Since 2004, U.S. produce industry growth has gone downhill as consumption by women declined by 1 percent and men by 2 percent.

“That’s stagnation and it has to change,” said Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association. “We have to decide if the industry will grow or stagnate.”

Stenzel, luncheon speaker at today’s Texas Produce Convention in San Antonio, said despite those dismal numbers he remains positive about the industry. “I see more opportunity than ever.”

Childhood obesity numbers are down and much of that, Stenzel said, is related to fruit and vegetable consumption. Other factors also provide hope. “We have more varieties, better technology and are delivering a better product to the consumer than we were 20 years ago.

“But we also have bigger threats.”

Chief among these is the food safety issue, the primary factor in declining consumption, Stenzel said. The aftermath of the spinach recall of several years ago, “still lingers. Recalls have a huge effect. They scare consumers, who stop eating produce, and that, not the risk of foodborne illness, is a public health issue. We don’t cook salads,” he added, “so we can’t be 100 percent risk free.”

The produce industry supported the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011. But Stenzel said the industry will watch closely as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration writes the regulations to enforce the law. “We need a level playing field,” he said.

Currently, FDA is asking for public comment on regulations, a process that will continue until Nov. 15. The produce industry will offer comments, including suggestions that farm size not be a determinant in whether a facility is covered by the act or not.  “Bacteria do not know what size a farm is,” he said.

He also expects the industry to suggest that exemption for produce that is “rarely eaten raw,” be re-examined since some of those products “find their way into the fresh market.”

He said standards should be close to crop-specific. The same safety standards that make sense for citrus, for instance, will not be best for leafy greens.

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Other issues with facility regulations will also come under scrutiny.

The labor issue is the other crucial threat to the produce industry, and Stenzel said a sensible immigration reform law is necessary for agriculture. “All of agriculture is unanimous in supporting this issue,” he said. “We have negotiated with unions and the Senate and helped pass a strong immigration reform bill.”

The situation is different in the U.S. House of Representatives, which Stenzel called “a nasty bunch of people right now. They are on another planet.”

He expects the House to pass an immigration bill “but it will be different from the Senate. Of all the crazy things going on in Washington, immigration reform is the most important.”

He said the Senate bill is not perfect but provides much of what agriculture needs, including a way for the 11 million undocumented workers currently in the country to work their way to legal status. Also, a temporary worker program that allows for a three-year visa provides flexibility for workers and employers.