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TAMPA, FL -- Founded 10 years ago with just six members, the Southeast Produce Council is on a roll. From humble beginnings, it has grown to 600 members, many of whom will be in attendance when the council hosts the 2010 Retail & Foodservice Conference & Exposition, known as Southern Exposure, here March 4-6.

"We've got a great growth streak," SPC President Tom Page of Supervalu Inc. told The Produce News in mid-February. "Right now we're looking at record attendance. The word's gotten out about SPC and Southern Exposure." The council limits the number of exhibitors to 200, and this year there was a waiting list for vendors hoping for a booth.

"I think we bring a lot of value to our events," said SPC Secretary Andrew Scott of General Produce Inc. "The expo's a great way to bring in a lot of decision- makers and get them together with vendors in an intimate setting. With 200 booths, you can see all of them in a short afternoon. It's a real good intimate setting, and it's not going to get big; we're going to keep it like it is. Exhibitors get an army of decision-makers on the expo floor that you can't get anywhere else in such an intimate setting. The 200 booths are just 10 feet by 10 feet. Every vendor is on the same playing field when it comes to their booths and offerings."

That egalitarian approach has in part led to the council's explosive growth. "We were at a little bit of a critical point a year ago when we looked at our board makeup," said Mr. Page. "We were left with only two retailers on the board; the rest were shippers, and that was a very poor mix. Our original intent was to keep that mix close to 50-50. A couple of retailers had dropped off because of time constraints, so I made it an issue last year and personally invited several key retailers in the Southeast to join us on the board. We're back up to 50-50. We've got some great retailers on the board, and that ensures our continued growth for the next few years."

The makeup of the council board makes sure that "you don't have big companies overshadowing the little guy," Mr. Page said. "The decisions we make are for all the right reasons and they've been discussed equally among grower-shippers and retailers.

As a non-profit organization, the council plows any revenues "back into the business -- anything we earn we put back in," Mr. Page said. The council has just one full-time employee; other positions are all filled by volunteers. New SPC programs this year will focus on education and retailers. The first of those is a May session focusing on inspections and training retailers in proper receiving procedures.

The council also plans to help members negotiate the maze of new food- safety regulations coming out of Washington, DC.

While new and pending legislation has made life more difficult for some grower-shippers, "We're getting traceability and we know we're putting safe food in the hands of consumers," Mr. Page said. "That has been a positive step in the last couple of years, and I see that continuing to improve. Food- safety regulations got a lot of people out of the business that were not practicing safe growing standards; it's taking those people out of the mix. As an industry when we have, say, a spinach [problem], that affects everything - - that affects all fresh produce. It just resonates through the whole industry. So what we have to do as an industry is not let those things happen, … and when we do have issues to be able to absolutely trace it down very quickly and get it fixed."

Traceability removes some of the "panic factor" for U.S. consumers concerned about produce safety, Mr. Page said, and the council will continue to push for ever-higher standards. "We're dealing with growers that are moving past putting [tracking labels] on the boxes and are putting them right on the actual piece of fruit or vegetable. That traceability is going to continue to improve. And that's the key. We'll be able to know immediately where in the field a product came from, who picked it, and what time it went through the packingline."

Traceability improves not only consumer trust but also working relationships, Mr. Page said, paramount in an industry that often operates on handshakes and promises. One session at Southern Exposure will deal with that "trust factor."

"You try to explain what we do to some people and it's hard for them to fathom that we don't have a bunch of lawyers involved," Mr. Page said. "I tried to explain our business to a lawyer friend of mine. He said, 'Nobody does that kind of business over a handshake.' It's a very straightforward, honest business. That trust has to be there all the way from a grower dealing with a retailer or a retailer dealing with a consumer. It goes all the way through."

Said Mr. Scott, "This is a relationship business. There are a lot of million- dollar handshakes. I've made a lot of business relationships over the years that have turned into very close friendships. It's really refreshing."

Charitable concerns are another major focus of the council. The council works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Expanded Food & Nutrition Education Program, designed to assist limited-resource audiences in acquiring the knowledge, skills, attitudes and changed-behavior necessary for nutritional well-being. For six years the council has been contributing to South Carolina's EFNEP program and will expand efforts into Georgia this year. Last year alone, the council gave away $20,000 in scholarships to member families.