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Produce industry legend Joe Procacci dies at 90

Joseph G. Procacci, a produce industry legend known for reshaping the U.S. tomato market with Santa Sweets Grape tomatoes and UglyRipe heirloom tomatoes, has died. He was 90.Joe-Procacci

At the early age of 8, Mr. Procacci began pedaling produce in the streets of Camden, NJ, from his father's pushcart. From those humble roots, Mr. Procacci became an industry giant, building a vertically integrated produce powerhouse that develops its own seeds, grows, packs, and distributes produce, and supplies roughly 10 percent of the fresh tomatoes in the United States.

As chief executive officer and chairman of Procacci Bros., Mr. Procacci had a profound impact on shaping the produce industry as we know it today. He was a driving force in pallet standardization, grading standards, food safety, trade agreements, and he is credited with single handedly preserving the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act. As the exclusive distributor of the authentic Santa Sweets Santa F1 variety, Mr. Procacci introduced the national U.S. consumer market to grape tomatoes in the late 90s. In 1999, Mr. Procacci dispelled the myth that it was impossible to produce high-flavor, vine-ripened tomatoes that could be shipped to markets all over the country when, after 20 years of developmental research, he introduced the UglyRipe tomato, an heirloom, beefsteak-style tomato with distinctive ribbed shoulders and meaty flesh.

During his distinguished career, Mr. Procacci served on many executive boards, including as chairman of the United Government Relations Committee, the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, and National Association of Perishable Agriculture Receivers. Most recently, Mr. Procacci was a leading figure in the opening of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, the nation’s largest fully enclosed, fully refrigerated wholesale produce terminal. Mr. Procacci’s impact on the produce industry did not go unnoticed by his peers. The many honors he earned include Eastern Produce Council Man of the Year, NAPAR Receiver of the Year and the United Fresh Lifetime Achievement Award.

Despite being a larger than life presence in the produce industry, Mr. Procacci was a private man: quiet, humble and widely viewed as a consummate gentleman. Whenever praise or accolades were bestowed on Mr. Procacci for his many successes he was unfailingly modest and gracious, always crediting the contributions of others. In early September when he stepped down as CEO of Procacci Holdings LLC, Mr. Procacci stated, “I’ve been blessed with honest, hardworking employees and uncommonly loyal customers. It’s been a great honor to work with and alongside so many great people. I am extremely proud to be passing this honor and privilege on to my son, J.M., and hope that someday, he will be able to do the same with his son.”

“Throughout his life, my dad was a successful and innovative businessman, dedicated to fulfilling his customers’ needs. He was a fearless and relentless leader in our industry. If the produce industry ever opened a hall of fame, my dad would be our Babe Ruth,” said J.M. Procacci. “When I was 10 years old, dad gave in to my requests and started bringing me to work with him when I was off from school. For more than 50 years I’ve had the incredible privilege of working alongside him. Dad lived a remarkable and full life -- one where he was revered in his profession and adored by his family. By the grace of God, dad recently got to meet the Procacci family’s newest member, his first great-grandchild. He’ll be missed by colleagues, friends and loved ones far more than I can properly put into words.”

Mr. Procacci is survived by his wife of 69 years, Teresa, his son, J.M., daughters Loretta and Rita, 10 grandchildren, one great-grandchild, his brothers, Michael and Sam, and his sister, Rose.