your-news image

United Fresh addresses aftermath of failed merger at WPPC meeting

WASHINGTON -- United Fresh Produce Association Chairman David Krause, president of Paramount Citrus, kicked off the Oct. 2 opening breakfast at the Washington Public Policy Conference by addressing a burning issue: the future of United Fresh after this year's failed merger with the Produce Marketing Association.

"We are not enemies and not at war," said Mr. Krause, referring to the group's relationship with PMA after the two executive boards could not agree on a common vision for a combined trade association. Talks ended in July with groups expressing disappointment a deal could not be reached.

While the two industry trade groups shared views on certain issues, United Fresh's focus on Washington, DC, issues differed from PMA's focus on global expansion, he said. The two boards also couldn't agree on the structure for shaping the new group's future, he said.

Both associations will continue to work together for the best interest of the industry, and United Fresh will continue to be a voice in Washington, DC, Mr. Krause said.

Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh, who said he has fielded many questions about the failed merger, thanked the board for its "serious analysis throughout the process" and pledged to continue working with PMA.

Despite the merger collapse, United Fresh reported a small bump in attendees for the three-day meeting, to 520 attendees this year from 500 during last year's WPPC. Attendance was also up for the annual Political Action Committee event, to 193 PAC boosters from 143 last year. The dinner raised about $80,000 to divvy up among produce-friendly lawmakers who vote on issues such as immigration reform, farm bill reauthorization and nutrition.

With the farm bill the top priority this year, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, the keynote speaker, explained the dilemma of watching 2008 farm bill programs expire since Congress could not reauthorize the massive farm policy before the Sept. 30 deadline.

It's an "unnecessary speed bump" for agriculture, she said.

The second highest official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture recounted the struggle of choosing spending priorities after Congress could only agree on a six-month budget, compounded by the across-the-board $3 billion cut that will automatically be triggered if Congress cannot agree on a budget deficit reduction plan by January 2013.

A shining accomplishment is the new, science-based school nutrition standards that boosts fruit and vegetable servings, she said. When asked about pushback from some critics about the meal changes, Ms. Merrigan said, "People are scared to change," adding that USDA officials have been visiting schools and see great enthusiasm about the changes.

But one change saddened Ms. Merrigan, and that is the retirement of Robert Keeney, deputy administrator, who was scheduled to leave his post Oct. 5. At the Agricultural Marketing Service, he was always persistent in advocating for fruits and vegetables, she said.

Mr. Stenzel recognized Mr. Keeney's 35-year career at USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service and as United Fresh's former vice president of government relations before heading to USDA.

"We've done well together," said Mr. Keeney, adding that his stint at United Fresh is "where I grew up in the produce industry."