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The new Mexican produce branding entity Eleven Rivers is gearing up for the launch of product, which it expects to occur in early January.

Brand representative Fernando Mariscal said the operation will not be rushed into branding product before it makes sense so that start date could be fluid. Eleven Rivers is a new branding concept that was launched during the Produce Marketing Association convention in Florida in October.

Mr. Mariscal said the concept behind the idea is to create an additional brand, or mark, on Mexican fruits and vegetables that identifies it as reaching a higher standard of excellence with regard to quality and food safety.

He said the idea dates back a couple of years when virtually all vegetable grower-shippers in Sinaloa, Mexico, began assessing themselves a per package fee, through their local association, CAADES, for the purpose of improving their food-safety standards. Mr. Mariscal said Eleven Rivers is a private business venture, but it is being launched in concert with CAADES, and initially using the funds that were collected by that association.

"The growers know that even though they all paid into the fund, initially the brand will only be used by the very best groups," he said.

Mr. Mariscal said Eleven Rivers is currently working with many different grower-shipper groups in Sinaloa to qualify them for the use of the brand. “Right now we have three levels of participation. There are about 20 groups that we are closely working with and about 18 of them are operating at a level where they would achieve certification. A couple of others are moving in that direction. And then we have many others who want to be involved, but they are not at the level that will allow them to be certified.”

The Eleven Rivers representative explained that the organization is currently working with both U.S. and Mexican officials to create some type of official certification program that recognizes the increased quality and food-safety standards that the “Eleven Rivers” brand will denote. He said Mexican officials are poised to cooperate, but the discussions with U.S. officials are ongoing. Mr. Mariscal said that the goal of Eleven Rivers is to have exclusive use of the official certification designation for at least one year. After that, Eleven Rivers has proposed that the certification could be expanded to other groups not affiliated with the organization. Initially, he said that the exclusivity would give Eleven Rivers a marketing advantage, which he believes is justified because it is the trailblazers of this concept. He also admitted that securing exclusivity is a difficult task. But just as quickly, Mr. Mariscal said independent certification of the standards that “Eleven Rivers” product is adhering to is key to the success of the program, and the brand will not be launched until this is secured.

As a practical matter, the Eleven Rivers brand label is an additional designation that will be put on the carton next to the firm's current trade label. “Eleven Rivers” is a brand and a marketing concept not a sales organization. The product itself will continue to be sold and shipped through its regular channels. “This is very important,” said Mr. Mariscal.

He added that the U.S.-based distributors in Nogales, AZ, as well as California and Texas, will continue to play the same role they play today. “We are not changing the structure of the industry,” he said. “We are committed to using the same distribution system that is currently in place. That’s not going to change.”

Once the program gets underway, Mr. Mariscal said that about 15-22 percent of the Mexican product sold in the United States will carry the “Eleven Rivers” designation. Over time, he anticipates that volume growing and being extended to other areas. To be successful, he believes it needs to be a year- round program. Again, he said the Sinaloa grower-shippers who have paid for the launch of this understand that it will have to be expanded to other areas. As an ongoing venture, Mr. Mariscal said there will be fees associated with using the “Eleven Rivers” label but he did not want to get involved in that aspect of the program at the current time. “We don’t have to worry about that right now. We have the funds to launch this program and we have hired four U.S. agencies. The people in Sinaloa know that they have all funded this, but in the beginning, very few will take the first step.”