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In the Trenches: Use smarter work management to simplify produce tasks

During the 18th century, all farm work was accomplished by hand — cultivating by using a hoe and grain cutting by swinging a sickle. Around 1830, it took approximately 300 working hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. This was achieved by walking and using only hands.

Productivity in earlier years was not exactly meeting labor budgets like we must attain today. In the 1850s, there was never-ending labor in handling barrels and bushels of bulk produce in a grocery store.

By the 1930s and ‘40s, there were numerous small-sized neighborhood grocery stores popping up. They required clerks behind counters who waited on customers by selecting the items for them. Work methods were also not as efficient in those days without the modern equipment and principles we currently use.

Processing and preparing produce items at the store level also took time and labor to accomplish. Many steps had to be taken to trim items such as lettuce, celery, cabbage and other green leafy vegetables. Strawberries had to be sorted, culled, replaced back into pint and quart containers, then covered with cellophane before stocking on displays. In addition, the back room preparation areas had to constantly be cleaned and reorganized. The time, effort and labor costs ate up a large portion of the profits.

How long did it take to stock Iceberg lettuce in a produce department prior to the 1970s? When displays became depleted, a clerk would have to stop whatever he or she was working on and head for the back room or store basement to trim a number of boxes of lettuce and fill up the display. Then the lettuce trimmings had to be swept and packed into the trash. This task took place throughout the entire day — until wrapped lettuce came along.

With wrapped Iceberg lettuce, trimming was done in the field. Then the lettuce was film-wrapped, packed in cartons and pre-cooled. When the stores received a shipment, the produce manager simply opened the cartons and placed the heads on display. This eliminated all the extra time and labor from having to work each step at the store level. Of course, the per box cost was a bit higher, but much less expensive in labor. Besides, the displays were always easily kept stocked.

In today’s fast-paced world with highly challenged budgets, companies look for ways and means to simplify every work function to improve productivity.

Everything is associated with “time” and “performance” in the produce industry.

No matter if it’s in the growing fields, packing facilities, the retail stores, or on the consumer’s kitchen counter, there is a need to eliminate wasted energy.

Each movement we make must have common sense in performing the tasks to generate productive results.

One of the primary objectives of all produce businesses, other than to boost sales and profit, is to improve labor costs and productivity. This means that all equipment, methods, and motion economy must be made effective and efficient.

The computerization age has greatly moved productivity to higher levels, but more can be realized.

The first step in improving labor costs and productivity is in “work simplification.” The biggest challenge we have today is in changing some of the older work habits of people. Don’t be lax in making those changes.

They may have worked up until now, but now is when they must change course to meet new productivity trends.

Next, organize the actual workplace area and keep it neat. Store basic tools, equipment and materials in one workplace location. Eliminate unnecessary time walking back and forth and accomplishing very little.

Make a list of priority and secondary level tasks to be accomplished. Work on two or three of the highest priorities first. After finishing the priority tasks, the secondary list should be much easier. By all means, stop doing multitasking jobs that create timeless effort and confusion.

Many of today’s companies aim at the speed in which tasks get completed. Everything must get done faster than ever. However, mistakes come with too much speed as in “haste makes waste.” It is much better to take a little more time to achieve high-quality results.

How many times have you seen a produce employee hand-carrying a case of product out on the sales floor, resting it on a knee, stocking the display with one hand, then repeating the process over again? It happens in the real world.

There are ways to eliminate labor waste and boost productivity. It may be time for your produce operation to update many of these standards now.

Ron Pelger is the president and CEO of RonProCon, a consulting firm for the produce industry, and a co-founder of FreshXperts LLC, a group of produce professionals. He can be reached by phone at  775/853-7056 or 775/843-2394 (mobile) or by email at

SEPC News: Looking back on a decade of service to SEPC

It is hard to believe that after a decade in the leadership structure of the Southeast Produce Council, I will soon be on the other side of my day-to-day service, starting the next phase as a member of the council’s advisory board, not an active officer. I have been fortunate enough to be the first SEPC member in council history to hold every office on the board of directors.

But in a few days, at the 2014 Fall Conference at Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa in Young Harris, GA, when I turn over the reins of leadership to current SEPC Vice President Mark Daniels, I will join friends and colleagues — past presidents and trailblazers all — like John Shuman, Mark Hilton, Larry Narwold, Rick Estess, Al Finch and Tom Page on the advisory side of the council’s business.

It will take some getting used to. My tenure with the council has literally reshaped my life, professionally and personally. It’s made my business better. It’s helped me gain perspective. More important, it’s provided me with fellowship and friends who will be part of my life forever.

Mostly it’s shown me that no matter how much individuals may be able to accomplish working on their own, a band of brethren with common goals and common interests can multiply those efforts exponentially. Alone, we can each carry a few rocks on our backs. Together, we can move mountains — and we have.

As much as I would like to thank everyone who has been involved in this success, it is simply not possible in this space. The council is truly a team effort, all for one and one for all. I am grateful to everyone who paved the way for me and for the extraordinary success and impact SEPC has had. I have had a relatively easy ride in my two years as president, and the work of those who came before me made that possible. They built a fine-tuned machine that requires only regular maintenance to keep humming like a performance engine. My goal has been to keep it humming, listening to the wisdom and experience of my peers and colleagues, and making a few tweaks that will hopefully make the job even easier for those coming after me.

Taking over the presidency from John Shuman at the 2012 SEPC Fall Conference in Asheville, NC, was both a humbling and challenging experience. After years of preparation, I was now taking on the role of leading the premiere regional produce association in the United States. My first goal was simply not to break it.

But with the team we have in place, the volunteers who serve tirelessly, including our committee chairs and the growing membership and our collective sense of purpose, I now realize I never should have worried.

Over the last two years, our accomplishments have been many and impactful, starting with a membership increase of more than one-third.

We continued to break records for attendance and revenue at the 2013 and 2014 Southern Exposure trade shows. At the same time, despite ever-increasing demand, we have been able to manage growth so as not to dilute value to our members and exhibitors. We currently have more than 80 would-be exhibitors on a waiting list for booth space to Southern Exposure in 2015.

The fall conference has continued to grow. We had record attendance in 2013 in Myrtle Beach, SC, and that record may fall again this month at Brasstown Valley.

Our social media outreach and marketing efforts have increased, including new and significant presence on outlets like Facebook and Twitter.

We have continued to raise the bar for keynote speakers. In the last two years, we have been fortunate to have legends and luminaries from the world of sports like Lou Holtz, Bill Cowher, Bobby Bowden and, at the upcoming fall conference, John Smoltz, share insights into the secrets of success.

We added more schools and more students to our STARS scholarship program, now led by Joe Watson. We also expanded our scholarship program for member families; this year, not a single child of a member seeking scholarship money was turned away. We are beginning our fifth year with our very successful STEP-UPP program, led by Faye Westfall and past President Tom Page.

And while the council has been blessed to have few failures as we have grown and moved forward, we did suffer one tremendous loss recently with the passing of founder and Executive Director Terry Vorhees. Simply put, without Terry, there would have never been a Southeast Produce Council. Without his tremendous vision and ceaseless efforts, the council would not have grown into the powerful force it has become.

There is no way to replace a man like Terry. He left an indelible mark that will guide our organization for years to come. And he will live forever in the hearts of those of us who were privileged enough to call him friend.

But we are also fortunate to be able to close ranks and move forward with another experienced leader, David Sherrod, who trained under Terry — as we all did — as an SEPC officer and who will officially become the council’s executive director at the fall conference. He will be great! As will the Southeast Produce Council.

At times like these, most people say they have mixed emotions about a change in life. I do not. I will miss being a daily part of the council.

I would like to also thank my wife, Jennifer, and our three girls for the love and support they have provided over the years that have helped make all of this possible.

I promise I will not ride quietly into the sunset. The Southeast Produce Council has given me a great deal, and I will always be seeking ways to repay that debt. I look forward to continuing to help SEPC prosper and grow in any way I can and help position our incredible organization to be of service to our industry for many years to come.

Retailers respond to ‘eat brighter!’ with resounding support

More than 40 retailers — representing more than 19,000 stores across the United States and Canada — support the ‘eat brighter!’ movement, and the fresh produce marketing initiative is growing both in support and offerings. Retailers have started to show strong backing for the initiative and the participating suppliers, and are eager to accept the "Sesame Street" branded product into their stores.PMA Sesame Shareables v5

A series of updates has been added to the program and marketing to allow produce industry members to incorporate the Sesame Street character images, royalty-free, into their marketing strategies.

“We're delighted by the response from both the supply- and buy-side of the industry,” Cathy Burns, president of the Produce Marketing Association, said in a press release. “We’ve spoken with each and every one of these companies, and they believe in the movement to help kids eat more fruits and vegetables. They are all industry leaders, and recognize that success is defined through the collaboration and support they lend to one another.”

New updates include the following:

  • Canada joins the United States as an approved region
  • PLU and co-branding guidelines for packaging labels have been added
  • Thematic campaigns have been added to the marketing toolkit, including Autumn, Winter/Holiday and Spring/Grow
  • School foodservice and commodity boards are now approved for participation
  • Spanish and French translations are now available

Companies among the earliest adopters are introducing ‘eat brighter!’ into nearly 50 product lines for retail outlets in the U.S. and Canada. For a full list of suppliers and retailers participating in the movement, visit

“The goal here is grand but simple — to change the conversation around fresh produce and inspire kids to think about fruits and veggies in a completely different way,” Todd Putman, chief marketing officer of Bolthouse Farms and chair of PMA’s marketing taskforce, said in the release. “The U.S. is in a serious health crisis — one-third of all kids are obese and our industry has the answer. The ‘eat brighter!’ movement is exactly what we need to help the entire industry come together, change that conversation, and ultimately create healthier generations for decades to come.”

FDA rolls out four food-safety proposals under the Food Safety Modernization Act

WASHINGTON — Early this morning, the Food & Drug Administration released four rewrites of the Food Safety Modernization Act rules, including some critical water quality and testing changes advocated by the industry to make produce safety regulations more workable.

Stakeholders will have 75 days to dig deep into hundreds of pages of regulations on produce safety, preventive controls for human and animal food, and the new Foreign Supplier Verification Program for importers.

“Based on valuable input from farmers, consumers, the food-industry and academic experts, the FDA is proposing to update these four proposed rules to ensure a more flexible and targeted means to ensure future safety,” said Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.

FDA opted for the 2012 Environmental Protection Agency recreational water quality standard, backed away from the weekly testing requirement and will allow farmers whose agriculture water don’t meet the new microbial standard to establish a sufficient interval of days between last irrigation and harvest for microbes to die off.

The agency completely abandoned its prescribed intervals between application of raw manure and crop harvest, and instead plans a multi-year risk assessment on the practice with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“At first blush, we got some of the things we told FDA was not developed appropriately, and some things we didn’t,” said David Gombas, United Fresh Produce Association’s senior vice president of food safety and technology. He said it will take some time for United Fresh working groups to analyze the hefty rule changes.

Gombas said operations would have to develop two-year baselines and conduct verification testing five times a year. Collecting 20 samples over two years is not as burdensome as the original proposal, he said.

FDA also revised the rule to no longer require farms to register as facilities if they pack or hold raw agricultural commodities grown on another farm under a different ownership.

Although FDA appears to have heard many of the criticisms about the rule, some areas remain troublesome.

FDA expanded which farms are excluded from the rule by proposing that farms or farm mixed-type facilities with an average annual monetary value of produce sales, rather than all food sales, of $25,000 or less are not covered.

“We think that’s the wrong way to go,” Gombas said. United Fresh has found that small operations can comply with the food safety controls.

The agency also did not tackle the exemption for commodities consumed raw, and, as expected, introduced new supplier controls, product testing and environmental monitoring in the proposed changes to the preventive controls for human foods.

Product testing, even as a tool to verify whether preventive controls are working, is going to be burdensome and the science is not yet clear on its value, Gombas noted.

For more information on the new proposals, go to FDA’s web site at:

Current foodservice trends are indicators for future retail mango movement

Jose Rossignoli, category general manager at Robinson Fresh, said future trends for mango movement at retail can be anticipated based upon current trends in the foodservice sector.

“While mangos are a staple item in various cultures across the world, they are still gaining mainstream familiarity within the North American marketplace,” he told The Produce News. “Despite this, Robinson Fresh has seen foodservice professionals continue to utilize mango’s strong flavor and taste profile to add unique flavor to existing menu items or create new ones.RobinsonFreshRobinson Fresh markets both conventional and organic mangos to its retail, wholesale and foodservice customers. Conventional mangos are marketed under the ‘Happy Chameleon’ brand. (Photo courtesy of Robinson Fresh) More often than not, foodservice trends are good indicators of future retail trends. Robinson Fresh can also help U.S. retailers improve comfortability and drive category loyalty by providing customers informational tools that detail how to pick, prepare and use mangos in their daily diets.”

Robinson Fresh is C.H. Robinson Worldwide’s newly rebranded produce division. C.H. Robinson is headquartered in Eden Prairie, MN.

The company collaborates with growers in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala to import quality mangos into North America.

“Pre-harvest and post-harvest, Robinson Fresh offers detailed analytics and planning data, quality assurance guidance, as well as an acute attention to detail of a number of other critical areas in the process to ensure continuous improvement in the quality and consistency of mangos throughout the year,” Rossignoli said. “Robinson Fresh offers mangos in red and Ataulfo varieties, both of which are available in various packaging options including bulk and club packaging.”

Robinson Fresh markets conventional mangos under its “Happy Chameleon” tropical brand, which also includes pineapples and limes. Organic mangos are distributed under the “Tomorrow’s Organics” brand.

The company provides comprehensive business solutions and high-quality mangos to customers across market sectors, including retail, wholesale and foodservice. Robinson Fresh also has the ability to sort and select product based on color, ripeness and firmness to better align items to customers’ preferences.

Rossignoli provided some insights about ways in which retailers can capture consumer purchases.

“Mangos are very much impulse or spur-of-the-moment purchases,” he said. “Creating large and colorful displays of mangos during peak season can help create attention in the produce aisle and increase sales. Mango sales increase in early April and remain high through the Fourth of July. The highest sales of the year occur the week leading into Cinco de Mayo, where there is a sales lift of 54 percent from the week prior and more than 4 percent of annual sales in that week alone. Retailers should take advantage of this promotional opportunity and cross merchandise summer items. For example, mango tie-ins with tomatoes, cucumbers, pineapples, limes and other summer produce items give consumers options to create a seasonal and nutritious meal.”

As for category growth down the road, Rossignoli said, “Snacking is becoming one of the most important eating occasions. Through our consumer panel research, we have found that mangos are consumed most frequently in the evening hours and throughout the afternoon as a snack. In addition, most of the time mangos are eaten on their own or combined with other items. As both a flavorful item and a nutritious snack, mangos may very easily fill a consumer’s desire for a convenient and healthy small meal or snack. In addition, as consumers get more familiar with mangos’ various uses, they will look to their retailer for ideas and information around interesting meals or snacking solutions.”

Robinson Fresh customizes promotions with programs tailored to meet individual customer needs. Marketing programs include in-store events and use of point-of-sale information.

“In addition, Robinson Fresh provides customers with detailed consumer behavior analytics and trends in order to help them sell and better market their products,” Rossignoli said. “For example, shoppers who purchase mangos are likely to have avocados in their basket as well. So offering recipe ideas that incorporate both items at the point of sale can be very effective.”