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SYSCO Corp. has unveiled an innovative program to extend real-time food safety data to the non-"SYSCO" branded produce the company offers. SYSCO's self-imposed requirement, which has always been in place for "SYSCO" and "FreshPoint" branded products, should reassure customers that they are purchasing products only from growers and shippers that have implemented stringent food-safety and traceability processes.

Richard J. Schnieders, chairman and chief executive officer of SYSCO, said in a statement, "The safety of the products we distribute is paramount to SYSCO, our FreshPoint specialty produce company, our operating companies and our customers. Our organization has been recognized in the industry as a leader in developing food-safety programs for products that are manufactured and processed for our corporation and sold under our brands. Our quality assurance team now has developed this program to further protect the safety of all ready-to-eat produce we distribute, whether it is sold under our own brands or any other."

SYSCO's quality assurance team of 180 food professionals has been developing the program for the past year. It will focus on two areas: First, a third-party Good Agricultural Practices audit and harvest crew audit will be extended to include not only "SYSCO" brand suppliers but also every grower of ready-to-eat produce that SYSCO distributes, whether processed or field-packed. This would include lettuce, broccoli, celery, tomatoes, grapes, herbs, green onions, bell peppers and berries. It would not involve orchard fruit, root crops, nuts and produce crops normally cooked prior to consumption such as potatoes, eggplant, asparagus, almonds, apples and yellow onions.

Second, the completed audits will be archived in a database managed by Each supplier and grower will link their purchase and sale in the database, tracing it from the field to SYSCO. Starting in January, the database will provide an approved purchase list for SYSCO, which will be broken down by individual product, indicating that the supplier complies with the requirement.

"We will continue to seek other opportunities to enhance and improve the quality of the food-distribution network for our industry," Mr. Schnieders said in the statement.
Derek Burt has assumed the account responsibilities as Monterey Mushrooms' Dallas sales manager. In this capacity, he will be working with the firm's Madisonville, TX, production facility.

Mr. Burt comes to the Texas branch after a successful period as the sales merchandiser of Monterey Mushrooms' Princeton, IL, farm, where he worked with key accounts such as Hy-Vee, Jewel, Schnucks, Lunds and Byerlys. He was actively involved with the Park City Group and several category management projects.

Mr. Burt's sales territory for Monterey will include Dallas, west Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns did not have good news to share about the prospects of attaching a guest worker reform bill to the 2007 farm bill or when Congress would next find the political fortitude to revisit the issue.

Kicking off the United Fresh Produce Association's annual Washington Public Policy Conference on Sept. 13, Secretary Johanns commented on plans to add AgJOBs to the Senate version of the farm bill as a measure to relieve the worsening labor crisis.

"I think that's very hard to do, just to be very honest with you. It would be especially difficult if it doesn't really address all the problems we have with immigration, and there are many problems with the current immigration system," he said at the conference.

If not this year, Secretary Johanns, who is weighing whether to enter the race for an open Senate seat in Nebraska, predicted that the industry would have to wait beyond 2009 before the issue would be taken up in Congress. Even then, he suggested, the issue might not be a popular choice to advocate during the first year of a new administration.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), a major proponent of AgJOBs, may try to attach a guest worker reform bill to annual appropriation bills, which have yet to be wrapped up by the Senate and sent to President Bush. Even though AgJOBs has passed the Senate before, experts predict it will be a tougher sell now, as critics continue to oppose the "amnesty" provisions and say they prefer comprehensive reform to piecemeal legislation.

Secretary Johanns warned the group to look closely at the fine print on any Senate deal being forged on the farm bill, stressing the importance of mandatory funding for specialty crop programs. The House-passed version of the bill included $1.6 billion in mandatory funding over five years to expand the Fruit & Vegetable Snack Program to all 50 states, increase state specialty crop competitiveness grants, and boost trade assistance, market promotion and disease prevention programs.

"Discretionary funding in Washington these days, I just don't think you'd ever get funded," he said. "So if you start seeing a farm bill headed your way that has dollars and cents attached to it and it's on discretionary funding, I'll just be honest with you, I don't think you're going to see the money."

He added, "I've said before that creating a farm bill is a little bit like running a marathon, and right now we're in the marathon but we have quite a few miles to go."

The timing could not be better for more than 250 United Fresh members from over 30 states who visited congressional offices to say they wanted more from the Senate architects of the farm bill. The yearly visits with congressional staff are a major thrust of the Sept. 12-14 Washington Public Policy Conference, and this year the priorities focused on immigration reform, farm bill renewal, science-based food safety laws and access to fruits and vegetables in federal nutrition programs.

Newly elected United Fresh Chairman Emanuel Lazopoulos of Del Monte Fresh Produce said that he was proud of the more than 20 teams of business leaders who visited congressional offices asking for short-term and long- term solutions to key issues.

"The visits to congressional offices represent some of the most important work the industry does all year," said United Fresh Senior Vice President Robert Guenther. Double the number of WPPC attendees signed up for this year's Advocacy & Grassroots Seminar, the Sept. 12 session that offered tips on better communicating the group's message on Capitol Hill, he said.

Despite the tough outlook for immigration reform, Mr. Guenther said that the group cannot give up and must "continue to beat the drum." On the farm bill, he predicted that the Senate would at least match the House funding level for specialty crops, but it all depends on the bill's financing scheme.

One of the priorities for the industry on Capitol Hill this year was to urge senators to join more than 20 other senators who signed a draft letter penned by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), asking for $3.2 billion for specialty crop programs in the farm bill, double the amount agreed to by the House. The House-passed version represents only half of the total funds needed to meet the industry's critical needs, said the letter to top Senate leaders.

"It deserves its fair share of support," said Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Charles Conner, referring to specialty crops and their role in the farm bill. Speaking at the newly added National Watermelon Association-sponsored session at USDA headquarters, he said that the House-passed farm bill "offered a good amount of support for specialty crops," although smaller than the Bush administration's version.

Concerning watermelons, he said that the USDA has worked to promote market access for watermelons and made progress in battling a crippling watermelon vine disease. Researchers also are having success breeding watermelons to alter the nutrient content and to introduce low-sugar varieties.
WASHINGTON -- Marketing orders are not the way to regulate food safety, according to a staffer for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who is expected to introduce his food-safety bill for the produce industry later this month.

Adela Ramos, a senior staff member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Committee, was one of the congressional aides who spoke on food- safety issues at the Sept. 13 Washington Public Policy Conference sponsored by the United Fresh Produce Association.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Harkin does not want marketing orders to take the place of food safety regulation, she said, but the leafy greens marketing order is a "good model," and the industry should be credited for moving fast on the issue. He does not want each state to have its own regulation for produce safety, she said.

Ms. Ramos spoke just days before Canada announced a recall of Dole's "Hearts Delight" bagged salad due to E. coli O157:H7 contamination. Sen. Harkin issued a press statement in response to the recall.

"Not only is this a concern for domestic producers and consumers, but now we're seeing American produce recalls have international implications," Sen. Harkin said Sept. 18. "It is long past time for Congress to act, and later this week, I intend to introduce legislation to restore confidence in American produce and the agency that regulates it."

The bill is not "a blanket regulation for all commodities," but it emphasizes a "risk-based, commodity-specific approach," Ms. Ramos said at the United Fresh meeting. Sen. Harkin's bill would make Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices mandatory, which would take time to go through rulemaking, she said. The bill also would include a strong research component with added funding for food-safety research.

United Fresh's David Gombas, who moderated the session, said that United members should tell Congress during their Capitol Hill visits about the food- safety initiatives the industry has begun. Dr. Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology, told them to talk about the role of science and flexibility in crafting federal food-safety standards and the importance of federal funding for food-safety research.

"United Fresh deserves credit on two fronts," said Brian Ronholm, an aide to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). "You were out front first calling for federal standards on food safety. That message was well received," he said. Second, the group played a key role in the compromise language agreed to in the House on country-of-origin labeling.

On produce safety regulation, he said that Rep. DeLauro is "not interested in throwing a big blanket over all the commodities." She is taking a strong look at the draft produce bill, he said.

"There's a lot of momentum on food safety driven by recalls," said David Lazarus, legislative assistant to Sen. Richard Durbin. His boss is advocating sharp funding increases for the FDA's food-safety regulators and new legislation to provide better federal oversight of imported foods.

Retailers have indicated that consumer confidence in imported products is at a low point, Mr. Lazarus said. The latest string of recalls is an indication that there are gaps in the food-safety system, he added.
NAPLES, FL -- What is the Food Network's newest star? Florida tomatoes. Samantha Winters, director of education and promotion for the Florida Tomato Committee, took the wraps off its newest marketing campaign during her presentation at the committee's organizational meeting, part of the 32nd Joint Tomato Conference held here at the Ritz-Carlton Naples.

The new campaign, which will run exclusively on the Food Network, will feature three or four, 15-second commercials. One is newly designed and will tout the promotion, and the remaining two or three will be existing commercials that have been utilized by the committee the past two years on The Food Network and several other cable stations. The campaign was designed in collaboration over the past several months with San Francisco- based ad agency SenaReider.

Ms. Winters said that the new commercial will urge consumers to visit their grocers to purchase Florida tomatoes and to get a coupon that they can then redeem at one of over 1,000 Borders, Waldenbooks or Borders Express stores nationwide for 25 percent off the best selling cookbook, Food Network Favorites: Recipes from our All-Star Chefs.

"We are really thrilled -- this is exciting, impressive and is completely unprecedented," Ms. Winters told The Produce News. "We are creating an implied endorsement by the Food Network and its celebrity chefs. Leveraging the chefs' popularity will benefit Florida tomatoes, and focusing our media dollars on The Food Network will give us broader exposure. We want to increase retail traffic and build on our consumers' awareness of the health benefits and the great taste of fresh Florida tomatoes. Our main goal here is that we have a strategy that will generate retailer excitement. It is a win-win- win for us."

Ms. Winters said that the committee's past retail programs were "always more spring-oriented," but for this year it will debut the program Dec. 17 and run it through May 9.

"The cookbook is a really relevant gift idea, especially during the holiday season" when the campaign will kick off, noted Lou Sena, president of SenaReider. "The real value to the consumer is that ... what it is going to cost them to buy tomatoes, they will get back on the purchase of the cookbook."

Ms. Winters added that along with the 192 television spots that will be seen by the network's 53 million viewers, this will be a "fully integrated campaign" for retailers with point-of-sale materials including large and small posters, a coupon sign, coupons with a recipe printed on the back and sell sheets. Some 3.7 million coupons and 15,000 point-of-sale kits will be printed for the promotion, Mr. Sena added.

"We have retained merchandising groups to improve in-store, point-of-sale execution," Ms. Winters said, noting that there will be merchandisers heading to stores this October in the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest.

"We are not going with a generic message, but a relevant, value-added offer that benefits the entire department and the entire store because as consumers execute the recipes, the retailer gets a bigger basket ring," Mr. Sena told The Produce News. "This also helps with retailers giving them 'new' news as there is weight behind what they are promoting. It's a nice fit and is more than tomatoes, because when consumers buy multiple ingredients, it helps out our retail partners."

At the conference, attendees were also addressed by George Hochmuth of the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences, who presented a research report, funded in part by the FTC, on the four priorities that IFAS is currently working on: food safety and handling, methyl bromide alternatives, tomato breeding and whitefly disease management.

Mr. Hochmuth said that it is currently working on how salmonella gets into plants and causes problems, and has found that the bacteria colonize tomato plants' roots and are then transported through its vascular system. "The infection of the tomato is an active process," he said, noting that salmonella doesn't just end up in plants, it has to attack plants to get into their cells.

IFAS is currently studying how the organism attacks in order to control its development, with methods that include using biofilms made out of simple ingredients such as spices. Using spices might help speed up or avoid altogether the regulatory process that would normally be required to get such treatments approved for widespread use.

Mr. Hochmuth said that there was "not one silver bullet" to replace the methyl bromide that the Florida tomato industry relies so heavily on, but that a mixture of different approaches would be necessary.

A new variety of tomato developed at IFAS, Florida 8153, was released last fall. Originally named "Flora-Lee," the name was recently changed to "Tasty- Lee" and would be available this fall for the 2008 crop, he said.

"It is a premium-quality, high-lycopene variety for branding to compete in supermarkets," he said.

Before adjourning the meeting, Reggie Brown, executive director of the committee, noted that its research committee is spending nearly $253,000 to fund eight research projects, with the remaining portion of its research reserves "being reserved for a study on waste stream management at packinghouses dealing with wastewater and flow management in an environmentally sound way" to be determined at a later date.

The committee's officers for the 2007-08 season are Chairman James Grainger, Vice Chairman Jay Taylor, Secretary Kern Carpenter and Treasurer Mike Sullivan.