Published on: May 3, 2006While MNB has been offering regular previews of next week's Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Show, it should be emphasized that there are four other shows co-locating with FMI in Chicago – the Fancy Food Show, All things Organic, the US Food Export Showcase, and, of course, the United Produce Show, sponsored by the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association.
Full disclosure: MNB Content Guy Kevin Coupe will be speaking twice at the Produce Show – on Saturday, March 6, at 11:15 a.m., and again on Sunday morning at the show's invitation-only Retail Executive Forum.
To get a sense of what's in store for Produce Show attendees, MNB engaged Tom Stenzel, president/CEO of United, in the following exclusive e-interview.
MNB: What’s new on the agenda and the exhibit floor for this year’s Produce Show?
Tom Stenzel: The new Produce Show Hospitality Center, located in the Produce Show expo, will give all attendees a place on the show floor to network, learn, and relax throughout Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. At lunch time, chefs will be demonstrating new produce dishes, and after lunch our Fresh Produce Outlook Roundtable Discussions will address retail, foodservice and consumer issues. At the end of each day, all attendees can enjoy drinks and appetizers during happy hour.
In addition, we offer an outstanding conference program. Keynote speaker Bill Moran, CEO of the 1,150 store chain Save-A-Lot, will kick off the Saturday conference program followed by a full day of workshops and our opening reception at the Art Institute of Chicago. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns is speaking at our Monday morning breakfast session, where we’re also presenting the 2006 Retail Produce Manager Award Winners.
MNB: Clearly the continuing enthusiasm for organics is changing the way stores merchandise and market produce. But what kind of impact is it having on relationship between suppliers and retailers, as well as suppliers and consumers? Does it ratchet up the responsibility for providing information as well as product?
Tom Stenzel: Anytime a retailer stocks a new produce item, whether it is conventional or organic, there is a learning curve on the storage, handling, and promotional aspects of that item. Everyone throughout the distribution chain, including customers, needs to know how to maintain the quality and how to incorporate that item into their daily diets.
MNB: There seems to be an implication in all the discussions of natural and organics that they are better than mainstream products – which would mean that organic produce is simply better that conventional produce. Do you subscribe to that, and how do you deal with this issue?
Tom Stenzel: The United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association supports the entire produce industry; our membership includes both organic and conventional growers, processors, distributors and retailers, and exhibitors of both organic and conventional can be seen at the Produce Show at FMI. Consumers choose fruits or vegetables based on a variety of reasons, including production method. We believe it is irresponsible to the entire industry and damaging to consumer health to cast false aspersions about the healthfulness and safety of any produce. All produce, whether organic or conventional, offers consumers a wonderfully nutritious and healthy food choice.
MNB: An industry analyst told me recently that he thought that as he looked beyond mad cow disease and avian flu, the next big issue in the food industry might well be pesticides on produce imported from overseas, where the growing and sanitation controls are not as strict? Do you think this is a fair assessment, and how should the industry deal with it?
Tom Stenzel: Both imported and domestically-grown produce must adhere to strict U.S. government regulations and standards. Consumers can be confident that all produce sold in this country is being equally regulated.
MNB: But clearly, stuff happens that even regulations and standards cannot control, sometimes because of human error and sometimes because of circumstances that cannot be foreseen. If analysts are already suggesting this could be a problem, it strikes me that it isn’t an enormous leap to the point where 60 Minutes and/or Dateline are doing stories about the possible threat of imported produce. So what does the industry need to do to 1) minimize the possible problems, beyond relying on standards and regulations, and 2) maintain consumer confidence?
Tom Stenzel: There's no question we have to be on top of our game. First, we have to make sure produce grown for export to the United States really does meet all those standards. We're developing industry guidelines that apply to production no matter where it takes place, and education programs to make sure those guidelines are understood. Also, retailers play a major part in making sure they know who they are buying from, and that sound food safety practices are in place from grower through to retail store.
Second, we also have to be able to talk openly and confidently about our food safety practices. A potential TV expose is always just a moment away, but we've learned the best way to approach journalists – and consumers -- is to be open about our practices and show them all we are doing in food safety. Food safety is a process of constant improvement, and we are striving through industry and government research and process operations improvement to deliver the safest possible products.
MNB: What’s the next big produce trend, in your mind?
Tom Stenzel: We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the demand for new, convenient, produce items such as salads, fresh-cut fruits and similar products. The most convenient, freshest, and highest quality items are the most successful. Consumers looking to double their consumption, as recommended in the government’s 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, will also be looking for easy-to-eat produce items.
MNB: With convenience can come trade-offs...or at least, that’s what some would have us believe. Can you offer some perspective on the recent Dateline NBC piece about E.coli in bagged salads, and what industry and government should be doing to combat both the actual issue and the public relations problem?
Tom Stenzel: I don't share the view that convenience requires trade-offs, especially not in safety. In fact, the research that has gone into developing bagged salads and other fresh-cut products has actually helped improve industry safety practices from field to table. A story like this on Dateline is always troubling, but I think consumers realize that these are extraordinarily safe products.
With more than 6 million bags of salad sold every day, any incidence of illness is extremely rare. But, even one illness is too many, so we are working as hard as we can to reduce any risk even further. As for the PR problem, we think the answer is to be open with our customers and show them what we're doing, not get defensive. I can tell you that bringing the Dateline crew to a lettuce ranch in Arizona where they could film our harvesting and talk directly with our Board member who grows that lettuce was one of the best choices we made. Our chief food safety expert Dr. Jim Gorny sat with Dateline for an hour long interview detailing all the scientific ins and outs of this issue. I've always believed that the best PR is doing a good job in the first place, and being open about it.
The United Produce Show is scheduled for May 6-9 in Chicago, Illinois.
- KC's View:
- We have to say that we like Stenzel's attitude toward the media, at least as he expresses it in this interview. Too many times, organizations think that by not talking to the press they can control the flow of information…when, in fact, usually the opposite is true. Sure, there are responsible journalists and irresponsible journalists…and there probably even are a few that we wouldn’t talk to. But we saw the Dateline piece, and we can only imagine how different/bad it would have been if United hadn't cooperated.
By the way, we want to once again remind you about a little MNB get-together that we'll be sponsoring in Chicago this weekend…On Sunday, May 7, we will be hanging out at the bar at one of our favorite Chicago bistros, Bin 36, from 6-7:30 p.m. And if any members of the MNB community would like to stop by, say hello, and chat for a bit…well, the first couple of bottles of wine will be on us.
It’ll be a great opportunity for all of us to put faces and voices with the names and words that appear on MNB plus an excuse to drink good wine. (Not that we need an excuse…)
(Bin 36 is located at 339 N Dearborn on the west side of Marina City, between the river and Kinzie.)
We’ll see you in Chicago.