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Local movement explored at workshop

by Tim Linden | November 01, 2010
ORLANDO, FL — Is the movement toward consuming more fruits and vegetables from local sources affecting the fresh produce industry, or is it more a matter of perception than reality?

Although that question wasn't actually the topic of a Produce Marketing Association workshop devoted to the concept during that group’s annual convention, held here Oct. 15-18, it was one of the more intriguing theories put forth by the panelists.

After a diverse panel of buyers and one seller explained for the better part of an hour how their operations are dealing with the growth of the local produce movement, the discussion was opened up to audience participation. An unidentified grower-shipper, noting that fruit and vegetable consumption is stagnant and that sales of locally grown produce are on the rise, asked if that meant that sales of produce not sourced locally are declining.

Both Rich Dachman, vice president of produce for Sysco- Houston, and David Corsi, vice president of produce and floral operations for Wegmans Food Markets in Rochester, NY, assured the grower-shipper that their regular produce purchasing habits from traditional sources have not declined.

"The cycle of local produce has existed forever," said Mr. Dachman. “It has just become more formalized. We are not buying less [from traditional sources]. We have always [bought locally].”

Mr. Corsi echoed those comments, stating that Wegmans has always preferred to buy from the local community in upstate New York when those growers are in production. He indicated that although the practice is getting a greater promotional push and more publicity, it is not much different than it always has been.

Prior to that question, the panel spent much of its time discussing food safety and the logistics issues that come into play when dealing with small, seasonal suppliers. Besides the aforementioned produce executives, the other panel members were Michael Spinazzola, president of the Subway restaurant chain, based in San Diego; Adam Lytch, operations manager at L&M Cos. in Raleigh, NC; and Johnna Hepner, director of food safety and technology for the PMA.

On the food-safety question, all agreed that local producers have to comply with the same standards as any producer because there is just no room for risk in the fruit and vegetable industry. In fact, most of the panelists took exception with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s concept that some type of size scale should be applied when demanding food-safety compliance.

Mr. Corsi said that Wegmans introduced the concept of food-safety audits to its local suppliers in 2005, and has been guiding those growers and shippers through the process ever since.

But he reiterated that the retailer will not buy from any grower or shipper that does not pass the audit. To help these smaller growers, Wegmans does have a reimbursement program for the cost of the first audit.

There was great divergence in how these buyers work with local producers. Mr. Corsi said that it works best when he does not get involved in the buy- sell transaction and added that each store is empowered to work on an individual basis with the growers in its own neighborhoods. He said that this reinforces the local concept when the grower literally has a field in close proximity to the store.

Mr. Spinazzola of Subway said that there is no way the giant fast-food chain that he represents can allow individual stores to work with individual growers. In fact, he repeatedly said that while Subway wants to embrace the locally grown movement, it is too difficult. The company has strict standards for all of its products, and he said that the produce items must be consistent and must come from the distribution center and go to the individual store.

In many cases, the DCs serve a very large geographic area that makes using local produce problematic at best. However, he added that Subway’s promotional staff is attempting to tackle these problems as they seek to embrace the concept.

Mr. Dachman of Sysco said that the locally grown movement might be difficult logistically for a large firm such as his, but it is necessary because many of his customers — especially foodservice operations on university campuses — are demanding that they be supplied with local products.

“That age group is more socially responsible, and they demand [local products],” he said.

But he also made a cautionary note, advising against promoting local as better — if it is not true.

“We have to be careful where this is going and where we take it,” Mr. Dachman said. “It is easy to ride a wave of perception, but we shouldn’t take advantage of the consumer and let them believe something that isn’t true.”

He said that many of his customers are very well educated about the food industry and they know that just because something is local, it is not necessarily better — or even more socially responsible.

Mr. Spinazzola said that there is the perception among Subway customers that local tastes better, whether it is true or not.

One interesting fact, according to Mr. Corsi, is that Wegmans’ customer surveys have revealed that the consumer seems to be more forgiving of some of the “faults” that might accompany local production. He said that consumers perceive the product to be fresher because it is grown in their neighborhood, and they have a higher tolerance for any lack of flavor in that same product.

Mr. Corsi did acknowledge, however, that buying local produce is not just a function of demand from the customer. He said that it makes sense to him to buy local because the product is fresher and it does fit the firm’s philosophy of serving the local community.

Ms. Hepner of PMA is involved in giving food-safety seminars to local growers so that they can be in compliance and not intimidated by the needs of the buyers in this regard. She and the others indicated that in many instances, the local growers are already performing many of the food-safety tasks that they need to be doing, but they are not documenting them.

Often, she said, fears can be allayed by education.