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.
Worker cap numbers too low
“The program has a 337,000 worker cap,” he said. “That’s not enough but it’s all we could get from the Senate and the unions. But, in a crisis, the Secretary of Agriculture can change that number.”
Stenzel said another advantage with the worker program is that USDA, not the Department of Labor, will oversee it. “USDA is for us; Labor is not,” he said.
He encouraged conference participants to “go home and tell your Republican representatives to pass an immigration bill and not just do nothing. If they pass a bill, we have a shot,” he said.
“Some do not want to see a legalized immigrant workforce,” Stenzel added. “But we have to create a legal way for workers to come to this country and do the work no one here wants to do.”
Despite the challenges, which he concedes are huge, Stenzel remains optimistic about the produce industry. Schools are adding salad bars; fruits and vegetables are now included in the Women, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition Service (WIC) program; and the emphasis on childhood obesity encourages more fresh fruit and vegetable consumption.
The industry has work to do, some of it in education.
“We have to make food safety a positive instead of a negative. Be honest and tell consumers that produce cannot be 100 percent risk-free, but bring the risk into perspective. The chance of getting a food-borne illness is lower than the chance of being struck by lightning.”
He said the grocery store produce manager “needs to become our new hero. Face-to-face marketing makes farmers markets popular,” he said. The produce manager can be the face of the fruit and vegetable industry.