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White asparagus gaining in popularity

A delicacy in Europe, white asparagus is gaining in popularity in the United States, and at least two companies are particularly reaping the benefits.

Pompano Beach, FL-based Southern Specialties Inc. is enjoying strong growth in its year-round white asparagus program, said Charlie Eagle, the company's vice president of business development.

Mr. Eagle said that Easter typically is a good promotional holiday for white asparagus. Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day also serve as good holidays for the item.

"We like it as a holiday item -- it's out of the ordinary," Mr. Eagle said. Peru is the leader for year-round asparagus, Mr. Eagle said. "They have excellent, consistent quality," he said. The winter season and coming into spring are the high-volume months, he said.

Southern Specialties is working to get the message out to retail customers and consumers. "Many people aren't aware of how it tastes," Mr. Eagle said. White asparagus "is more popular at foodservice, more with upscale restaurants," he said, adding that Southern Specialties is "seeing growth [in white asparagus] in the large metropolitan areas and areas of fine dining." White asparagus may be perceived as a luxury item but "costs are closer to green asparagus," Mr. Eagle said.

The item is particularly popular in the Northeast and on the West Coast, Mr. Eagle said. Southern Specialties "Southern Select" brand white asparagus includes preparation information and recipes on the wrapper.

Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co. also offers white asparagus on a year-round basis. Gourmet Trading sells the item "predominantly to specialty retailers," said Julia Richardson, the company's merchandising manager. The item is experiencing "a lot of growth in the Northeast," Ms. Richardson said. But white asparagus is more delicate to ship and handle than green asparagus, she said.

Gourmet Trading's white asparagus is showing growth in foodservice, Ms. Richardson said. White asparagus typically is milder in flavor and softer in texture than green asparagus. White asparagus is popular served with fish and scallops, she said.

Gourmet Trading has new packaging for white asparagus, offering it in a one- pound modified atmosphere bag. "[The bag] protects the taste and texture and it lasts longer on the shelf," Ms. Richardson said.

Gourmet Trading provides recipe cards for retailers with fun facts about white asparagus. Both Gourmet Trading and Southern Specialties provide details about white asparagus on their respective web sites.

"We see it popping up at more high-end restaurants," Ms. Richardson said. "It has a mystique."

Gourmet Trading has a tray pack of white asparagus tips in a test market, Ms. Richardson said.

Superior product, sound environmental practices ring strongly for Peri & Sons

CHICAGO -- Representatives from Peri & Sons Farms Inc., based in Yerington, NV, took advantage of floor space at the 2007 United Fresh Produce Association's Fresh Marketplace trade show, here, to tell visitors about exciting new developments at the company.

Peri & Sons began its operations in 1979, and today the family-owned company grows premium white, yellow, red and sweet onions at its 1,800- acre operation.

Talking about the trade show, Director of Marketing Tim Cummings said, "Our primary focus at Peri & Sons is promoting our sweet onion. We are here to talk to retail partners about [the trademarked] 'Sweetie Sweet.' "

Mr. Cummings said that the onion is a growing success, and redesigned packages featuring "Sweetie Sweet" will hit the marketplace soon. The upgraded packages also integrate new sweet onion recipes, which will provide consumers with interesting dishes to try at home.

"We're basically updating the entire Peri & Sons image," he said.

"We want to educate consumers about the differences between onions," Mr. Cummings told The Produce News.

He said that newly designed point-of-sale material is being made available at the retail level to educate shoppers and help retailers with product sales. Both conventional and organic onions are grown and marketed by Peri & Sons, and the company places strong emphasis on earth-friendly farming practices for its growing operations.

"We focus on environmentally safe production methods," Mr. Cummings stated. As a result, product has received Nutri-Clean certification, meaning that onions are certified 100 percent pesticide-free. Additionally, the company is GAP and GMP certified.

For the third year in a row, the company has earned a "Superior" food safety rating awarded by auditor Scientific Certification Systems. Mr. Cummings said that public awareness about food-safety issues continues to grow, and the company's policy of going green during the past 20 years means that Peri & Sons is ahead of the curve.

This year, Mr. Cummings said that the company is working to create a 12- month onion program. To keep farming and production standards high, Mr. Cummings said that Peri & Sons will source all its onions domestically, rather than rely on imports.

"This gives us control," Mr. Cummings said. "We want everything grown to be pure and clean."

Currently, all production acreage is located in Nevada, but Mr. Cummings said that Peri & Sons would expand its operations in other states in the near future.

Peri & Sons is also increasing the amount of organic acreage it intends to plant in the coming years. There are currently several hundred acres are under organic production.

In addition to its emphasis on premium product produced with environmentally responsible practices, Peri & Sons has just upgraded its partnership with CHEP to implement an electronic data interchange system to make its pallet-reporting program more efficient. The system is designed to help save labor and reduce cycle times.

Peri & Sons is now shipping its product on CHEP pallets to supermarkets and foodservice distributors throughout the United States. The pallets are designed to help reduce product damage during distribution.

"Peri & Sons is the latest major grower to see significant financial and customer service benefits from the CHEP program," said Tim Smith of CHEP USA.

IN THE TRENCHES: Customers decide industry winners and losers

Is your customer focus faltering? Has it lost steam lately? Then you had better pay attention.

Have you ever had a day when suddenly the company apple cart tilts and totally collapses? That is called a crisis, and that is when we all run over to the cart, stare at it, then have a meeting to discuss how to fix it.

There is only one problem: After the meeting, everyone begins concentrating on apple carts and only apple carts.

Whenever a new directive is launched from management that demands immediate action on a specific topic, we tend to drop whatever else we are doing to spend countless hours, days and months working diligently on that one specific item. That task then becomes our sole priority and everything else is put on hold, including customers.

The moment a crisis occurs in a company or the industry, objectives are changed to just fit that particular issue. Everyone prioritizes his or her work activities to that single event.

The food-safety issues of the past several months have placed a great strain on the produce industry by forcing it to spend time fixing the problems. Meanwhile, the time-consuming efforts caused somewhat of a perilous slide with a major sales partner: the customer.

By all means, food safety and security are extremely important issues that must have maximum attention during these challenging times. Most companies and industry-level organizations have done a marvelous job addressing the subject. The United Fresh Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers Association and other groups have devoted considerable time and effort to satisfy food safety and food security needs.

The food-safety issue is just one priority task that companies place on their staffs. How about subjects like shrink, inventory levels and productivity? If the subject is a sanitation program, everyone centers his or her priority on cleanliness. If it is about a new sign program, the attention is on getting it in place. If it is about a company restructuring, the focus is on engineering it.

Often times when specific programs are the main objective, people become so wrapped up in the program that they lose sight of sales and customers. Eventually, the outcome can be devastating to a company's bottom line.

Sometimes putting the emphasis on a specific program can affect other areas. Take for instance a shrink program. Let's say a company president sends out a directive to reduce produce shrink by 2 percent. Immediately, a company draws up a plan that includes a laundry list of 101 ways to lower shrink. Everybody from the warehouse inspector to the front-end cashier concentrates on nothing but shrink. All employees eat, drink, sleep, walk and talk shrink. Shrink now becomes the new customer.

So, what would a shrink program be without controlling inventory? After all, decreasing back-room inventory assets will eliminate some shrink. If a company does not have the product around, it won't shrink. It's that simple. If all you do is stress keeping inventory stock down, what do you think will happen next? You got it: out-of-stocks. And you cannot sell what you do not have on hand.

While the shrink number may have been lowered, sales have suffered as a result. Before you know it, the enthusiasm and incentive to build big, dramatic displays turns into a conservative two-layer produce department. And anyone can tell you that shopping from flat displays does not excite customers.

Should we not spend time on food safety and security? We should indeed. Is it wrong to have a shrink program and target a savings? Certainly not.

The fact of the matter is that companies should not put aside customers and only observe a crisis or management demand program. All have to be balanced and performed simultaneously keeping sales and the customer in mind.

This point should apply to all levels of the produce industry, not just retail. From farms to suppliers, customer focus should never be lacking or slipping. Today's customers are different. The practice of doing business with them has dramatically changed. They want to be recognized and want solid intelligent answers to their questions without wasting time. Your job is to meet their needs.

Extensive company changes are in the works today. In many cases, new management from mergers or acquisitions is being forced to make modifications within their company structure. Along with these modifications comes the usual downsizing, which translates to employee multitasking. This too could place a threat on customer focus.

Another factor that could lure a company away from its customers is concentrating profusely on the competition. Watching, copying and trying to keep pace with the competition while shifting focus away from the customer will always put a firm at risk.

In order for a company to grow in today's fast-paced business world, it must work on its key objectives without losing a grip on customers.

Now, get out in the trenches. Talk to the customers and watch them buy your product. But get there before your competition does.

(Ron Pelger is the owner of RONPROCON, a consulting firm for the produce industry. He can be reached by phone at 775/853-7056, by e-mail at ron@power-produce.com, or check his web site at www.power-produce.com.)

Pet food recall spurs Senate to pass major food safety changes

WASHINGTON -- Daily headlines on the widening pet food recall pushed the U.S. Senate to pass a prescription drug safety bill May 9 that would give the Food & Drug Administration new, far-reaching authority over food safety.

By a vote of 94-0, the Senate approved an amendment that would establish an early warning and notification system for human and pet foods, establish fines for companies that don't promptly report contaminated products, improve inspections and monitoring of imports, and set pet food safety standards.

"We're concerned about it," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, based here. It shows how frustrated Congress is with FDA's food safety record, he added. "Status quo is not acceptable and they want action."

At issue is the bill's new adulterated food registry, which would require FDA to collect information on cases of potentially dangerous food adulteration or suspected adulteration on all FDA-regulated foods.

Importers and U.S. food companies would have to submit information on reported cases to FDA, and then the agency would maintain that information on an easy-to-access centralized database.

The registry may pose a problem to all food companies because "anyone could call in and claim they got sick from any product," said Mr. Guenther, who added that the system is not based in science.

"With the passage of this amendment, we will make our nation's food safety system stronger on several fronts," Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), who has been advocating for a single federal food safety agency for years, said in a statement.

One component of the amendment, which was also offered by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Mike Enzi (R-WY), is aimed directly at the produce industry.

It would require FDA to help states write safety programs for fresh and processed produce. FDA should help states establish state food-safety programs, "especially with respect to the regulation of retail commercial food establishments," and establish requirements that ensure processed produce is not unsafe for human consumption, said the Senate-passed amendment.

It is unclear whether the bill would encourage FDA to help facilitate 50 different state food-safety programs, which is strongly opposed by the produce industry.

"We'll be working on that closely as well," said Mr. Guenther. "We're hoping to improve the bill."

The prescription drug bill passed the Senate on May 9 and has yet to reach the House floor.

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) also included language in the bill that would allow FDA to shut down imports from foreign companies if an exporter delays access or does not cooperate with FDA inspectors. The lawmaker offered the amendment when it was disclosed that FDA inspectors were forced to wait two weeks before the Chinese government would grant them access in the pet food scandal.

"If an exporter does not want to let the FDA inspect its firm -- on FDA's schedule -- that exporter can't ship to this country. It is that simple," Sen. Kohl said on the Senate floor. "For the vast majority of firms and countries, this is not a problem. But for those times it is needed, it will be an important tool."

Earlier this year, Sen. Kohl held a congressional hearing in Wisconsin on produce-related outbreaks, calling for additional research and rapid response teams to prevent future incidents.

While food safety continues to dominate the news, the agriculture industry is trying to remind Congress of the dire conditions for labor-starved produce growers. More than 130 agricultural business leaders were scheduled to descend on Capitol Hill May 16 to lobby on immigration reform as Senate leaders have vowed to bring comprehensive immigration reform to the Senate floor this month.

United Fresh, U.S. Apple Association and other groups are working with the National Council of Agricultural Employers and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform to pass AgJOBS or the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits & Security Act.

The White House is in daily negotiations with Senate Republicans and Democrats to hammer out a comprehensive immigration reform bill, said NCAE Executive Vice President Sharon Hughes.

"We've already hammered out a bipartisan bill with AgJOBS," she said.

The U.S. House is expected to bring up the issue this summer, but if nothing gets passed by the end of July agriculture groups plan to push for the stand- alone AgJOBS bill to help prevent a further labor crisis, said Ms. Hughes.

Eagle has landed -- again -- clouding future of new Philly market

PHILADELPHIA -- The story begs a pun related to the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League.

But the saga of the future of a new fresh fruit and vegetable market for Philadelphia is so incongruous and unpredictable that it is time to move beyond puns.

"The eagle has returned to the property," a dead-serious Jimmy Storey told The Produce News May 9 shortly after he met with the board of the Philadelphia Fresh Food Terminal Corp. Mr. Storey, who is president of the board, owns Quaker City Produce on the Philadelphia Regional Produce Center.

The property in question is the old Philadelphia Naval Yard alongside the Delaware River. The navy yard is being converted from its former use as a major U.S. naval base to an industrial park. Part of the property there, surrounding a weed-infested airstrip, is to be the site for the new, state-of- the-art Philadelphia produce center.

The market's landing around that airstrip hasn't been easy. It became rougher in March when a pair of bald eagles was spotted nesting high in a tree at one end of the property. The protected national birds threatened the future of the new location. But market operators breathed a collective sigh of relief in recent days with word that the eagles had departed.

Then Mr. Storey and Sonny DiCrecchio, general manager of the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market, broke word to their board that one of the eagles had returned.

Mr. DiCrecchio said that federal authorities will decide by June 29 if bald eagles will be delisted as an endangered species. If they are taken off the list, it will be much less complicated to build a new produce market on the property.

"The state is negotiating with the feds and the wildlife people" now on what will happen to build the market, said Mr. DiCrecchio. "A lot of assumptions are being made now on if the eagles are delisted."

A six-week wait until word on bald eagles' classification isn't all bad. "We have the opportunity in the next month-and-a-half to rework the numbers" for building a new market," Mr. DiCrecchio said.

Mr. Storey said, "The estimates came in a little over budget but we haven't looked at these numbers yet. We're not sure of the validity of these numbers and we're looking at alternative spots" to build a market, should expensive construction on soft ground at the naval yard be ruled out.

"The estimates are pretty far off," Mr. DiCrecchio added during the conference call with The Produce News. "We think they are broad-stroke numbers" and market officials will be studying those while the authorities analyze the future of bald eagles.

As more solid figures are determined for the latest estimates in building a new market, new sites will be considered, Mr. DiCrecchio confirmed. "We will ride the eagle thing out. The eaglets are gone," Mr. DiCrecchio said. A hovering helicopter spotted a broken shell in the nest, which was recently occupied by a red tailed hawk. In a piece of good news for Philadelphia's produce operators, red tailed hawks are not endangered.

Until about May 8, there had been no eagles on the site for three weeks, Mr. DiCrecchio said. Eagles have been known to leave a nest for five years, then return. The strictest interpretations of eagle defense could name this as cause not to build a market near even an empty eagle's nest.

Mr. DiCrecchio said that there were 500 pairs of bald eagles in the United States in 1962. There are 8,000 pairs today.

With a much stronger eagle population, Mr. DiCrecchio hopes one nest "doesn't kill a billion dollars worth" of industry. This would include the cost to the city in losses from the produce market and other prospective business development around the site.

"There will be some solution. We are the trend setters. No one has ever had to deal with a successful nest in an urban area," he said.

Building a barrier of some sort between the market and the nest is a possibility, if, in fact, finances allow the market to be built there at all.