers to spend an extra day at the Monterey meeting to learn new business models and hear real-world crisis situations in the first of three symposia scheduled around the country.

During the meeting, Dr. Whitaker also will lead a one-and-a-half-hour session for buyers and sellers to debate food-safety issues. Everyone supports food safety, but buyers and sellers may disagree about how to get it done.

Panelists scheduled to participate were Jorge Hernandez, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for U.S. Foodservice; Bob Gray, executive vice president of A. Duda & Sons Inc.; Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative Inc.; and Mike Burness, vice president of global quality and food safety for Chiquita Brands International.

Another highlight of the conference will be the release of results from a new study on ways to break through barriers and take advantage of opportunities to promote a healthy menu in foodservice.

PMA joined the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association to conduct a multifaceted study to help industry boost produce in menus. At the conference, top executives with restaurant, distributor and produce supplier sectors will first analyze the results of the study during a brainstorming meeting: a first-ever executive Invitation Think Tank.

"The Invitational Think Tank we're hosting with National Restaurant Association and International Foodservice Distributors Association adds a strategic kickoff to the conference, and we're indebted to Markon for its sponsorship of this groundbreaking program," said Mr. Silbermann.

On July 25, attendees will hear real-world advice based on the study's findings from a panel consisting of Mr. Silbermann; Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association; Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Bon Appetit Management; Dave Corsi, vice president of Wegmans Food Markets Inc.; Kevin Fiori, vice president of Sunkist Growers Inc.; Jim Lavender, executive vice president of Ben E. Keith Co.; and Tina Fitzgerald of IPC/Subway.

PMA plans to publish the study later this fall with the think tank recommendations as the association begins a long-term relationship with these allied associations, said Ms. Stewart.

The struggling economy will also be a focus of the meeting as PMA holds an educational workshop led by Kim Rothstein, principal of the Hale Group, who will discuss how to take advantage of the current recession.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation is hosting a town hall meeting July 25 to discuss a proposal to develop a national fruit and vegetable research and promotion board. Mark Munger of Andrew & Williamson Sales Co. will moderate the meeting.

"PMA is neutral on the issue but wanted to facilitate discussion," said Ms. Stewart.

On July 26, PMA will bring out celebrity chefs, and this year's attendees will hear from Ted Allen, host of primetime TV shows Chopped and Food Detectives on the Food Network, and from Chef Jeff Henderson of the Chef Jeff Project on Food Network, on how they rely on produce. James Beard Book Award nominee Chef Robert Danhi will moderate.

After that, attendees will be able to watch a cooking demo by the three chefs.

To kick off the three-day event, attendees will have the opportunity to tour local field and processing plants. This year the tour sites are D'Arrigo Bros. Co. of California, Ocean Mist Farms and Taylor Farms.

Also on the docket is the fourth annual Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation Golf Tournament, named in honor of Joe Nucci, a former secretary-treasurer of PMA. The scholarship helps culinary students from the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales participate in the conference and hopefully seek a career in the produce industry, according to Ms. Stewart.

She said that more than half of the students who attend PMA events seek jobs in the produce industry.