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MONTEREY, CA — A panel of industry experts convened during the Produce Marketing Association’s 30th annual Foodservice Conference & Exposition, here, to explore the role of flavor in boosting produce consumption.

When the Michelin Guide first started assigning stars to restaurants in 1926, establishments could earn one to three stars based on their service and quality of food, said panelist Jelger de Vriend of Innovative Fresh. A three-star establishment was truly exceptional, he said, meaning that people would make a special trip to experience a flavor sensation.

Since that time in the produce industry, Mr. van Vriend contends, the focus has shifted away from flavor and toward maximizing production, minimizing cost and providing year-round availability.

“There has been only a slight focus on consumer value, and we need to find a new balance,” he said. “The easiest way is to reduce price, but the better way is to provide a healthier product, and innovative and unique concepts. But mostly, it is providing a superior flavor experience.”

Mr. van Vriend cited several examples that support the importance of flavor in produce purchases. With strawberries, he said that 11 percent of purchases are determined by price while flavor drives 69 percent of purchases. With apples, 25 percent of purchases are due to appearance while flavor dictates 60 percent of purchases.

“We need to control the flavor, and the best way to do that is through collaboration,” he said.

Two examples of collaboration in the produce industry that have resulted in better flavor profiles for products are kiwifruit and pineapples. With kiwi, he said that Zespri developed the sweet Gold variety and collaborated with the supply chain to drive home the point of flavor. With pineapples, collaboration among Maui Pineapple Co., Dole and Del Monte resulted in the extra sweet Gold pineapple.

Speaking on behalf of the mushroom industry, Joe Caldwell, vice president of corporate marketing at Monterey Mushrooms, reiterated the importance of collaboration, but extended that to foodservice operators and chefs.

“Flavor combinations with other items is becoming more of a factor for mushrooms,” said Mr. Caldwell. “And flavor is also dependent on cooking techniques because cooking is a chemical reaction since higher temperatures change the flavor, so collaboration with chefs and restaurants is very important.”

Mary Wright-Rana, director of marketing for Pro*Act, a leading produce buyer for the foodservice industry, said that the company has particular specifications it requires from its suppliers, “but listening is the key. If we don’t have the proper communication, we won’t get the desired product. Listening, communication and collaboration are what is needed to achieve the best flavor experience.”

Kacie Vieth of Taylor Farms believes that the childhood obesity trend is a top concern — and provides an opportunity for the produce industry.

“We have worked with chefs to take a brilliant idea to the next level,” said Ms. Vieth. “We’re taking things that are successful at retail and developing them for the foodservice industry. Foodservice operators are now looking at retail as competition, and we’re providing tools to allow foodservice and retailers to be successful in introducing and selling new products.”

Session moderator Lorna Christie, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the Produce Marketing Association, added that flavor is an “emotional issue” and asked for feedback about the best way to get people to try new flavors.

Karen Caplan, president of Frieda’s Inc., replied from that audience that using new products in a common recipe is an effective way.

“Some chefs complicate things with so many ingredients,” said Ms. Caplan. “Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple.”

Mr. Caldwell of Monterey Mushrooms added that with the many cultural shifts currently taking place, people are being encouraged to try new things.

“This presents a tremendous opportunity for new introductions in the produce industry,” he said.