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Variety of factors combine for successful second annual SPC conference and expo

TAMPA, FL " There were many aspects to the Southeast Produce Council?s second annual Retail & Foodservice Conference and Expo that contributed to the event?s success, including opening and closing parties, educational field tours, a golf tournament, a dynamic keynote address and, of course, a trade show.

On the work side of the ledger, the combination of keynote address, industry speakers and retailer panel discussion was certainly one highlight of the entire event, held here March 10-12.

Keynote speaker Harold Lloyd got things moving Saturday morning, March 12 with an exploration of the topic, "Am I the Leader I Need to Be?? The author, business consultant and professional speaker examined 10 points that he said can make a person a real leader.

Inviting attendees to fill out a form as he discussed each individual point with the audience, Mr. Lloyd said that a leader is unquestionably honest; has vision and passion; excels in communication; develops others and is personally humble; creates, plans and executes; knows the numbers; discontinues things that don?t work; is continuously self-developing; maintains a family focus; and is health conscious.

He suggested to audience members that they rate not only themselves in these categories but also their mentor, and then compare the two.

Two retail experts then addressed the group: Michael Kamphaus, director of produce and floral for Supervalu?s Eastern region; and Stephen Rodrigues, director of produce and floral at Sobey?s Inc.

Mr. Kamphaus said that to get consumers to eat more produce, the industry needed to concentrate on three factors: taste, nutrition and convenience.

On the matter of taste, he cited surveys showing that 23 percent of consumers pointed to taste as the top reason they buy produce, "yet as marketers, we habitually think of price," he told the audience. He also commented on the traditional thinking by many in the industry to rush products to market as early as possible. "Let?s stop trying to be first in the market," he advised. "Let?s be first when the product is right and has the right taste."

Regarding nutrition, Mr. Kamphaus said that consumers are confused in part because "we turn from one food fixation to another," with various industry experts and others telling people first to avoid fats, then sugars, then carbs. "I can?t help wonder if all this confusion is leading many consumers to just give up," he said.

Concerning convenience, he lauded the industry because "there has been progress in this area," but he added that "we could do more," such as replacing some of the candy near the checkout area with fresh produce. This is just one example of how the industry can fight the obesity problem in the United States, he added. "Produce can be part of the solution."

With over 1,000 stores throughout Canada, Mr. Rodrigues of Sobey?s spoke next, giving a Canadian retailer?s point of view. He noted that fresh produce is "right up front? at his company?s stores to set the image of freshness for shoppers as soon as they come in.

He pointed to some demographic shifts in Canada (many of which echo those in the United States) which produce retailers will have to watch carefully. For example, he noted that Canada?s population is growing and growing older, that children are living at home longer, and that the percentage of women in the workforce is increasing.

He summed up his presentation with five points: there is increased recognition of the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables; the level of antioxidants in fresh produce is a real plus; convenience remains a key factor; smaller portion sizes will be more important as time goes on; and fresh fruit as a snack item is a growing trend.

Following a short break, Mr. Lloyd (who now donned a referee?s shirt) moderated a retail panel comprised of Bob Denomme of BI-LO, Rick Steigerwald of Supervalu, Tom Holbert of Wal-Mart and Mr. Rodrigues.

On the question of what is inhibiting growth of produce sales, Mr. Steigerwald suggested more promotion within a specific category, such as apples or citrus. A member of the audience suggested increased use of sampling.

On the question of how suppliers and retailers could communicate more efficiently, Mr. Holbert said that suppliers should "talk to us first about what our needs are? rather than spending thousands of dollars on something and then trying to sell that item.

On the question of what an effective sales call should include, Mr. Holbert said that "a lot of patience? is needed to get a new product approved, and Mr. Steigerwald said that suppliers should "understand our business and our whole market strategy? before "articulating your product or service."

On the question of what the future holds for bulk produce, Mr. Rodrigues said that the category would continue to grow, especially in stores catering to less affluent shoppers who might not be able to afford expensive packaged items. Mr. Holbert noted that some bulk items are already perceived as "value-added," such as a single apple or a small clump of grapes.

On the subject of low-carb diets, Mr. Holbert said that fruit was already starting to rebound. Mr. Steigerwald agreed but cautioned that "we can?t take it for granted that fruit will automatically come back," so more promotions may be necessary.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, golfers headed to the Westchase Golf Club for a round of golf, which saw the foursome from Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable Inc. take first place with a score of 14 under par.

The Buccaneer Bash Farewell Party concluded the event Saturday night.

For those already planning ahead, the Southeast Produce Council?s third annual conference and expo will take place March 2-4, 2006 in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

(Additional coverage of the SPC conference appear in the March 21 issue of The Produce News.)

South African mandarin variety set to fill fall marketing window

Two U.S. produce importers recently received South African approval to market a premiere fresh mandarin variety, Afourer.

The importers, Fisher Capespan USA LLC in Gloucester City, NJ, and Seald Sweet LLC in Vero Beach, FL, were appointed by CitroGold (Pty) Ltd. to handle the variety. CitroGold is a South African citrus variety management company based in Stellenbosch, Western Cape Province, South Africa.

Using the marketing name ClemenGold, Fisher Capespan first marketed the Afourer three seasons ago in limited volumes. Marc Solomon, president of Fisher Capespan, said that Afourer, or ClemenGolds, are a kind of mandarin; clementines and sumas are other mandarin species. The ClemenGold is "a seedless late mandarin with really superior eating quality. It is easy peeling like a clementine."

Seald Sweet Senior Vice President Mayda Sotomayor said of the Afourer, "We are looking at the best way to market this." Seald Sweet will not be selling it as a ClemenGold. Whatever it shall be called, Ms. Sotomayor described the fruit as "a seedling from Morocco. It is a late [in South Africa?s growing season] mandarin that produces in September and October. The size is very good. It traditionally peaks at 24-count in the 2.3-kilogram (five-pound) consumer pack. That is a very good size.

?The clementine market around the world, little by little, has gaps being filled," she added. "One of those gaps is filled by Afourer, which is a late-bearing mandarin. Its characteristics are very special. It is produced in the two months when there are very light offerings of fresh fruit. There are small amounts of citrus produced in that time period. Also, a lot of other offerings, such as peaches and pears, dwindle in production. The weather is changing and kids are going back to school, so it's a high-demand season and there is a gap for promotable products in that time period. Not only that, it is a very strong commodity with high color and high Brix. It is considered not the Mercedes, but the Bentley of mandarins. It is easy to peel and is considered the top of its class for durability, shelf life, color and taste. It is not only the right product at the right time, but a great commodity."

Mr. Solomon said that Fisher Capespan last year was the sole marketer of the ClemenGold. "It is a fantastic variety with incredible eating quality at a great time when demand is really strong."

Mr. Solomon concurred that the ClemenGold is originally a Moroccan variety that was shipped to Canada, but "not to the U.S. to the best of my knowledge." Until the first ClemenGolds were harvested in South Africa three seasons ago, no Southern Hemisphere countries had the variety. This coming season will be Fisher Capespan?s fourth year handling the ClemenGold. "We had a very small [volume] until last year because the [South African] trees are young." Last season, Fisher Capespan handled about 400,000 five-pound cartons. "The year before that we had less than 100,000."

Mr. Solomon said that South Africa will export about 1 million packages of Afourer this fall. He anticipates that about 600,000 cartons of that total will be destined for the United States, "but it's hard to know at this stage. The crop is still many months away. We don?t have a good handle on the crop at this point."

As for sharing the marketing of the variety with Seald Sweet, Mr. Solomon said, "The market is heavily undersupplied, so we don?t see it as a problem that Seald Sweet is marketing their own fruit."

Ms. Sotomayor said that Seald Sweet "will be very involved in introducing this commodity to the market with all the bells and whistles it deserves. It is an elite and unique product for the time, yet it is very mainstream."

She said that surveys of the U.S. population indicate that 46 percent know what a clementine is. Awareness is especially high in the Northeast and California. Seald Sweet is working toward marketing clementines (or mandarins) on a year-round basis. Ms. Sotomayor noted that Chilean clementines will be admissible to the United States for the first time this summer and will be in the market before the Afourer. She said that USDA phytosanitary approval isn?t far away, which will allow Peru to export clementines, giving U.S. retailers a 12-month supply of the popular fruit.

?We?re on the threshold of that now," she said. Ms. Sotomayor predicted that consumer acceptance of the Afourer will be excellent. "We will educate the consumers that it is a seedless easy-peeler and a great, healthy snack."

The South African mandarin will transition the produce industry from summertime clementines to fruit from Spain and California in the fall.

?Last year, California started in the first week of November. Spain usually tries to ship the first week of November, but traditionally it's the second week in November when they have distribution volume."

Ms. Sotomayor emphasized that that the Afourer is grown on very young South African trees that haven?t reached peak productivity. As that productivity increases, "we will better have the ability to fill in the market window gaps for citrus."

The Seald Sweet executive credited Bruce McEvoy for putting together this deal for Seald Sweet. In December, Mr. McEvoy moved from his position as president of Seald Sweet to become director of global affairs for Belgium-based Uni-Veg Group following Uni-Veg?s acquistion of Seald Sweet.

According to the CitroGold web site, a joint venture between Capespan and Citroplant (Pty) Ltd. was initiated in 1999 after both companies realized that there was a market for the management of exclusive citrus cultivars. What started out as a small company soon grew to be a leading citrus cultivar development company known as CitroGold (Pty) Ltd., lending valuable technical, management and promotional expertise to the citrus industry in South Africa. Ms. Sotomayor said that CitroGold extended the Afourer marketing licenses through the Prestige Mandarin Growers organization.

CitroGold is also handling Clemenpons, Primosole, Orri Mandarin (Clemen?or), Nadorcott (ClemenGold), Mor Mandarin (HoneyGold), Eureka seedless lemon, Turkey oranges, Cara Cara Navel and Melogold grapefruit.

Texas onion season gets underway

The first Texas onions hit the market the week of March 14-18, but experts aren?t predicting promotional volume until early April.

Acreage is up a bit this year, but the rainy growing season has reduced the size of the onions themselves, which should offset the increased acreage and result in a crop very similar in volume to 2004. Acreage in the 35 counties covered by the federal marketing order for Texas onions has been listed at 15,433 for 2005 " an increase of about 7 percent from last year?s figure of 14,436 acres.

?It was a wet year, so there was some disease in the early fields," said Don Ed Holmes of The Onion House in Weslaco, TX. "That has affected the sizing, but it shouldn?t hurt the quality."

John Bearden, vice president of Plantation Produce Co. in Mission, TX, agreed. "Size could be a problem this year and that?s going to cut down volume, but that?s not all bad."

A decrease in the size of the onion will reduce marketable volume as it will take more onions to fill a carton or a sack. The onion market has been relatively depressed lately because of heavy worldwide volume. However, Mr. Bearden believes that the lighter Texas crop combined with other positive factors is going to help turn the deal around.

The Texas onion deal is an interesting one, since many of the shippers start the season in January with onions from Mexico. Texas is clearly the favored crossing point for Mexican onions.

John McClung of the Texas Produce Association said that Texas imports somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 million to 275 million pounds of onions every year. As a comparison, the next two largest crossing-point states are Arizona and California, with a combined import total of only around 20 million pounds.

In Texas, onion imports from Mexico make up about one-third of the onions sold from Texas each year. For example, for fiscal 2003 Texas shippers sold about 250 million pounds of Mexican onions and about 570 million pounds of Texas-grown onions.

On one hand, the distinction is very important. On the other hand, the seamless transition between Mexican and Texas onions allows Texas shippers to be the primary onion suppliers for their customers for six or seven months of the year.

Discussing the relative merits of the distinction, Mr. Bearden, whose firm does not sell Mexican onions, said, "We can get a premium for the Texas cartons," he said referring to the top-of-the-line onions that are typically marketed in 40-pound cartons. "For the bags, it doesn?t make a lot of difference."

He said that there are many U.S. retailers who prefer the top-quality Texas onions and are quick to switch as soon as the volume reaches promotable levels.

Mr. Holmes, who markets both Texas and Mexican onions, agreed that buyers are always looking for the new crop of onions, so when the season shifts from Mexico to Texas, there is an added air of excitement. He believes, however, that it is related to the point of origin rather than the quality of onions themselves. "A lot of buyers do like to buy American when they can."

Regarding the seamless transition between the Mexican growing season and the Texas growing season, Mr. McClung said that the practice of Texas shippers selling Mexican product is an important one for the Texas produce industry. Two decades ago, Texas was the third-largest grower-shipper of fruits and vegetables, behind California and Florida. In 2001, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture passed out the specialty block grants and based the amounts awarded on sales, it listed Texas as tied with New York for 10th place as a producer of fruits and vegetables.

?That may be true," said Mr. McClung, "but if you count the fruits and vegetables sold by Texas shippers, I think we are as large as we have ever been, and probably larger. That is a very important fact that people overlook."

In this increasingly global produce economy, Texas shippers still play a top-tier role if one does not quibble about the geographic location of the fields they control. One might wonder if it truly matters which side of the Rio Grande river the crop is grown.

For the most part, Mexican growers are producing similar varieties to U.S. standards for sweetness and pungency, with U.S. dollars. The onions are, in fact, grown for U.S. consumption.

The Onion House executive said that the pungency and the sweetness of the onion have become all important. As the crop shifts to Texas, his company, like many of the onion grower-shippers in the area, will continually test the onions for their pungency. The onions are laboratory tested for pyruvic acid.

?If it has a score of five or greater, they are marketed as "Texas onions." If it is less than five, we sell them as "Texas Sweet Onions."?

The Texas Sweet Onion has a storied history ever since university researchers produced the Texas 1015 almost two decades ago. That open-pollinated variety put Texas on the sweet onion map. Though the "1015? designation is still used, it now includes a modifier, calling it "1015-type? onions.

Mr. Holmes said that there really aren?t any original 1015 onions around anymore, as the industry has actually advanced to far better and sweeter varieties. "You can?t even buy an original 1015 anymore," he quipped.

Mr. McClung said that it was an issue for a few years, as some growers were marketing what they were calling direct descendants of the original 1015. But most growers have switched to 1015-type onions, which means they are sweet onions and typically are planted in the window surrounding Oct. 15, which is how the original "1015? got its name.

Both Messrs. Holmes and Bearden agreed that the "Texas 1015? name still has clout. In fact, with the turnover at retail, there are some buyers ordering, and swearing by, 1015 onions who have probably never actually bought one.

Mr. McClung said that his association has done research showing that Texas may need a new marketing hook. As explained, the 1015 designation actually refers to a specific onion. Mr. Holmes said that many shippers believe Texas might want to go the route of Vidalia and build up the geographic origin as opposed to a specific variety. That allows for equity to be built up in the name even as the varieties change.

Over the years, the Vidalia onion variety has obviously changed, yet consumers can identify with the geographic destination.

Mr. McClung said that his association is working on this effort, but it is at least a year away from fruition.

PMA president urges the industry to focus on consumers

SALINAS, CA " Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, told an audience made up primarily of members of the Salinas Valley produce industry on March 11 that they need to better understand that consumers are driving the marketplace.

What isn?t new, Mr. Silbermann said, is that buyers expect there to be quality. But it's the consumer who defines quality.

?The future won?t be "field to stomach," " Mr. Silbermann said. "It must be "stomach to field." "

With that in mind, growers need to acknowledge the role foodservice plays in the marketplace, Mr. Silbermann said.

?Foodservice shares the throne," Mr. Silbermann said. "Foodservice is a fundamental side of the industry, and we don?t pay enough attention to it."

Aided by the popularity of fresh-cut vegetables and, more recently, fresh-cut fruit, foodservice "is now as big as retail in consumer spending," Mr. Silbermann said. Consumers like the convenience of dining out as well as the decrease in the cost differential between dining out and eating at home, Mr. Silbermann said.

?Restaurants are saying produce is gaining in importance," he said.

The American consumer fixates on a food fad and then abandons it, Mr. Silbermann said, pointing to the low-carb diet trend. "There?s one-third of the number of people on low-carb diets as there was a year ago."

More than two-thirds of the American population is overweight or obese, Mr. Silbermann said. "Health messages can?t be effective alone. We need to marry food being good for you [with] tasting good."

Whereas once there was fragmentation on the buy and sell sides of retail and no large buyers driving the market, today there is consolidation on both the buying and selling sides, Mr. Silbermann said. In the worldwide marketplace, retail is evolving and foodservice is emerging as a strong force. The "new? retail buyer expects greater supply chain efficiency and demands year-round availability of broader product lines, he said.

The foodservice side of the marketplace is growing faster than retail, but is more fragmented with less consolidation, Mr. Silbermann said.

Mr. Silbermann shared other tidbits of consumer survey results. These included:

? Consumers want to be taught on the selection of produce.

? The under-30 crowd wants recipes.

? Consumers believe loose produce is fresher and better but that packaged produce is safer.

The luncheon " held at the National Steinbeck Center " featured Mr. Silbermann?s talk followed by a panel discussion, all on the theme of the state of the produce industry.

The event was hosted by PMA, Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and Irvine, CA-based Western Growers Association.

Panelists were Stephen Barnard, president and CEO of Oxnard, CA-based Mission Produce Inc.; David Gill, partner in King City, CA-based Rio Farms; Steve Junqueiro, director of produce and floral at Save Mart Supermarkets; Tim York, president and CEO of Markon Cooperative Inc.; and Bruce Taylor, chairman and CEO of Salinas-based Taylor Farms.

Several panelists bemoaned the transportation difficulties that are affecting their businesses. "This past year we?ve seen more product not arriving than ever before," Mr. Junqueiro said.

Mr. Silbermann related an anecdote of an East Coast buyer who found it cheaper to have oranges transported from Italy than by truck from California. Third-party logistics are where foodservice is growing fastest, he said.

On the transportation issue, Mr. Barnard said, "C.H. Robinson is our No. 1 competitor " not a packer or supplier."

Mr. Gill lamented a lack of promotion by retailers at critical times.

?We hit an oversupply of product, and retailers say they aren?t set up to promote," Mr. Gill said.

Were retail promotions more available, the consumer "could get low-priced product that we disc under," Mr. Gill said.

Mr. Taylor said that while there isn?t pressure on prices on an absolute basis, there are 25 to 30 suppliers for five or six buyers. "Consolidation on the customer side needs a consolidation on the supply side," he said.

Mr. York said that local is the "new organic," and that it is becoming prevalent to find people "partnering with a local farmer."

United?s food safety and security conference to feature industry and government experts

The United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association will offer an expert-led, comprehensive food-safety and security conference as part of the 2005 United Produce Show at FMI, April 30-May 3 in Chicago.

Taking a detailed look at the most important food-safety and security issues affecting the produce industry, the daylong conference will offer expert advice on foodservice and retail expectations; insider analyses of the latest government regulations; and new technologies to boost safety and protect the supply chain.

?Food safety and security have long been top priorities for United, and the livelihood of the produce industry depends on the safety and reliability of our products," said Donna Garren, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for United.

The Food Safety & Security Conference kicks off Saturday, April 30, with Session 1 " Exceeding Customer Expectations, led by an expert panel of produce insiders, including Eva Lauve, production planning and scheduling manager of Stemilt Growers Inc., and representatives of top restaurant and foodservice companies in a discussion of how to exceed foodservice and retail food-safety expectations. Session 2 " Food Security: Are You at Risk? follows with a discussion about the newest tools that industry and regulatory agencies are developing to help companies assess and prevent a potential food-security risk.

Conference attendees then join a panel of industry leaders led by United President Tom Stenzel for United?s annual Produce Outlook Luncheon Session for an insightful look into the issues driving today?s produce industry and the trends likely to shape its future.

Session 3 " Traceability: Tracking the Total Supply Chain will offer expert, timely advice on global traceability systems using new technological safeguards such as RFID. Panelists include Lou Carson, deputy director for FSI, Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition for FDA; Pat Kelly, director of quality assurance for Grimmway Farms; Chuck Orman, director of science/technology for Sunkist Growers; and Tom Casas, vice president of information technology for Tanimura & Antle.

In Session 4 " The Newest Regulatory & Food Safety Initiatives, industry experts including Dr. Garren of United; Trevor Suslow, cooperative extension specialist for UC-Davis; and Drew McDonald, vice president national quality systems for Taylor Farms California Inc. will lead an interactive review of the new FDA Produce Safety Action Plan, current produce industry food-safety initiatives, and the latest details on food-safety guidance and audits.