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ATLANTA -- The boards of directors of the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association voted within the last 10 days to continue discussions that could lead to a merger of the two associations.

Responding to an inquiry from The Produce News, the co-chairmen of the two associations’ joint task force confirmed that two meetings have been held to discuss how the organizations can work together, and those meetings will continue.

Michael O’Brien, who has been chairman of the board of PMA for the past year and is vice president of produce and floral at Schnuck Markets Inc. in St. Louis, discussed the situation with The Produce News Monday, Oct. 17, after developing a joint statement with his task force co-chairperson, Steffanie Smith, who is the immediate past chairman of the board of United Fresh and who is also the chief executive officer of River Point Farms LLC in Hermiston, OR.

Mr. O’Brien said that the joint task force was established last spring to look at ways that United and PMA could work together synergistically. He said that after meeting twice, the joint task force recommended continued meetings, and that recommendation was approved by the boards of both associations.

Although Mr. O’Brien did not expressly use the word “merger” in his statement, he did agree that characterizing these talks as “more serious” than in the past is accurate. He said that the joint task force is using a third-party expert to facilitate the discussions and that third-party is currently doing all the legal due diligence. The task force and its third-party facilitator are working on a specific timeline, but he declined to release the details of the timetable.

Others very close to the situation who asked to remain anonymous characterized the third party as an association merger expert. Several people interviewed in relation to this story spoke only on the condition that they would not be quoted.

Each painted a similar picture, and that is that the joint task force discussions about a potential merger are being driven by some of the larger companies in the industry that are maximum dues payers and regular event sponsors for both organizations. And all agreed that this is not idle chatter, and discussions have progressed to a further point than at any time in the past.

“The ship has left the dock,” said one person with inside information about the situation.

Several board members for one or the other association declined to comment on the talks citing the confidentiality agreement that is a standard part of their board participation.

It is no secret that a significant percentage of both the PMA and United Fresh budgets are derived from their annual trade shows. From time to time over the years, a merger of the two organizations has been discussed, with financial considerations typically the driver behind the discussions. However, previous talks have apparently not progressed as far as this effort.

Mr. O’Brien said that all members of the joint task force, as well as the staffs of PMA and United, are focused entirely on what is best for the industry. He said that will continue to be the focus of these discussions.