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    FRESH FOOD: PMA Fresh Summit Overview: Packed house

    The PMA Fresh Summit had record attendance, as well as a cornucopia of product innovation highlighted by great ideas in packaging and convenience.

    Despite a discernable air of uncertainty present in the wake of the nationwide E. coli O157:H7 outbreak tied to produce, there was no mistaking the innovation on the exhibit floor of the Produce Marketing Association's annual Fresh Summit, thanks to a bevy of new products on deck for a new year.

    The timing of this year's Fresh Summit, in the immediate aftermath of the E. coli tragedy, could actually be considered propitious. PMA's chief executive, Bryan Silbermann, called the outbreak, which was blamed for killing three people and sickening more than 200, "a tipping point" for the fresh produce industry. It was still fresh in the minds of many at the San Diego-based show, but didn't appear to dampen participation -- PMA boasted a record-breaking attendance of 18,600-plus.

    Reflecting the industry's resilience as well as its resourcefulness, the trade event highlighted many promising developments in products and programs. Here are a few of the best.

    Taste for adventure

    A strong affinity for Asian culture and its authentic foods spawned the new 7 Paths line, one of the hottest introductions on the show floor.

    Featuring fresh, unique, and simple-to-prepare Asian cuisine, the 7 Paths line is built around a theme of exploration and discovery. The line tells an intriguing story of its founders combing Asia to find inspiration for their fresh-produce-based products, which include stir-fry sauces, stir-fry noodles, complete dinners, and microwave noodle steamers. The line features a vibrant array of vegetables through a partnership with Del Monte Fresh, including pre-cut fresh vegetable blends using baby bok choy and Chinese long beans.

    Stir-fry sauces include Thai Chili Peanut and Mango Ginger flavors that complement the chilled Udon and Thin Stir Fry Noodles. The noodle dinners feature sesame and curry flavors with noodles and fresh vegetables, while the microwave noodle steamers include Spicy Peanut Sauce with fresh vegetables.

    Let there be no light

    MountainKing Potatoes, a well-known grower and producer of premium tubers, unveiled its new Flavor Fresh Bag, an innovative, patent-pending technology that aims to provide a fresher, better-tasting spud by shielding the product from light.

    Light is the ultimate culprit in potato spoilage, in either the grocery store or home kitchen. Exposure can impart an unpleasant, bitter taste and an unappetizing appearance. "If exposed to light and moisture, potatoes can easily ruin," notes Pat Goolsby, MountainKing president. "In fact, our studies show that you can lose up to 15 percent of the potatoes you buy every year, due to this spoilage."

    MountainKing's Flavor Fresh Bag uses a white plastic cover to prevent light exposure, while allowing air to circulate via a mesh window on the reverse side of the bag. The mesh side of the bag also allows the consumer to inspect the product.

    Growing green bean scene

    Expanded growing regions in the United States and Mexico are helping Coastline Produce, a Salinas, Calif.-based fresh vegetable grower/shipper, provide a year-round supply of the popular Blue Lake variety of green beans, and also add new varieties to its lineup, including the flavorful French Filet, a variation of the Blue Lake that's more slender and a bit shorter (four to five inches in length).

    Coastline also recently entered the world of organics, with the premiere of its Nature's Wave Organic line featuring certified-organic Romaine, Green Leaf, and Red Leaf lettuce. It plans future expansion into other commodities.

    Fresh ideas in the bag

    The bad press and sales dips of bagged spinach after the contamination outbreak are apparently not deterring salad mix marketers from trotting out new products. Fresh Express has tossed up a stylish new line of nine fresh salad mixes focusing not only on staples such as iceberg, romaine, baby spinach, and butter, but also new gourmet varieties and mixes.

    Fresh Express' everyday gourmet salad lineup now includes the newest 5-Lettuce Mix and Sweet Butter entries. The company has also come up with a plan to tempt teenagers to eat salad more often, via a collaborative partnership with Do Something, a national nonprofit group that empowers young people to "change our world"; chef Todd English, and MTV VJ Susie Castillo. Part contest, part educational program, the "Teens for Greens Amazing Search for Fresh Salad Recipe Challenge" kicked off in November as a way for kids to concoct and share their coolest salad recipes.

    Winning recipes will be published in a Fresh Express "Teens for Greens" recipe collection on its Web site, as well as in a special edition of Do Something's Build magazine and a range of other print media.

    Three steps to growth

    Fresh-cut category growth in 2007 will come from three primary sources: retailer-specific private label brands, premium packaged blends, and secondary merchandising of convenience items, according to Steve Dickstein, v.p. of marketing for Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac.

    Ready Pac conducted a comprehensive sales analysis of the fresh-cut salad category across the major top grocery chains, and concluded that the optimal product assortment for growth is a combination of two national brands with a store private label brand.

    "Two brands are what consumers consider a choice, plus the store-brand private label allows the retailer to offer a point of difference that their competitors can't provide," says Dickstein. "Our research indicates that sales among retailers who moved to a one-brand strategy have not kept pace with those that are offering a choice."

    He adds that the research also showed consumers are choosing upscale blends and organics more often than garden varieties at lower price points. Retailers who've tapped into custom gourmet blends and organics with a store brand are capitalizing on the growth trend.

    Latin flavor

    In response to the continuing popularity of south-of-the-border flavors among all age groups, Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole Food Co. is adding a new Taco Toss Salad Kit to its bagged salad portfolio.

    Aptly described as a meal in a bag, Dole's Taco Toss Salad Kit features a fresh iceberg and romaine lettuce blend, red cabbage, carrots and radishes, corn tortilla strips, shredded sharp cheddar cheese, and an exclusive Taco Salsa Ranch dressing.

    Dole also showed a recently bowed line of Restaurant Ready Asparagus that eliminates both preparation time and waste. The fresh asparagus is already cut to a tip form; thoroughly washed and packed in a patent-protected, breathable microwave-ready bag; and ready to serve in six to eight minutes. Dole is offering it in 1.5-pound and 2.5-pound bags that extend shelf life by six days.

    Southern-style Glory

    Columbus, Ohio-based Glory Foods, a leader in down-home Southern-style food, is pushing a line of washed, ready-to-cook, fresh-cut bagged vegetables. Varieties include Collard, Kale, Turnip and Mustard Greens, Sweet Potatoes, Yellow Squash, Yellow Squash with Zucchini, Turnip Root, and Rutabaga. Quick and nutritious recipes are included on the bags.

    With traditional Southern-style foods now being enjoyed "nontraditionally," Glory Foods has also launched a new e-community called "Gloryfied" that facilitates interaction among Southern-style food enthusiasts. Already over 700 strong and available at www.SensiblySeasoned.com, the e-community also exchanges feedback with the company about products and recipe ideas.

    Building on berries

    Leveraging its reputation as a berry expert with superior customer service and premier products, Global Berry Farms revealed a new corporate strategy and brand moniker -- Naturipe Farms -- with the goal of creating a consumer brand it can grow into other commodities.

    John Shelford, president of Naturipe Farms, a partnership between Hortifrut SA of Santiago, Chile; MBG Marketing of Grand Junction, Mich.; and Naturipe Berry Growers of Salinas, Calif., says the transition followed considerable research and planning prior to its launch at PMA. "Berries are wildly popular, but we can't just simply enjoy that popularity. We owe it to our customers and growers to look ahead," says Shelford.

    In addition to bowing the new brand and strategy, the company also debuted two products under the Naturipe Gold Label: a premium line of berries, and a new line of cherries.

    Certified nuts

    After being test-marketed since June to great acclaim in Denver, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh, a new brand of premium pistachios offering the remarkable guarantee that they're always open is poised for a national rollout in January.

    Cleverly named Everybody's Nuts! the four-flavor line of pistachios is everything a nut lover could ever want, says Kelly Fallquist, senior marketing manager for the company of the same name (sans the exclamation mark), a subsidiary of Lost Hills, Calif.-based Paramount Farms. To be certified Everybody's Nuts, the pistachios must be both big and open.

    If a customer finds a closed nut, they are encouraged to send it back with a proof of purchase, and the company will send a free box.

    Keeping it fresh

    It's simple enough for a parent to slice an apple or pear for a child's lunchbox. The real issue is keeping the slices fresh until lunchtime. Enter NatureSeal, a vitamin/mineral blend jointly developed and patented by Westport, Conn.-based MantroseHaeuser Co., Inc. and the USDA, which keeps cut fruit and vegetables from browning, while simultaneously maintaining the fresh taste and texture of the produce.

    NatureSeal has been used by leading fresh-cut processors and in school cafeterias since 2001. Now it's making its way to the consumer market. "Processors worldwide have been conveniently using NatureSeal to expand their offerings of fresh-cut produce ranging from the ever-popular sliced apples and carrots to avocados and beets," says sales director A.J. Martinich.

    The evolution of sulfite-, allergen- and sodium-free NatureSeal into home use came about "naturally out of our collaboration with the processing, grocery/retail, and foodservice sectors," adds Martinich.

    After slicing, consumers dip the fresh produce into the vitamin/mineral blend, which prevents it from oxidizing (browning), while maintaining the natural taste, texture, and color for up to five days.

    Go for PlumSmart

    Yuba City, Calif.-based Sunsweet is taking its established reputation in the juice aisle and shaking it up a bit with the introduction of PlumSmart Plum Juice, a tasty 100 percent juice product that provides key nutrients to help keep the digestive system in balance.

    "We've known for years that younger generations, while quite aware of the properties of fiber supplements and prune juice, aren't interested in purchasing these products, either due to the taste or the image," says Steve Harris, Sunsweet's v.p. of marketing. Geared toward baby boomers who thrive on an active lifestyle, the plum juice acts as a gentle, natural laxative while delivering other nutrients to the body.

    Sunsweet is rolling out PlumSmart nationally, supported with a $10 million marketing campaign that includes a 30-second national television spot, 4.8 million consumer bounce-back coupons, and quarterly trade promotions.

    Naked ambition

    Naked Juice, which just weeks ago was bought by PepsiCo, was at the Fresh Summit showing two new flavors in its line of all-natural, super-premium juices: Black & Blueberry Rush and Cherry Pomegranate Power.

    First introduced in May 2006, the Naked Juice energy family "is receiving rave reviews from consumers and retailers alike," notes spokeswoman Rachel Kenney.

    Currently among the fastest-growing superpremium juice brands, the company also bowed four new Naked Juice smoothies, each of which -- like all Naked Juice varieties -- pack a pound of fruit into every 15.2-ounce bottle, with no added sugars or preservatives.

    Juicy organics

    "Our Earthly Delights line of fruit juices was created to give consumers organic versions of some of the most popular 'healthy' drinks on the market today," says Chuck Watson, company president. "Organic beverages made from fruits and vegetables are showing dramatic growth, and their popularity will continue to grow over the long term."

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