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MONTEREY, CA -- Is it possible to double the consumption of fresh produce in foodservice venues over the next 10 years?

The opening session of the Produce Marketing Association's Foodservice Conference & Exposition, here, Saturday, July 25, dealt with a collaborative initiative among three industry associations with exactly that objective.

PMA President Brian Silbermann led the discussion with panel members consisting of supply chain presidents and chief executive officers who are members of the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association. The panelists were among a group of industry leaders from the three associations who had met the previous day as part of an "invitational think tank" to discuss how the goal of increasing produce use in foodservice might be achieved.

The partnership, which was initiated nearly a year earlier, began with "comprehensive research to examine opportunities and barriers for greater produce use in restaurants," Mr. Silbermann said at the session. "This was led by the [National] Restaurant Association with assistance from PMA's produce industry leaders." Operators were asked a host of questions on their use of produce ranging from what influences purchases to how satisfied they think their customers are with the produce they are served to attitudes about sourcing seasonally vs. year round.

The industry leaders who were invited to participate in the Friday think-tank session "represent a broad range of operators, distributors and suppliers -- senior executives drawn from across the membership of our associations and our boards," Mr. Silbermann said. They were "given time in advance to digest the fabulous information pulled together by the NRA."

The think tank "developed a force field analysis," identifying forces working for and against increased produce consumption in foodservice, he said. Among the forces working in favor of increased consumption are an increased interest in produce by consumers and chefs and an increased interest in health, wellness and sustainability that are "driving a new differentiation of a healthful diet with produce at center stage," he said.

"Pushing down on the line" are such factors as food-safety concerns that undermine consumer confidence, an "old stigma" in the foodservice industry that "somehow fresh produce is costly and time consuming," and supply chain issues that do not always "align with consumer satisfaction," he said.

"Yesterday, we reached consensus on priorities amongst these as well as on a collaborative strategy for our three associations," Mr. Silbermann said. "The next steps will be to digest these discussions and publish a written report that members of all three associations will receive on-line free of charge."

The associations are "committed to working together to develop a road map based on these discussions so we can tackle what is going to be a decade- long, industrywide, collaborative strategic initiative," he said. "The goal is nothing less than to double the usage of fresh produce in foodservice by 2020."

In order to achieve that, "We need to re-imagine a restaurant experience with a stronger produce presence. We need to improve consumer confidence in produce. We need to demonstrate social responsibility across the industry from field to fork. And we need much closer collaboration between the sectors" and with government and other stakeholders, he said.

"The challenges our customers -- foodservice operators -- are facing today are unprecedented," said Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative Inc. "We believe that produce can be a big part of the solution for these operators. Yesterday was just a first step of collaboration between these three associations."

Other members of the panel were Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, who summarized the organization's research findings; 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, director of produce and social responsibility for IPC Subway.