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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.

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.

Albert's Organics promotes Zeller

Albert?s Organics announced that Mark Zeller has been promoted to sales manager of Albert?s Denver division. He recently joined the company as a project manager.

A 35-year resident of Denver, Mr. Zeller started his produce career as a clerk in 1976 and held a number of different produce positions, including produce and floral merchandiser and director of produce and floral for King Soopers, a Kroger company.

He then moved to Wild Oats in 2001 as a category manager for produce and floral and then as director of produce and floral merchandising before joining Albert?s.

Task force working to harmonize North American trade

In an increasingly complex produce world, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, based in Ottawa, is leading a highly organized effort to simplify produce trade in North America.

In April 2004, CPMA created the North American Trade Task Force, which met in Ottawa Feb. 24. CPMA President Danny Dempster said that an all-star list of industry leaders is actively engaged in the group.

The chairman of the 21-member task force is John Anderson, president, chairman and CEO of The Oppenheimer Group in Vancouver, BC. Vice chairman of the body is Bruce Peterson, senior vice president of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Bentonville, AR. Others on the board include leaders of the Produce Marketing Association, Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Canadian Horticultural Council, Texas Produce Council, the Fruit & Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corp., Western Growers Association and Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, as well as Domenic Raso, vice president of Loblaw Cos. and several principals of produce suppliers. Mr. Dempster said that the task force is also working in cooperation with the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association.

Mr. Dempster indicated that CPMA formed the task force to seek cross-border industry counsel on issues and to eliminate and reduce trade barriers and irritants. The task force is already meeting with Canadian and U.S. regulatory bodies to create solutions to problems or potential problems. Mexico will increasingly be involved in the effort.

Mr. Dempster said the entire experience has been extremely positive, with all parties and agencies recognizing the advantages of forward thinking and cooperation. He said nationalism or competitive strains have not been negative issues in any way.

Task force member Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for PMA, said that the group is very important for creating maximum industry efficiency in trade within North America. One example of the need for this work, she said, is the increased regulations on biosecurity and international trade are creating new sets of codes and regulatory paperwork. Rather than a single commodity having five or six different codes for various countries or agencies, the group hopes to find just one code number to suit all parties. Ideally, she said, such a number might tie into bar coding to maximize widespread efficiency. Work toward industry and governmental standardization could easily have broader international implications, she added.

According to CPMA, the group is working toward standardization and harmonization or acceptance of equivalency in trade regulation and customs practices. Also at issue is enhancing effective border measures without administratively complex or non-pragmatic and punitive regulatory measures. The task force is encouraging harmonized or equivalent pragmatic food-safety and security systems across the fresh vegetable and fruit supply chain, as well as fair and ethical trade practices.

Mr. Dempster said that individual task force members will be assigned "SWAT Team? duty through the course of this year to attend various agency meetings and such.

Perchlorate a water issue, not an ag issue, says PMA

NEWARK, DE " With the U.S. government and the agriculture industry grappling with the issue of acceptable perchlorate levels in agricultural products, the produce industry is keeping an eye on developments as they pertain to the products produced by the nation?s fruit and vegetable growers.

Recent research indicates that perchlorate, a chemical used primarily in the manufacture of fireworks and military munitions, is present in some water systems of at least 33 states. Samples of bottled water and lettuce were tested for perchlorate residues in research launched in December 2003 and finished last August by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. According to the FDA, the second phase of this survey, which will collect and analyze 120 milk, 55 tomato, 45 carrot, 45 cantaloupe and 35 spinach samples, is underway.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association, here, said that the produce industry may need to deal with perchlorate for years to come because initially it was detected in small traces in lettuce coming from Arizona and New Jersey. She said the highly reputable National Academy of Sciences has determined acceptable residue levels of perchlorate in ground water, and those are above discoveries to date.

In January, the NAS indicated that a level of 24-25 parts per billion of perchlorate in drinking water is acceptable for vulnerable populations. This is an extrapolation of the NAS finding of 0.00007 milligrams per kilogram of body weight for consumer. That amount is more than 20 times the "reference dose? proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a recent draft risk assessment.

The NAS acceptable level recommendation "is a very protective number," which certainly protects the at-risk populations described on the FDA web site, Ms. Means said.

Ms. Means said that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has called for a clean up of the water system to remove perchlorate. Ms. Means acknowledged that perchlorate should perhaps be cleaned from the environment, but she sees that as a separate issue.

?We don?t need to clean up perchlorate because people will not get sick," said the PMA executive. "This is not a food-safety hazard. The key is to understand the science and acceptable levels, and no one panics. This is nothing anyone should worry about. The levels are not high enough to be a concern. We can rely on NAS findings and we need whatever standards are created to be based on that. Clean up would be an environmental [issue], not a food safety issue. This is not agriculture?s issue, it is a water issue."

Ms. Means said that perchlorate is present in natural fertilizer coming from Chile, but if any such fertilizer is used in the United States, it would certainly be of inadequate volumes to produce a presence in water.

Ms. Means indicated that "No one is advising consumers to change their eating habits based on perchlorate. Health experts, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, recommend that consumers eat a balanced diet, choosing a variety of foods rich in high-fiber grains, fruits and vegetables.

?Perchlorate is a water quality issue that must be addressed comprehensively by the U.S. government," she continued. "PMA supports scientific efforts, such as this report, to determine whether this is a public health issue, and if it is, to determine the extent of the problem, appropriate safety levels in food, and appropriate remediation efforts."

Ms. Means noted that perchlorate is a natural and man-made salt formed by adding oxygen molecules to chloride. Widespread perchlorate contamination in the United States was observed after the spring of 1997, when analytical methods were developed that allowed for quantitation down to four parts per billion. Since then, detection of the contaminant in soil, groundwater and drinking water wells has been confirmed in much of the United States, and sometimes the source for the presence of the compound is unknown.