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GMO claims, market access debated at United Fresh Washington Conference

WASHINGTON — GMO-free claims on packages of stone fruit may cause confusion in the marketplace but if companies want to use that marketing technique they can, Cathleen Enright, executive vice president of Biotechnology Industry Association, told attendees in a standing-room only session Sept. 9 at the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Conference, here.

Enright joined Randal Giroux, vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory affairs at Cargill Inc., to discuss GMO issues at the popular session, "The GMO Debate and Impact on Fruits and Vegetables."

Apples that contain a non-browning trait and potatoes engineered to result in lower acrylamide levels are two products coming to market, while a high-antioxidant purple tomato is years away, Enright said.

Despite the benefits of genetic engineering and its long history of safety, "food is easy pickings for the opposition," Enright told the group. Hundreds of advocacy groups have hooked their agenda on opposing GMOs by targeting processed foods and "Big Ag."

Giroux said sourcing GM ingredients means companies must be aware of consumer preferences that lead all the way to international markets.

"We need to find a balance between market innovation and market access," he said.

Companies moving towards GMOs should start a dialogue early throughout the supply chain, "so at the end of the day there are no surprises," he advised.

When the panel was asked the appropriate response to a stone fruit packer who opted to use the GMO-free claim, Enright said as an advocate for biotechnology she would not oppose companies that choose to market their products as GMO-free. But it should not be tied to food safety, she stressed.

When asked whether it caused confusion in the marketplace since other stone fruits are not genetically modified, she confirmed that it does, and this is one reason why the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on a guidance for GMO claims.

Another question touched on fear among consumers about GMOs. Enright dismissed safety concerns, saying scores of livestock have consumed GMO feed for years.

"There haven't been as much as a sniffle associated with GM foods," she said.

But the final decision lies with the company. "My advice is to find out what your customers want," Enright said.

Market Fresh Produce acquires century-old Harlin Fruit Co.

Market Fresh Produce, based in Nixa, MO, has completed its asset acquisition of Harlin Fruit Co., a 100-year-old produce business based in Monett, MO.

Market Fresh is in the process of renovating and upgrading the facility to serve as a repacking center that will enable the company to be regionally right in servicing Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Reworking, ripening, cross-docking and redistribution services will also be offered.MFP MonettMarket Fresh Produce is in the process of renovating and upgrading its new facility, recently acquired Harlin Fruit Co., to serve as a repacking center.

Market Fresh officials plan to see rapid growth by increasing Market Fresh brand recognition across the Midwest.

Tyler Phipps, newly appointed general manager of the Monett facility, has very high expectations of how it will positively affect the Market Fresh organization.

With this new acquisition, Market Fresh will continue its path toward vertical integration and further its field-to-fork strategy.

"This is a very exciting time for our company," Steve Phipps, Market Fresh owner and chief executive officer, said in a press release. "Having a local facility will provide further research and development opportunities as Market Fresh continues to be one of the most innovative brands in the produce industry."

Jerry Sutton, former owner of Harlin Fruit Co., said the building will be a tremendous asset for Market Fresh and he is thrilled the facility is remaining in the produce industry.

"I'm sure Steve will make it go — and make it bigger and better." Sutton said in the press release.

Market Fresh offers full-line procurement and category management in tomatoes, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, peppers, avocados and kiwifruit. Through its national network of distribution centers, state-of-the-art vendor-managed inventory program, along with a proven track record of customer service, Market Fresh continues to help its customers eliminate supply-side problems and grow in-store categories.

C&S looking to acquire Associated Wholesalers, White Rose

C&S Wholesale Grocers has entered into an agreement in which it will acquire substantially all of Associated Wholesalers Inc.'s assets, including its White Rose distribution business. Under terms of the agreement, C&S will serve as the "stalking horse bidder" in a court-supervised auction process. Accordingly, the agreement is subject to higher and otherwise better offers, among other conditions.

To facilitate the transaction process and provide for an orderly sale, AWI and its subsidiaries, including White Rose, filed voluntary petitions for reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

AWI and White Rose are expected to continue operating in the normal course during the sale process.

"We believe that the asset purchase agreement with C&S is in the best interest of AWI and its stakeholders," Joyce Fasula and Mike Rothwell, chairman and vice-chairman of the AWI board of directors, respectively, said in a press release. "After conducting a thorough process, which included the exploration of a range of alternatives and reaching out to multiple interested parties, we determined the best course of action for AWI was to enter this agreement with C&S and to undertake the court-supervised sale process."

"As we move through this transaction process, we will continue to focus on serving our customers," Matt Saunders, president and chief executive officer of AWI, said in the release. "We also intend to work closely with our suppliers and the winning bidder to help ensure that our customers continue to receive the level of service they expect."

"The addition of AWI and White Rose would expand C&S's footprint and enhance our significant capabilities in servicing independent grocers," Rick Cohen, chairman and CEO of C&S, said in the release. "AWI and White Rose have a terrific customer base, and their distribution capabilities are a natural complement to our existing portfolio. We believe we are strongly positioned to provide all of their customers with the goods and services they need to successfully run and even grow their businesses."

In conjunction with the proposed transaction, AWI has received a commitment for "debtor in possession" financing to support its continued operations during the pendency of the sale process. C&S has also made a commitment to participate in the "debtor in possession" financing package. AWI has filed a number of customary motions seeking court authorization to continue to support its business operations during the transaction process, including the continued payment of employee wages, salaries and health benefits without interruption. AWI has also asked for authority to continue existing customer programs and intends to pay suppliers in full under normal terms for goods and services provided after the filing date of Sept. 9.

The proposed transaction is subject to, among other things, higher and otherwise better offers to purchase any or substantially all of AWI's assets, court approval, antitrust approval, any other such approvals as may be required by law, and other customary conditions. Given these conditions, there can be no assurance that the proposed transaction will be consummated.

Organics Unlimited teaming with Four Seasons on East Coast distribution of GROW bananas

Organics Unlimited, a San Diego-based distributor of organic tropical fruit from Mexico and South America, is teaming with Four Seasons Produce to distribute its GROW organic bananas on the East Coast.

Four Seasons Produce, a full-service produce wholesaler based in Ephrata, PA, will receive and ripen the bananas and distribute to markets in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

"We want to be involved in supporting the communities in our banana-growing regions," Four Seasons General Manager Jason Hollinger said in a press release. "Our company is a major supporter of Fair Trade, but we realize that there are different ways to support the workers and their families. We've added GROW to give our customers another option for buying good, quality organic bananas that also have a way to give back to others."

Started in 2005, the GROW program has now provided over $1 million of support for programs in Mexico and Ecuador that promote education, dental, vision care and safe water.

"We're excited with the growth we've seen in the program and to have the GROW organic bananas available in the East," Mayra Velazquez de Leon, president of Organics Unlimited, said in the press release. "In the past few years, we've seen a major increase in interest from our customers, which has allowed us to expand funding to additional programs and promising young people."

From 2012 to 2013, GROW support increased by almost 150 percent. This year, GROW has raised over $200,000 in funds to help continue efforts in social responsibility. All funds come from the purchase of GROW bananas in the United States. Each box of fruit has a surcharge of 60 cents that goes directly to the fund. Proceeds from the funds go to Children International in Ecuador and Project Amigo in Mexico to help build opportunities for workers, their families and communities.

GROW retailers also benefit from the merchandising support available through the Organics Unlimited website. While materials are available year round, the celebration of GROW Month in September provides a special consumer focus that expands shoppers awareness of the added benefits of buying the GROW label. Of interest to consumers this year will be an increased selection of personalized stories about the impact that GROW has made on their lives.

Chiquita to reconsider previously rejected Brazilian buyout

The merger agreement Chiquita Brands International Inc. had announced with Dublin, Ireland-based Fyffes plc is once again at risk. Fyffes has granted Chiquita a waiver permitting it to engage in discussions with the Cutrale Group and the Safra Group, a pair of Brazilian companies that submitted an Aug. 11 buyout proposal.  

At the time, Chiquita said the offer was not in the best interest of its shareholders and reaffirmed its recommendation that they vote to approve the Chiquita-Fyffes merger; however, Chiquita has now sent a letter to Cutrale and Safra indicating its willingness to offer to the pair of companies the opportunity to present its final and best offer.

Chiquita also announced that the special meeting of shareholders to vote on the proposed merger with Fyffes has been postponed to Oct. 3. The meeting had been scheduled for Sept. 17.

"Chiquita does not expect to update the market with any further information unless and until the board has reached a decision on a definitive course of action," the company said in a press release.

In the interim, Chiquita continues to recommend that its shareholders vote for the Fyffes transaction.