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CAFTA clears another hurdle

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Finance Committee has approved the controversial trade agreement that would eliminate tariffs on goods traded with Central American countries, clearing the way for a Senate floor vote in the next few weeks.

Backed by President Bush, the Central American Free Trade Agreement would phase out or eliminate tariffs on products from the United States that are sold in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. While the accord's future is far from wrapped up in the Senate, supporters are expected to face even stiffer opposition in the House. The House Ways & Means Committee was scheduled to consider CAFTA on June 30.

Even among commodity groups, there are varying views on the free-trade agreement's impact on U.S. agriculture.

"CAFTA offers important business opportunities for a number of key fresh produce commodities," said Robert Guenther of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association. "However, we must also recognize that the agreement could adversely affect the domestic and international competitiveness of several other U.S. commodities. We continue to work closely with United members that have a strong interest in CAFTA to ensure a fair and just resolution to the current debate in Congress.

The White House's top advocates' U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns' have been fiercely lobbying lawmakers and trying to reach an agreement with congressmen from sugar-producing states to sway key votes. U.S. sugar producers and processors fear that sharp increases of imports from Latin America could cripple the industry.

Experts predict the vote will be close. The White House submitted formal DR-CAFTA legislation last week, allowing lawmakers only 90 days to act. Under fast-track authority, Congress is limited to a straight up or down vote on the agreement and cannot offer amendments.

California Giant expands foodservice presence

California Giant has launched a national foodservice program for its "Just Strawberries" juice drink. This new initiative is the next step in the product launch based on the strong distribution and increased consumer demand at the retail level for "Just Strawberries.

The company is very pleased to announced that Chicago-based Fresh Connect is now representing "Just Strawberries within the foodservice trade. Led by CEO Andy Siegel, his national sales team will provide a targeted sales presence with headquarters calls to foodservice operators, distributors, school foodservice and other channels within this segment to gain distribution of "Just Strawberries nationwide.

"We are excited to have Andy and his team expanding our distribution into foodservice. He is a well-respected leader within the produce industry and foodservice channel, said Randall Freeman, vice president of sales and marketing for fruit products for California Giant.

" 'Just Strawberries' is going to bring new energy to the juice category within foodservice, said Mr. Siegel. "We are excited to be working with California Giant, a progressive company focused on innovation.

California Giant has identified that two of the four available sizes of "Just Strawberries fit well with the foodservice trade based on current trends in the market. The 64-ounce size is well suited for restaurant usage providing eight servings per bottle, and the handle and re-sealable cap provide convenience for servers. The eight-ounce single-serve size lends itself well to school foodservice and walk-up fast-serve counters. The company has also developed several recipes for "Just Strawberries that provide menu versatility and additional usage in the beverage and dessert categories.

California Giant and Fresh Connect are gearing up for the PMA Foodservice Conference, which will be held the end of July, armed with new foodservice-specific messaging, promotional tools, recipes and distributor incentives. "The PMA Foodservice Conference is the perfect venue to launch this new effort, and we are looking forward to several face-to-face meetings with operators and distributors in Monterey next month, Mr. Freeman said.

The team at Cal Giant will feature the juice and the firm's fresh strawberry program at the expo. "With over half of the consumer food dollar now being spent on meals away from home, our fresh strawberry sales within the foodservice segment are even more important, added Anthony Gallino, vice president of sales.

Attendees at the PMA Foodservice Conference will also be able to see the new eight-ounce six-pack containers of "Just Strawberries, which will be available to customers beginning July 1. This new pack size was developed based directly on consumer feedback received this spring. The company is looking forward to this new venture and to further expansion into foodservice in 2005.

Redner's buys quality produce in no-gimmicks retail plan

READING, PA -- Quietly tucked away in the scenic rolling farm country of southeastern Pennsylvania, independent retailer Redner's Warehouse Markets is doing just fine in this era of retail consolidation. Produce buyer Jim Hickey said that the firm was started in 1970 by Earl and Mary Redner. Today one of their sons, Dick, is company president. Another son, Gary, is executive vice president and heads distribution and buying. He buys meat and is the direct buyer of California produce. "I buy everything north, south, east and west of California," mused Mr. Hickey. The Redner family now owns 37 supermarkets and 10 Redner's Quick Shoppes. One supermarket is based in Mr. Redner's hometown of Middletown, NY. The remainder of the supermarkets are in southeastern Pennsylvania.

No gimmicks or games The stores have "a no-frills, no-card concept, Mr. Hickey said. "We don't employ a lot of bistro-type areas. We have everyday low prices. Our customers get regular product at the best possible prices. In produce we never shop value. A native of Norristown, PA, Mr. Hickey started his career with Norristown Wholesale, the one-time produce supplier of Genuardi's, then an independent, locally-owned retail chain which was acquired by Safeway several years ago. Mr. Hickey, who has worked for Redner's for 17 years, credits his early experience for learning the value of quality in the produce business. "If you buy the best, you can cut your labor cost, he noted. "You don't have to waste labor reworking packages or play 'Lazarus' to the goods. Redner's buyers visit the Philadelphia Regional Produce Center on Wednesdays, and the chain's warehouse receives tomatoes from Thomas Colace Co. LLC three days a week. T.M. Kovacevich Inc. ships to the Redner's warehouse almost every day, and Ryeco Inc. delivers product on Saturdays. "We buy from all the firms on the market, Mr. Hickey said. But these listed companies are the major suppliers. Four Seasons in Ephrata, PA, recently became Redner's banana supplier. "Dole is the chain's exclusive banana brand. "The real benefit for us is the proximity of the market, which is about 80 miles from Redner's modern Reading warehouse. Mr. Hickey can place morning orders on the market and receive delivery by 3 p.m. Mr. Hickey credits the market operators for handling "world-caliber goods and for having changed their philosophy. "They used to have a lot more rejected product. That has changed as quality buying has become the emphasis for those merchants. "We have a nice reputation there, Mr. Hickey said of the produce market. "We work well with the market and we pay on a timely basis. We are fair and appreciate all they can do. Redner's does "a great deal of direct produce buying. Quality labels handled by the retailer include Nunes, Grimmway, Giant strawberries, T&A and Sunkist. This summer the only California stone fruit Redner's buys will come through the Ripe 'N Ready program. Pacific Collier Fresh Co. in Immokalee, FL, is a key direct shipper. Frank Donio Inc. in Hammonton, NJ, is a major supplier of New Jersey produce. Mr. Hickey also works with local suppliers such as cabbage grower Kevin Hass. Sterman Masser Inc. in Sacramento, PA, received high praise from Mr. Hickey for work in growing and packing Pennsylvania potatoes and repacking potatoes from all shipping points. Sterman Masser packs a private-label potato for Redner's. He said that local growers are allowed to give store-door delivery to individual Redner's stores as long as they have been pre-approved by headquarters. Mr. Hickey buys "Giumarra brand Chilean grapes through T.M. Kovacevich International. Mr. Hickey is pleased to see the development of summertime clementine imports. Originally, he said, "we all tended to believe that the clementine deal was for a Christmas holiday theme. This year we all learned that clementines sold well into the late deal. They moved surprisingly well. He suggested that California clementine shippers "have some learning to do. He hopes to see small clementine packages available this summer, but the projected bags are not the answer. Maybe they could pack them in a small box or in a tube, like tomatoes, or in a single-layer box. He opined that an eight-count clementine package would give "a decent retail. He said that Redner's "has a lot of flexibility to react to opportunities to promote produce. "If the market drops to $8 for nine-count cantaloupes, we can change the price in an hour's time and have them to the store the next day. Redner's has three tiers of promotions. The company ad runs for one week, Sunday to Saturday, and includes one main produce feature and four sub-features. The second type of promotion is "the hot sheet which is a special price that runs from Monday to Sunday, two weeks later. Hot sheet items come for suppliers who "feed me something good. They can realize a substantial increase in movement. Store produce managers are required to feature hot sheet ad items. The third promotion, Super Low Price, can run for any length of time from a day to a month. Produce managers have the option to feature these items. Through the various promotions, Mr. Hickey said that Redner's "can react right away to market shifts in the produce industry. Generally speaking, the produce managers have no ordering autonomy, and so they must move whatever volume of product is shipped to them. "It is nice to mandate what they can do, Mr. Hickey said. "Working at a distribution center, you have to hope the retailers work with you. We are the supplier and retailer, so we can delegate what needs to be done. Regarding the proposed new Philadelphia terminal market, Mr. Hickey said, "It seems real good for everybody, with a controlled environment. The cold chain will be managed a little better than what they're able to do now. The elements now can affect how goods come out. Even to run from one side of the market to the other when it's seven degrees on a February day has to have some effect. They're on the right track. Mr. Hickey would like to see terminal market operators have more promotional schedules "so we can schedule ads in print. While he praised his shippers, were Mr. Hickey to change one practice, generally it would be to improve communications on supplies and deliveries. The 120,000-square-foot Redner's warehouse includes 40,000 square feet for vegetables and 30,000 square feet for fruit. The rooms are triple-racked. The firm employs 147 people in its warehouse and, overall, 4,000 people full or part time.

SALINAS SCENE: Classic Salads teams up with Jaycees & Friends for cancer fight

Salinas, CA-based Classic Salads LLC teamed up with the Salinas Jaycees & Friends for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, which was held June 17-18.

Classic Salads and Salinas Jaycees & Friends together made a sizable donation to the Salinas Relay for Life. Classic's donation helped with relay costs, such as apparel and booth supplies.

All proceeds from the Salinas Jaycees will be donated to The American Cancer Society's Salinas Relay for Life.

The American Cancer Society Relay for Life is an overnight team event that raises awareness of cancer in the community and raises funds to fight cancer. Throughout Relay for Life, teams of friends, families and co-workers commit to keeping at least one member walking the track.

Classic Salads, established in 2000, is one of the many divisions of Classic Farms, owned and operated by principal Lance Batistich. In the past five years of operation, Classic Salads has shown substantial growth and is an innovator in spring mix and spinach.


Restaurants can aim for Gold Seal approval
In mid-April, the Environmental Health Division of the Monterey County Health Department announced that it was starting a voluntary program to issue certificates that vouch for an eatery's cleanliness.

Food establishments would have to ask to participate in the program if they want to receive the "Gold Seal," and to earn it, restaurants and other businesses that prepare food must have fewer than 10 non-critical violations when inspected.

As of June 15, 95 percent of the eateries on the Monterey Peninsula had received the Gold Seal, said John Ramirez, assistant director of environmental health for the Monterey County Health Department. The other 5 percent either failed to earn the designation or had not yet been inspected for Gold Seal approval. The week of June 15, the health department was in the process of inspecting eateries in Salinas and North County, and was 65-70 percent completed with its task, Mr. Ramirez said.

The health department already has awarded a few thousand Gold Seals since the program launched in April, and no establishment had rejected the offer for Gold Seal approval, Mr. Ramirez said. The health department's goal is to complete the task and add a Gold Seal link to its web site by July 1. Within a few months of the web site's readiness, the health department hopes to post on it the names of all establishments in the county that have earned the Gold Seal, Mr. Ramirez said.

The seal indicates when a restaurant or food retail outlet -- a non-mobile establishment such as a convenience store -- was last inspected, and signals to diners that the business was in compliance with state food-safety rules and exceeded the minimum standards for food safety.

Mr. Ramirez said that eateries can fall short of Gold Seal approval and still be granted a health permit to operate.

In evaluating restaurants, the health department looks for two types of violations: critical and non-critical. Critical violations are those that promote foodborne diseases and include no hot water available, food stored at improper temperatures and cross-contamination, such as meat blood spilling onto other foods. A single one of these violations is enough to close a retail food business.

There is no limit to the number of non-critical violations an establishment can amass. This category encompasses minor infractions that do not affect food safety, such as storing ingredients on the floor instead of six inches above the ground to allow for mopping.

There is no charge for an eatery to participate; the program is paid for by the annual fees restaurants already pay. Restaurants are inspected twice a year, and the program will not increase the number of visits. The Gold Seal plan is fashioned after similar programs in Orange and San Mateo counties. In designing the local version, the Monterey County Health Department collaborated with the Food Safety Advisory Council and the California Restaurant Association in Monterey County.

Karatzis to 'net' customers with new U.S. manufacturing facility

Hoping to capitalize on the "tremendous potential" of the North American produce market, Karatzis Group S.A., a Greek manufacturer of packaging materials marketed under the brand "Hellasnet, with numerous applications in the produce industry, has begun to establish plans to set up a manufacturing facility in the United States.

Karatzis has been in business for over 30 years and is known as a pioneer and industry leader in high-density polyethylene packaging, said Stefanos Stamos, president of Automatic Packaging Technologies LLC in Orlando, FL, the exclusive importer of Karatzis products in North America.

Along with being the largest producer of HDPE knitted nets in the world, Karatzis also makes the most diverse range of HDPE packaging and crop protection products, Mr. Stamos added.

"There is not one other manufacturer that has this product range, Mr. Stamos said. "Most of our competition competes with us on one or two products at most.

Some of the items in Karatzis' product line are pallet netting, tubular netting, knitted bags on rolls, raschel bags and fabric (which are used to make L-Sewn bags for items such as citrus, onions and potatoes), hay bale netting and Christmas tree netting. For crop protection, the company also manufactures bird, early frost protection and shade netting.

Currently, Karatzis' products are sold in almost every state and territory in the United States from Puerto Rico to Hawaii through a nationwide network of distributors, Mr. Stamos said. Major clients using its products include such notable names as Del Monte and Sunkist.

According to Mr. Stamos, the unpredictable nature of the produce industry does not always allow companies to plan ahead for their packaging needs. A U.S.-based facility would give Karatzis the ability to ship the exact quantities that its customers require quickly, thus avoiding the associated delays of having to ship from one of its five European manufacturing plants.

"We are hoping to achieve the ability to supply our customers with just-in-time deliveries, Mr. Stamos said.

Karatzis wants to start small with its new facility and build on its core products of L-Sewn bags and shade, early frost protection, hay bale and Christmas tree netting. The first stage calls for a $10 million investment with plans for additional product lines and development. "The ultimate goal is make every product that is sold in the U.S. at this facility, Mr. Stamos said. Potential locations for the facility -- which Mr. Stamos envisions will be in operation in the latter part of 2006 -- include California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Nevada. Franco Greco, Karatzis' project development manager, is currently researching these locations, and the company will soon determine the final location based on numerous factors including availability of skilled labor, real estate and the various incentives offered by each state.

"We looked at the Far East but determined that North America would be better served by a facility located here, Mr. Stamos said. "Our philosophy is that if we believe in a market, we go to that market and set up there.