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Polar Express blasts through Florida, leaves mark in Georgia

Bone-chilling temperatures blasted their way through Florida and Georgia Feb. 19 as frigid Arctic air moved through the eastern United States.

“It was the coldest night of the year,” Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wish Farms, told The Produce News Feb. 23.

Although temperatures plummeted into the 20s, Wishnatzki said, “It didn't affect Florida strawberries. The Florida blueberry crop got through it OK.”

On Feb. 23, Wishnatzki said temperatures had rebounded into the 80s.

While Florida strawberries and blueberries weathered the storm, Wishnatzki said, “Georgia was definitely affected.” He said Georgia blueberry producers are currently evaluating the extent of crop losses associated with the cold front.

Wish Farms, a third generation family-owned-and-operated business in Plant City, FL, is one of the larger strawberry growers and processors in the eastern United States. Additionally, the company is a year-round grower and supplier of blueberries and also markets some seasonal vegetables.

Wishnatzki said Florida strawberry growers were proactive and began irrigating the plants to protect them from the freezing conditions.

“Some growers have floating row covers,” he added.

By the time the front moved through, a number of cities in the East had reported record-setting lows for this time of year.

West Coast port action back to normal after settlement

Though the contract still needs to be ratified, activity at all 29 West Coast ports was at near normal levels Feb. 23 after the two sides reached tentative agreement Feb. 20 on a new five-year contract.

There were still reports of work slowdowns or skeleton crews over the weekend, but by mid-morning Monday observers saw lots of dockworker activity up and down the West Coast.

Still, experts say it will take several months to get completely caught up and eliminate the backlog that piled up over the last several months of decreased activity.

The details of the contract settlement have not yet been released, but it is said to be a five-year contract with the financial elements having been solved prior to the final negotiations, so ratification is expected.

Though there was a news blackout at the end, the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the shipping lines and terminals, noted two weeks ago that proposed changes to the current arbitration procedure was one of the last hurdles to jump.

The International Longshore & Warehouse Union wanted more say in which arbiters were used as the workers have lost many arbitration cases concerning work slowdowns in the last five years. It is unknown as to the final outcome of that bargaining point.

Many agricultural commodities, ranging from soybeans to citrus, were affected by the dispute, which began after the last contract expired July 1. Though the terms of that contract were extended and there was never an official strike, there were many disruptions caused by work slowdowns or the closing of the ports by the terminal operators.

Ag groups, including California Citrus Mutual, said the lost export sales opportunities are impossible to quantify but were in the multi-million dollar arena. All tolled, experts say the dispute cost the U.S. economy more than $7 billion.

While that's a significant number, it pales in comparison to the estimated $2.1 billion that would have been lost each day if the ports would have been closed by a strike or a lockout.

FTC files suit to block Sysco-U.S. Foods merger

The Federal Trade Commission filed an administrative complaint charging that the proposed merger of Sysco and US Foods would violate the antitrust laws by significantly reducing competition nationwide and in 32 local markets for broadline foodservice distribution services.

The FTC alleges that if the merger goes forward as proposed, foodservice customers, including restaurants, hospitals, hotels and schools, would likely face higher prices and diminished service than would be the case but for the merger.

The FTC also authorized staff to seek in federal court a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to prevent the parties from consummating the merger, and to maintain the status quo pending the administrative proceeding.

“This proposed merger would eliminate significant competition in the marketplace and create a dominant national broadline foodservice distributor,” Debbie Feinstein, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, said in a statement. “Consumers across the country, and the businesses that serve them, benefit from the healthy competition between Sysco and U.S. Foods, whether they eat at a restaurant, hotel or a hospital.”

Sysco and US Foods are the largest broadline foodservice distributors in the United States. Broadline distributors offer extensive product lines, including national-brand and private-label food products, and provide frequent and flexible delivery, high levels of customer service, and other value-added services such as order tracking, menu planning, and nutritional information.

According to the FTC complaint, a combined Sysco-U.S. Foods would account for 75 percent of the national market for broadline distribution services. In addition, the parties would also hold high shares in a number of local markets.

The FTC also charges that the proposed sale of 11 U.S. Foods distribution centers to Performance Food Group would neither enable PFG to replace U.S. Foods as a competitor nor counteract the significant competitive harm caused by the merger.

According to the FTC, even with the addition of 11 distribution centers, PFG would not approach the scale or competitiveness of U.S. Foods today, and therefore would not restore the competition eliminated by this merger.

The following state attorneys general have joined the FTC’s complaint for a preliminary injunction to be filed in federal district court: California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

The FTC vote to issue the administrative complaint and to authorize staff to seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in federal court was 3-2, with Commissioners Maureen K. Ohlhausen and Joshua D. Wright voting no. The administrative trial is scheduled to begin on July 21, 2015.

Lipman now featuring ‘taters and maters’

Lipman, one of North America’s larger open field tomato growers, is rounding out its fresh produce programs with one of the most diverse vegetables available: potatoes.  

“Fresh from Florida, Lipman’s red and gold potatoes are available to purchase for a 10-week period from the middle of February through April,” Jessica Kerstein, who handles marketing and business development at Lipman, said in a press release. “Our potatoes are consistently delicious and grown with a great deal of care to ensure quality.”

Potato harvest has begun at Lipman and they will be available in bulk totes, 50-pound boxes and bags. Fresh red and yellow potatoes are often eaten skin-on — unlike their baked ancestors — making them more nutritious.

The company said its potato portfolio is a great item to pair with its ever-expanding tomato programs. Lipman encourages the marriage of the potatoes as the “taters” in its “Taters and Maters” campaign.

Trader Joe’s, Wegmans on top for customer satisfaction

Supermarket customer satisfaction is down, according to a report released by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Rising food prices played a major role — increasing 3.4 percent last year. But there was good news for some retailers: Trader Joe’s and Wegmans were ranked first in customer satisfaction, the first time Publix didn't lead the category. Walmart was ranked lowest in the category.

Earlier this month Wegmans topped another list when it was ranked No. 1 for corporate reputation according to the 16th annual Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study. Publix, which weighed in at the eighth spot, was the second-highest supermarket chain on the list.

According to the report, customer satisfaction with brick-and-mortar retail categories as a whole is down for the first time in four years; only Internet retail is up from a year ago.

“Even with frequent price discounts, it’s difficult for supermarkets to moderate the negative effect of rising food costs, especially when wage growth is weak,” Claes Fornell, ACSI chairman and founder, said in a press release.

Publix tied H-E-B. While customer satisfaction with Publix is still very strong, this is the first year that the chain is not on top among supermarkets. Whole Foods, Target’s grocery division and ALDI all come in next. Other chains above industry average are BI-LO, including Winn-Dixie; Kroger; ShopRite; and Delhaize America (Food Lion, Hannaford).

SuperValu, Safeway and Albertsons follow closely behind. Next are Ahold USA (Stop & Shop, Giant) and Giant Eagle. Walmart’s grocery division dipped to an industry low, trailing in the battle for satisfied customers alongside its discount store general merchandise business.