FFVA convention highlights ways to market smarter

NAPLES, FL -- Members of the Florida produce industry were afforded opportunities to improve their businesses with a combination of educational and networking events during the 63rd annual convention of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association held Sept. 17-19 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, here. The theme of the convention was "Market Smart."

The convention featured a golf tournament and fishing excusion on Sept. 18, along with an opening reception that evening. A full slate of events followed Sept. 19, kicked off by the traditional Cracker Breakfast at which keynote speaker Joe Calloway, a popular business author who has a 20-year career as a consultant, urged attendees to achieve true differentiation over competitors.

"In today's marketplace, buyers of almost everything see sameness among products, and this certainly holds true for the agricultural market," he said. "Clear differentiation is the only way to keep from being pulled into the downward spiral of a price war."

Three educational sessions followed the breakfast, including one that set out to understand the produce consumer, an outlook on the upcoming farm bill and an update on immigration reform in Florida.

In the session "Understanding the Produce Consumer: Building a New Brand for Fruits and Vegetables," Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, outlined specifics of the new "More Matters" brand campaign that will replace the "5 A Day" program when it officially launches in March.

Dr. Pivonka said that when the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans were announced earlier this year, fruits and vegetables were the only food groups to increase in the number of recommended servings. She said the new "More Matters" brand takes some of the confusion away from consumers who were unsure whether they should be eating five servings a day or 13 a day as recommended under the new guidelines.

In developing the new brand, Dr. Pivonka said that research identified mothers age 25 to 41 as the target group due to the various traits they exhibited, most notably their strong sense of duty in being responsible for the health and well being of their families.

Also, she said that since these mothers are more technologically savvy, they can be reached relatively inexpensively via the Internet.

Additionally, research revealed that the "More Matters" brand is more inspirational and emotional than the "5 A Day" program, which is more in line with this target group.

The foundation has enlisted the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Association and the American Heart Association as public partners in the campaign. It is currently looking for partnerships from within the produce industry and, in fact, had licensing agreements on hand at FFVA. Dr. Pivonka said that it had already begun meeting one-on-one with retailers to enlist retail partnerships. Plans are to extend and boost its collaboration with the Culinary Institute of America.

The official launch of the new "More Matters" brand in March will be supported by a national announcement with considerable media attention, a consumer sweepstakes and a new web site. The consumer magazines Baby, Child and Parents have committed to support the launch.

Dr. Pivonka said that the new "More Matters" brand is expected to be in place for the next 15 years.

Also during the session was an announcement that the world's largest retailer will seek to boost produce consumption within its own ranks. Beginning Oct. 1, all associates of Wal-Mart and Sam's Club will receive a 10 percent discount on produce purchases, according to Tom Holbert, Wal-Mart's regional produce buyer for Alabama and Florida, who said that the chain feels it is "more important to support the fruit and vegetable industry than to put the money toward its bottom line."

A second session, "Building a Stronger Produce Industry: The New Farm Bill," explored the status of a national industry coalition the is seeking to build congressional support for federal agriculture policies.

Thomas Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers Association in Irvine, CA, and Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, related how the two organizations got together to work on the common goal of carving out a bigger piece of the agriculture appropriations in the upcoming farm bill.

Mr. Nassif, who said that he "cut his teeth in agriculture as an agriculture labor lawyer in the Imperial Valley [of California] during the Chavez years," held a positive outlook as Congress gets set to address the farm bill for 2007. He cited the passage of the Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act as an example of using hard work as a means to pass seemingly difficult legislation. "We were told we'd never get it passed, but we did," he said.

Mr. Stuart was equally upbeat, saying that Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns acknowledged the disparity of funding between program crops and specialty crops. He said that according to Mr. Johanns, "five program crops receive 93 percent of subsidy payments, but specialty crops of equal value receive virtually nothing." He said that Mr. Johanns also acknowledged that specialty crop producers are "not looking for a handout but money for research and to boost consumption."

The final educational session addressed immigration reform and the need to have a viable immigrant workforce to keep the state's agriculture industry from failing. Highlighting the session was the account of John Stickles of Florida Pacific Farms in Dover, FL, who related his experiences of getting workers to harvest the company's strawberry crop under the H2A program.

During its Sept. 19 luncheon, FFVA gave out several awards, including its merchandiser of the year award to Wal-Mart, which was accepted on behalf of the chain by Mr. Holbert. Florida State Sen. Jeff Atwater (R-West Palm Beach) and Rep. Dean Cannon (R-Winter Park) received awards for Legislator of the Year. Timothy Gottwald, head of plant pathology for USDA's Agriculture Research Service horticulture lab in Fort Pierce, received the Researcher of the Year Award. Hugh English, who spent 35 years as corporate vice president of the citrus division for A. Duda & Sons, received FFVA's Distinguished Service Award.

A silent auction was held during the three-day event, and a live auction was held at the closing Sock Hop-themed dinner, with proceeds from both fundraisers benefiting the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Research & Education Foundation Migrant Scholarship Program.

McLaughlin joins Driscoll's executive management team

Watsonville, CA-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. hired Brian McLaughlin to its executive management team as senior vice president and chief financial officer.

In this role, Mr. McLaughlin will be responsible for leadership of the finance, accounting and information services groups, enhancing financial and data systems, standards and reporting, according to J. Miles Reiter, chairman and chief executive officer. Mr. McLaughlin comes to Driscoll from Fresh Express, where he held the position of executive vice president and chief financial officer for the last 10 years.

"Brian has a wealth of experience and an extensive knowledge of the produce industry," said Mr. Reiter. "As part of our executive management team, he will be a key leader in the establishment of our strategic direction, providing the expertise and tools necessary to plan for and support our company's growth."

"Throughout the years, I have often heard about the talented people and the dynamic culture at Driscoll's," said Mr. McLaughlin. "I am excited to become a part of this company and to help to effectively serve our customers and growers as they grow their berry business."

Mr. McLaughlin holds a bachelor of arts degree in business finance from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and he worked in banking for over 20 years prior to joining Fresh Express. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Carmel, CA.

Industry reels from spinach recall

SALINAS, CA -- As the ripple effect of the nationwide fresh spinach recall continues, some longtime industry veterans are calling it the worst such episode they have ever witnessed.

Joe Pezzini of Castroville, CA-based Ocean Mist Farms and chair of Salinas- based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said that the focus should be on the woman who died and those who got sick from tainted spinach.

As of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's Sept. 20 update, 146 cases of illness due to E. coli O157:H7 infection had been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, including 23 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, 76 hospitalizations and the one death. Twenty-three confirmed states are affected: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, and there is also a confirmed positive sample in a half-consumed bag of "Dole" brand baby conventionally grown spinach found in New Mexico. Samantha Cabaluna, spokesperson for Natural Selection Foods, said that the tainted greens came from one of the farmers that supplies spinach to Natural Selection Foods.

"Bagged and bunched spinach harvesting has stopped," Mr. Pezzini told The Produce News Sept. 19, adding that there are fields ready for harvesting but that there is no market.

On Sept. 15, San Juan Bautista, CA-based Natural Selection Foods LLC announced a voluntary recall of all its products containing spinach in all brands it packs with "best if used by dates" of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1. Though Ocean Mist is not on the Natural Selection Foods brand list, Mr. Pezzini said that the focus for the entire spinach industry is to "cooperate with the FDA and state and local officials."

While not putting a dollar figure on Ocean Mist's overall spinach crop, Mr. Pezzini said it costs "$3,500 to $4,000 per acre to grow spinach," and noted that it is "an important commodity to us." He added that it is too soon to know if consumers will pull back on buying lettuce and other green leafy vegetables.

"Certainly consumer confidence has been shattered," Mr. Pezzini said. "I think FDA's [priority] is to protect the health and safety of consumers."

Mr. Pezzini said that the magnitude and impact of this E. coli episode is "unprecedented" in his professional experience.

"The whole industry has been affected," Mr. Pezzini said, adding that there is high anxiety waiting for facts and results from the FDA's investigation.

In the early days of this latest E. coli episode, Salinas-based River Ranch Fresh Foods LLC had to step up to clarify its role after appearing on the Natural Selection Foods brand list. River Ranch had purchased raw spring mix from Natural Selection Foods, which River Ranch then washed and bagged. The spring mix may have contained as much as 8-10 percent baby spinach, but the spinach River Ranch grows was never in question, said Bob Jenkins, River Ranch's chief executive officer.

As a result, on Sept. 17, River Ranch issued a recall of its brands "Fresh N' Easy Spring Mix" and "Hy-Vee Spring Mix," which contained baby spinach produced by Natural Selection Foods that was distributed to retailers in Texas, Iowa and New Mexico. Product was packed in five-ounce bags and five-ounce plastic trays. A third brand -- "Farmers Market" -- was on Natural Selection Foods original recall list.

In 2005, the overall farm gate value of spinach was $188 million in Monterey County. Spinach is harvested year-round in the county, and the per-month farm gate value of spinach is about $20 million in Monterey County for the prime months that spinach is harvested, which, in the general Salinas area, is from May to November.

Mr. Jenkins told The Produce News Sept. 18 that to date, the cost of the spinach recall was in the millions of dollars for spinach processors, shippers and growers. The cost is especially significant in terms of what it will take for the industry to get consumer confidence back, he said.

Mr. Jenkins said that River Ranch has had a great relationship with Natural Selection Foods and that this episode has not shaken his confidence in that firm.

"Our hope is the problem is identified quickly and definitively" through the FDA investigation, Mr. Jenkins said.

Two other companies -- Monterey, CA-based Pro*Act LLC and Salinas-based Coastline -- were inaccurately posted to the Natural Selection Foods brand list. Pro*Act was later removed from the list as was Coastline. In the instance of Coastline, the FDA officially notified the company around noon Pacific Standard Time on Sept. 19 that its name had been removed. Coastline had complained of its inclusion on the list, noting that the last product packed by Natural Selection Foods for Coastline occurred on June 12, well before the Aug. 17 start date the FDA has been using for the spinach recall. Currently, Natural Selection Foods is not packing any commodities for Coastline. Phil Adrian, Coastline's vice president of sales and marketing, said that Coastline, which primarily is a grower and shipper of Iceberg and Romaine lettuce, has a number of arrangements through which companies will co- pack for it.

Mr. Adrian said that his company had not heard much from consumers during this spinach episode and that consumers "are way less educated" than they were in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Regarding the unknown long-term effects on the industry resulting from the spinach recall, Mr. Adrian said, "Unfortunately, these things take a long time to dry out."

King City, CA-based Metz Fresh LLC specializes in spinach and is vertically integrated in every step of its operation. So while there is to no link between Natural Selection Foods and Metz Fresh, like all the firms involved in spinach, Metz Fresh is taking a big hit.

"Every day that goes by, we're losing money," Andy Cumming, a partner in Metz Fresh, told The Produce News Sept. 18. He said that the company's financial loss already was in the "multiple tens of thousands."

Mr. Cumming said that from an industry standpoint, "trade associations need to take the lead, as they have been."

Metz Fresh had just started rolling out its "Spinny Chips" spinach chips product in Northern California the week of Sept. 11. The chips, which are blanched, frozen, baked and fried, are in no way part of the recall. Mr. Cumming said that on Friday, Sept. 15, the day following the FDA's initial public warning, Metz Fresh received "well over 200 calls from consumers."

Salinas, CA-based D'Arrigo Bros. Co. of California also was incorrectly associated with the recall because the name "D'Arrigo Brothers" appeared on the FDA's web site at least through Sept. 19 as included on the Natural Selection Foods brand list. John D'Arrigo, president and CEO of D'Arrigo Bros. Co. of California, told The Produce News Sept. 19 that the reference should have been clarified to denote sister company D'Arrigo Bros. Co. of New York, which buys mesclun mix from Natural Selection Foods.

D'Arrigo Bros. Co. of California does not have spinach products. The confusion was "an unfortunate set of events for us," Mr. D'Arrigo said. Mr. D'Arrigo said that the situation affects "all growers of all crops," but added that the recall appeared to increase demand on his company's conventional crops, such as lettuce.

"Prior to this [outbreak] happening, we were all on a path to make sure we're all at our highest state-of-the-art in sanitation," Mr. D'Arrigo said.

In August, prior to this latest episode, federal and state officials launched a wide-ranging evaluation of lettuce farming and processing in the Salinas Valley.

Julie Zawisza, a spokesperson for FDA, told The Produce News Sept. 19 that the FDA had not announced the location of some nine farm fields they were investigating that day.

Some of FDA's investigation is thought to be focused on fields in Hollister, CA, in San Benito County, next door to Natural Selection Foods' headquarters in San Juan Bautista. The FDA also was believed to be investigating fields in the Salinas Valley of which Hollister is not a part.

David Acheson of FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, said that federal and state investigators have narrowed their hunt to three California counties: Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara.

Last year, about 16,000 acres of spinach were grown in the Salinas Valley, where there have been eight E. coli outbreaks since 1995 related to leafy vegetables.

Curtis Weeks, general manager of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, said that because farmers in Monterey County use well water to irrigate their fields, it is extremely unlikely that irrigation water in the county -- one main area of speculation - -could be the source for any E. coli problems.

Mr. Weeks said that recycled water, which is used on about 12,000 acres of farmland in the northern Salinas Valley, is treated as much as drinking water and that it is "at or above all requirements."

John Gregg, district manager for the San Benito County Water District, said that the San Juan Valley -- which includes San Juan Bautista and Hollister -- imports water from California's Central Valley that comes to the district via the San Luis Reservoir.

Past data at which he has looked show that E. coli concentrations are quite low and that there is no fecal coliform found in the water, Mr. Gregg said. "If there was a problem with the San Felipe water [Central Valley], this problem would have shown up a long time ago," Mr. Gregg said.

On several occasions in the past, he has worked with state inspectors. They "have reviewed the water quality and there have been no issues," Mr. Gregg said.

San Benito County Water District does not use recycled water, Mr. Gregg said, but added that calls for the stoppage of using recycled water for farm irrigation is the wrong approach.

"To single out direct re-use from indirect re-use is an error," Mr. Gregg said. He conceded that water coming from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is subject to waste-water runoff, is high in coliform and "probably has a lot of fecal coliform." But for irrigation purposes, use of that water can stretch as far south as Bakersfield, he said.

James Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said that in his tenure with the association, this spinach episode is the worst for overall impact. "Whether [FDA] find[s] a smoking gun may not matter," Mr. Bogart said. "This could be real bad. If it widens and goes on for a long period of time, it could be devastating."

Mr. Bogart added, "Food safety can never be compromised."

Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Eric Lauritzen said that the expansive spinach recall could lead to more governmental money being allocated toward research into E. coli outbreaks and related issues, which would be a good thing.

"The industry has been working on food safety for the last decade," Mr. Lauritzen said.

The Produce Marketing Association, in collaboration with Western Growers Association, the Alliance for Food & Farming and the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, was slated to co-host a Town Hall meeting after The Produce News' press time in Salinas from 10 a.m. to noon on Thursday, Sept. 21, at the Richard W. Nutter Agricultural Conference Center.

The purpose of the meeting was slated to be to provide an update on the outbreak investigation, discuss association activities to date and learn from the industry its concerns and questions to begin to chart its path for recovery and the steps that will need to be taken to rebuild the industry and the public's confidence and trust.

In addition to the trade associations, Nega Beru, director of the office of plant and dairy foods for FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition will participate in the Town Hall. PMA also was attempting to secure representatives from the California Department of Health Services either in person or by telephone to field questions from meeting attendees.

Simplified Procurement principal forms Custom Produce Sales

SALINAS, CA -- Salinas native David Gattis, who launched Simplified Procurement here in July 2004 in conjunction with The Chuck Olsen Co. of Visalia, CA, moved on and started a Salinas division of Custom Produce Sales on Sept. 1.

Custom Produce Sales, based in Parlier, CA, functions similarly to Simplified Procurement in offering procurement and consolidation services to the foodservice sector, but offers a wider variety of commodities, Mr. Gattis said. Custom Produce Sales offers overall efficiencies in consolidation, quality assurance, procurement and logistics to the foodservice sector.

The company offers seasonal programs in California in Salinas, Parlier and Los Angeles, and in Arizona in Yuma and Nogales, Mr. Gattis said.

The Salinas division of Custom Produce Sales offers all commodities from the Salinas Valley as well as the products from the Central Valley and Washington state apples, potatoes, onions, avocados, dry vegetables and all specialty items at its "one-stop" facilities, according to Mr. Gattis.

Mr. Gattis' sales staff with Simplified Procurement -- salesman Mike Chasen and sales assistant Carrie Stevens -- has joined him at the Salinas division of Custom Produce Sales. In addition, Custom Produce Sales has added Tony Bozzo Jr. to its sales staff. Mr. Bozzo most recently worked in sales for Salinas-based Church Bros. LLC.

The Salinas division of Custom Produce Sales will manage the Salinas and Yuma facilities. It will load at Uni-Kool in Salinas and at Red River Cooling in Yuma.

Simplified Procurement -- still a division of The Chuck Olsen Co. -- continues to load at Uni-Kool in Salinas.

Beckman to lose job as California Tomato Commission downsizes

FRESNO, CA -- The decision of the California Tomato Commission to downsize and eliminate all activities except its research program that focuses on seed varieties and pest management will mean the loss of jobs for several members of the staff, including the organization's president, Ed Beckman.

Mr. Beckman has been with the commission for 18 years.

A press release from the commission on Wednesday, Sept. 20, stated that the commissions board of directors had voted the previous day to downsize the organization effective immediately, eliminating the marketing and government affairs programs.

According to the press release, "there will be job eliminations at CTC, though no announcements have been made at this time."

Several members of the commissions board of directors contacted by The Produce News declined to comment on the matter beyond what was in the official press release, two of them stating that they were under a gag order from the California Department of Food & Agriculture. Mr. Beckmans office told The Produce News that he was not available for comments.

However, in the Sept. 22 issue of the Fresno Bee, Mr. Beckman was quoted as saying that he, along with three others on the staff, would be terminated by Nov. 30. According to the Bee, Beckman said its likely that John Le Boeuf, contracted as research coordinator, will remain in that role.

Just last year, the commission membership approved the organizations continuation in a referendum, with more than 85 percent of the industry supporting continuation.