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Challenges and opportunities explored at FPFC gathering

PLEASANTON, CA -- United Fresh Produce Association President Tom Stenzel said that the industry is facing many challenges, but it also has numerous opportunities that can make this a golden age for fruits and vegetables.

Speaking Feb. 19 at the Northern California luncheon meeting of the Fresh Produce & Floral Council at the Castlewood Country Club, here, Mr. Stenzel first laid out the challenges. For brevity's sake, he contained his remarks to the top three challenges as well as the top three opportunities. He listed an acute labor shortage, competition from other foods and food safety as the top three problem areas.

The labor shortage and the food-safety issues have been explored in depth time and time again. With regard to competition from items throughout the grocery store, the United president said that many items are trying to wrestle the health advantage away from truly healthy foods by use of additives. "Be prepared for antioxidants in a box," he said referring to the movement to add neutraceuticals to everything and anything.

"Blueberry pop tarts, even with added antioxidants, are not the same as fresh blueberries," he said, adding that the marketers will claim that they are. He told the crowd of 200 to "be proud of fresh" and said the industry needs to continue to promote the inherent advantage that fresh fruits and vegetables have over virtually all other foods.

On the positive side, Mr. Stenzel listed supply-chain realignment, innovation and the changing consumption habits of Americans. He said that the food- safety crisis seems to have brought all elements of the distribution chain together. While it might have begun as an adversarial relationship, he said that it is leading to collaboration, which will only help the industry.

With regard to innovation, Mr. Stenzel said that sliced apples in a bag and baby carrots have revolutionized those commodities, and he asked, "What's the next opportunity?"

He said that the value-added revolution continues to bring new opportunities for increased consumption.

New rules for the federally run Women, Infant & Children program was the third opportunity Mr. Stenzel discussed and which seemed to excite him the most. He said that beginning in October of 2009, the 6 million participants in that program will be getting monthly vouchers that have to be spent on fresh fruits and vegetables. He said that this would represent new sales to the industry that will be significant.

An economic model has shown that for broccoli alone, the WIC program should result in a 2.5 percent increase in return at the grower level. Millions of dollars of new sales are headed to produce departments throughout the country, and this represents new customers who have not been shopping in the produce department.

Besides the voucher dollars, it is estimated that a greater percentage of the WIC participants' food budget will also be spent providing more nutritious meals for themselves and their families.

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