“When was the last time you said ‘wow’ when you saw a fresh produce item?” Michael Muzyk, president of Baldor Specialty Foods in the Bronx, NY, proposed to The Produce News.
“It’s not just about new, unique or special packaging today — it’s as much about customer service. The difference between Baldor today and Baldor 15 years ago is that we now have tentacles that reach around the world. And we have a strong infrastructure and outstanding capacity to handle all categories of fresh produce.”
Treviso radicchio from Italy is a prime example of the items that Baldor now offers its customers. As a Baldor staff member offers a case of the item for viewing — perfectly packaged and lined up like little soldiers — Mr. Muzyk noted, “When have you seen something as beautiful as this in the fresh produce industry?”
“And many other countries of origin are bringing us items that are equally or even more outstanding,” he continued. “Now this is ‘specialty.’”
He said that about seven years ago, companies like Baldor could not import mangosteen into the United States because the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not yet developed a protocol to insure that it did not have an insect or disease issue.
“Today, of course, it’s a hot ticket item,” said Mr. Muzyk. “But my point is that we have not yet skimmed the surface of what is still out there in foreign countries that Americans have yet to be introduced. It is likely that 50 percent or more of the fresh produce displayed at the Fruit Logistica annual trade show in Berlin, Germany, have not yet been imported to the U.S. because protocol has not been established. This is a clear indication that we have hardly dipped our toes into the excitement of what is yet to come.”
He added that it is up to produce professionals to approach the USDA to establish protocol on an item that is not yet permitted into the country, and the process can be long, difficult and expensive.
Baldor is highly proficient at getting imported produce to its customers in amazingly short time. In a hypothetical but normal example, Mr. Muzyk said that an item would arrive in San Francisco this morning, be put on a plane by noon and arrive in New York tonight.
“That product is cleared through the normal import processes and moved into our warehouse in the middle of the night,” he said. “By tomorrow morning it is on a truck and on its way to the customer. We know how to move product, and move it efficiently, expediently and safely. This ability gives us the opportunity to handle many items that other companies cannot.”
But Mr. Muzyk points out that there is another major factor affecting the specialty produce industry today.
“The specialty fruit and vegetable market is strongly connected to locally grown,” he said. “Specialty starts with seasonal.”
He uses wild ramps and fiddlehead ferns as an example, adding, “Even New Jersey tomatoes are a specialty item because they are available only seasonally when nature gives them to us. The trick is to figure out how to handle these products and service customers with what and how they want them.”
Regardless of the item or where it is produced, Baldor Specialty Foods’ primary concern and focus is bringing high-quality, fresh and safe food to its customers. He said that when regulations changed a couple of years ago making it legal to go after importers and distributors rather than producers in the case of a pathogen outbreak, the game changed in the produce industry.
“We’re not willing to take that chance,” said Mr. Muzyk. “And we’re talking about all products, regardless if they are imported or from a local grower. I don’t care where it’s produced, if it doesn’t fit Baldor’s criteria for food safety, it doesn’t come in our door. We’ve even seen product refused entry into the U.S. because the wooden pallet wasn’t treated for bugs. This is a new ballgame, and one that in which you must be highly specialized.”
This is the reason that Baldor made a major step forward to enhance its food-safety initiatives. Last year it installed its own laboratory for food safety. As opposed to catching and releasing goods, the company is testing items in-house before they go into its processing department.
“This lab was a major expense, but one we felt was necessary,” said Mr. Muzyk. “And as with all of our food-safety initiatives, we aim to stay on the cutting edge. This process is in addition to our detector that picks up any potential threats or risks to the product that we handle.”