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PMA touts landmark meeting on produce consumption and food safety

by Joan Murphy | June 29, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The first time the Produce Marketing Association brought three committees and its board of directors here may be already paying off, Bryan Silbermann, PMA president and chief executive officer, said during a June 28 press call.

Mike Hollister, vice president of sales and marketing for Driscoll Strawberry Associates, suggested at one of the meetings with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials that the government imprint the MyPlate logo on the Electronics Benefit Card, the identification card for food stamps, to publicize the logo and encourage consumption of produce, Mr. Silbermann said.

Within three hours, USDA notified PMA that the department is already looking into the viability of making this recommendation to the states, he said.

"This is a good example of marketers coming to the nation's capital, making a suggestion any good marketer in business would think of doing when you've got 40 million cards being used out there on a regular basis for people getting food aid and really having an impact," Mr. Silbermann said.

In a series of meetings here June 22-24, PMA's Government Affairs Committee, Supply Chain Efficiencies Committee and Produce Science, Safety & Technology Committee, along with its board of directors, met with high-level USDA officials, U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulators, lawmakers and White House Chef Sam Kass and delved into issues of growing produce consumption and food safety.

With USDA officials, PMA leaders discussed a range of issues, including the Microbiological Data Program, the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and food safety research.

The three committees and members of the board also met with FDA regulators on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, where they discussed the Produce Safety Alliance, PMA's training program for small growers, third-party certification, traceability, food-safety research, border issues and communication improvements. PMA is keeping FDA apprised of its Produce Traceability Initiative as the agency is charged with developing traceability pilots under the new law.

"The new FDA is very interested in our industry's input," PMA Chairman of the Board Mike O'Brien, a vice president for Schnuck Markets Inc., said about a meeting he attended with FDA officials.

"I really think there's a definite change of tone," Mr. Silbermann agreed. "I've not seen anything like this in the 30 years I've been involved with the produce industry and FDA."

Because of this shift, the industry engaged in frank discussions and offered FDA regulators with real-world supply chain issues, he said.

At the board meeting, PMA reiterated support for the Alliance for Food & Farming, a group that has responded to media reports when the Environmental Working Group released its Dirty Dozen list.

It also delved into the potential for social marketing to grow produce consumption. Low-cost social media are changing "the rules of the road" by allowing companies to reduce advertising budgets and contact consumers directly, Mr. Silbermann said.

PMA's top leaders also debated global strategy and activities underway at PMA's first international affiliate in Australia-New Zealand. PMA has three industry councils, in Chile, Mexico and South Africa.

The group would like to see its global reach broaden, but "we're walking before we can run," Mr. Silbermann said. PMA plans to make an announcement "fairly soon" on its newest targets for global outreach.