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    Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: The greatest produce show on earth

    This year's sold-out PMA Fresh Summit offered everything from educational workshops on international issues to the latest innovations in value-added produce.

    "From where I stand, quality, food safety, and price are the three main reasons I'm here," said the produce v.p. from a major supermarket chain, surveying the expansive and bustling show floor at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition in New Orleans last month. Mirroring the produce category itself, PMA's annual show continues to become bigger, better, and more valuable. This year it welcomed 14,500 attendees, many of them among the nation's key retail and grower-shipper decision-makers.

    "This reminds me of what the FMI show was like 15 years ago. There's nothing like it," the retailer continued, "but it's just too bad that more of our corporate bosses and sister perishable category directors aren't here to see and learn for themselves about the many opportunities that can flow from fresh produce sales outside the core department."

    An educational program covering all the bases was presented in workshops devoted to retail consolidation and supply chain partnerships; supply chain integration; produce merchandising; floral; consumer marketing trends; and other topics.

    The International Trade Conference segment explored critical trade issues like global marketing, food safety standards, global supply chain partnerships, and the emergence of China and India in the world agricultural arena. The regulatory environment was the focal point of several workshops, which took a closer look at the nation's new organic labeling requirements, the new voluntary country-of-origin labeling guidelines, irradiation, food security, and other matters.

    This year's Fresh Summit came closer to its goal of becoming a global trade fair, not only with a heightened use of pavilions to showcase produce from various growing regions and countries, but also with another strong showing of international participants, who represented more than 20 percent of overall attendance, according to Bryan Silbermann, PMA president.

    Silbermann said the association "really focused on delivering a higher level of professional speakers than we ever had before for our educational programming, not just for the general sessions, but also for the workshops."

    He said the positive feedback generated by the educational sessions "speaks to what I consider to be one of the overriding themes of what's going on in the industry in terms of personal development and new skill sets that people need to bring to their jobs—not only on the retail side but also on the supply side—with more collaborative types of approaches to doing business."

    Growing business in a way that's beneficial to both parties, he said, is a very different approach to the product and price mentality that has existed in the produce industry for the duration. "Certainly the changes are something that have been touted for a lot of years, but I think we're finally getting traction on that front."

    Noting that continued development of personal skills is imperative, Silbermann said it's also necessary for today's produce professionals to have maximum exposure to "the diverse technical capabilities people need to learn about food safety, conducting annual reviews, and formulating strategic plans. It's a very different learning experience that people want today versus five years ago."

    The sold-out exposition featured 1,900 booths with more than 600 vendors from 21 countries covering 511,000 square feet of floor space. With its backdrop of striking displays of fresh fruits and vegetables, the show floor was a cornucopia of new ideas in merchandising, packaging, ripening, handling, distribution, storage, UPCs, hardware, software, and value-added services.

    Held just days before the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic labeling requirements went into effect, the show saw the introduction of new items by several companies, including Frieda's, which launched a "Top 15 best sellers" line under its own label, "to better help retailers focus on their assortment by combining our well-known brand with the best movers," said Karen Caplan, president.

    Asian ingredients

    Chinese certified master chef Martin Yan was on hand in the Melissa's/World Variety Produce booth to greet visitors and drum up attention for the Los Angeles-based distributor's growing Asian ingredient line. Aside from its extensive array of exotic, organic, and specialty produce items, Melissa's also focused on its new Latin and soy product offerings, "which are becoming an increasingly important part of our one-stop position to discover and deliver new, exciting specialty food products to meet the changing demands of American consumers," said Melissa's spokesman Robert Schuller.

    Fresh-cut, value-added convenience items continue to represent the fastest growing segment of the produce category, as evidenced by many new products and line extensions unveiled at PMA. Misionero Vegetables developed a new, ready-to-use, 100-percent usable Garden Cuts line of three varieties of romaine, green leaf, and red leaf lettuce. Positioned as a time-saver for salads, sandwiches, burgers, parties, and more, Misionero's new line is packaged in a bag that is equivalent to one head of lettuce, said Greg Gattis, v.p. of sales and marketing.

    Fresh Express introduced three new value-added products—baby spinach trio with arugula and carrots, spinach with carrots, and a new 20-ounce spinach package for salads and cooking—while announcing a new, high-tech "tender leaves" processing system for its baby spinach salads to ensure maximum quality for delicate spinach leaves.

    The Salinas, Calif.-based pioneer in value-added says it developed the new items based on data gathered from independent research among a representative sample of spinach consumers, who favor spinach not only for its color, texture, and taste, but for its nutritional benefits as well.

    While discussing its co-branded Fall Favorites theme promotion with the Washington State Apple Commission and Newman's Own, Ready Pac Produce, another leading fresh-cut provider, was also touting the baby arugula addition to its line of European-style salads. The baby arugula launch "follows the success of our European-style Portofino salad, the first blend on the market to include baby arugula as a featured component," said Marji Morrow, director of marketing for the Irwindale, Calif.-based company.

    Mann's Stringless Sugar Snap Peas were reintroduced to PMA delegates, many of whom were spotted enjoying the tasty and healthy snack as they milled about the show floor. "The sweet flavor, crunchy texture, and stringless convenience of these peas have resulted in their increasing popularity," said spokeswoman Lorri Koster.

    Monterey Mushrooms introduced Clean N Ready pre-washed, pre-sliced, ready-to-use white button mushrooms that "represent a first in convenience for fresh mushrooms," said Carl Fields, v.p. of marketing. Noting that the product was consumer-tested on the West Coast for more than a year, he added, "Results showed an overwhelming preference for this new convenience product, which is great for today's busy consumers who can reduce preparation time by eliminating washing and slicing."

    Well-Pict Berries presented a new look for its packaged strawberries, which are now shipped in one- and two-pound modular clamshells designed for common-footprint trays, as well as in the classic standard-configuration clamshells.

    The company's new sales manager, Dan Crowley, said the packaging represents "our vision of the future. As Well-Pict's operations and acreage continue to grow, so do our capabilities. The depth of our experience and the strength of our resources give us the ability to provide individualized, thorough service to any retailer, of any size, any time of year."

    San Francisco-based HerbThyme Farms showcased some novel entries for the fresh herbs category with line-extending, value-added Pesto Packs featuring fresh basil, pine nuts, and recipe cards, as well as a new Maha premium live fresh basil plant that allows customers to clip and use the herb as needed.

    HerbThyme's director of national retail sales, Michael Murphy, said the products "are a great way for retailers to reach out to their customers with a new value-added herb line that is ideal for instant cross-merchandising displays."

    The folks from Pom Wonderful, the largest producer of California Wonderful pomegranates—known for their flavor, appearance, and unusually large size—were busy discussing the latest news about one of the produce category's lesser-known players.

    The company is at the forefront of making pomegranates widely available to consumers for the first time in the U.S. this year, thanks to an increase in the number of orchards Pom Wonderful planted during the past several years. "The big red wave of pomegranate availability will hit grocery stores at approximately the same time new research becomes more widely available on pomegranates' many medical benefits," said Kurt Vetter, v.p. of sales.

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