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PMA InSight with Cathy Burns

The Produce News caught up with Cathy Burns, president and chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association, as the association’s Fresh Summit Conference & Expo approached.

The Produce News: In the five years since you joined PMA, what are the biggest changes you have noted in the produce industry?download

Cathy Burns: Wow, has it been five years already? When I think about how the produce and floral industries have changed, certainly technology has played a key role in this transformation. Technology has driven innovation across all the links in our global supply chain, from growing and production to transportation, distribution, grocery, foodservice and e-commerce.

It has also played a key role in how consumers are leveraging tech to learn more about the foods they eat, who grows them, how they are grown, and how to connect with each other. Food is part of the cultural currency of social media, there are more opportunities for PMA and our industry to grow consumer demand and make fresh fruits, vegetables and floral a preference among households around the world. We need to move our products into a “can’t live without them” position in shoppers’ everyday lives.

Another area of change is how produce safety has shifted from a requirement to an ingrained value for companies within the industry. However, there is still more room to improve how it is executed throughout the supply chain so that it becomes a cultural imperative across all members of our global community.

What accomplishments or initiatives undertaken by PMA during the past 12 months are you most proud of?

My focus and top priority has been, and continues to be, to deliver against the strategic objectives and goals set forth by the association’s refreshed strategic plan that was unveiled last October. I am extremely humbled by the commitment by staff and volunteer leaders to bring the strategic plan to life with velocity.

Ultimately, PMA will continue to find new ways to provide members with the tools and resources to help change the trajectory of, and cultural conversation around, produce and floral in order to grow a healthier world. Our industry’s products bring health and happiness into people’s lives and there is so much more we can be doing to show them that. We need to move beyond a transactional relationship to make produce the star of the plate.

The Center for Growing Talent by PMA’s Career Pathways Program has made some notable strides in attracting young talent to the produce industry. What do you attribute to the success of this program?

It’s no secret that many industries are experiencing a global shortage of talent at all levels, including the produce industry, which is made even more important by the need to feed a growing world population. I think this presents us with a unique opportunity for a global resurgence in industry talent. Jobs in our industry don’t just begin and end with growers in the field and retail operators. Each segment of the industry requires a unique skillset that can be provided by a wide range of people, from those without degrees to those with PhDs.

The Career Pathways Program has been successful because of the passionate volunteers who provide their time and money to fuel it. Without their support, this program would not be what it is today. Thanks to their leadership, students get the opportunity to come to PMA and other industry events to get a first-hand look at what our industry is all about.

The produce industry has become more global in recent years. What are the advantages and challenges as a result of that and how has PMA responded to those challenges?

As the industry has experienced global expansion due to trade and increased consumer demand, we’ve seen the same growth reflected among our membership. At the end of the day, I would like to see PMA continue to provide value to members throughout the supply chain globally, and to see PMA expand what global means to us.

PMA has a global footprint with in-country representation in several key overseas markets, and I am excited to partner with new PMA Board Chair David Marguleas of Sun World and his knowledge of global opportunities as we bring even more value to our non-U.S. members.

Fresh Summit itself has undergone some changes. What are the major differences of the event this year and why were these changes implemented?

Every year after Fresh Summit, the Fresh Summit Committee reviews attendee feedback and research to identify areas to improve and enhance for the coming year’s event. As a result of the committee’s leadership and diligence, Fresh Summit is going to look and feel very different this year.

The convention has been completely revamped with keynote Forums for the Future featuring four big voices on four big topics designed to inspire and disrupt your thinking. In between these forums are the all-new Experience Extensions, interactive opportunities for attendees to join informal conversations on hot topics, connect with peers or take a break. Extensions will cover topics such as food safety, transportation, blockchain, global trade and talent retention.

We have also transformed our networking receptions into several concentrated opportunities for attendees to connect. The Global Street Festival Welcoming Reception will feature flavors and experiences from around the world. The Floral Flamingle will give the floral community a place to connect to enjoy food, drinks, entertainment and networking with industry movers and shakers. We’ve also got the Young Professionals Reception, which invites young professionals under the age of 35 to come together and grow their professional network.

PMA has worked hard to promote increased produce consumption. What are the major barriers to further increasing produce consumption?

There are many challenges and opportunities facing our industry. One of the biggest is finding opportunities and creating spaces for our members to stimulate consumer demand. While we have seen a rise in consumer demand in recent trends, the produce industry needs to continue to work to make it a “need” rather than a “want.”

One of the barriers I see right now is produce being viewed primarily as a side dish. I believe there are more opportunities for our industry to fully take its position as half the plate, especially with the growth in plant-based foods.

But we also need to make sure that we don’t lose that plate position through strategic marketing and understanding shoppers’ mindsets.