“Within 10 years, 80 percent of all fruit and vegetables will be genetically engineered in one way or another.”

It's a tough question. How to improve profits in a competitive industry that demands high quality, rapid delivery and attractive packaging?

Answers are especially difficult to find when some of the most logical solutions are blasted by a small but vocal mob that demands a safe food supply but resists the technology that can assure it.

The fruit and vegetable industry faces just such a dilemma as producers, packers and retailers try to find ways to stay in the black.

A panel of experts took on the challenge of offering solutions to some of the produce industry's toughest problems at the recent Texas Produce Association's annual meeting in San Antonio.

“The industry must come together,” said Charlie Hall, Texas A&M agricultural economist and moderator for the panel, which included Andy Vestal, a biotechnology expert from Texas A&M; Edith Garrett, with the International Fresh Cut Association; and Josh Wong, PrimusLabs.com.

“We have to look at ways of improving efficiency in the industry,” Hall said, “and we must find ways to change that don't cost a lot of money.”

Biotechnology offers promise, Vestal said. “We had 32 new products in biotech medicine appear last year. Another 350 are in the late stages of development.

“These products help cure cancer, diabetes and heart disease, yet people still fear genetically modified organisms.”

He says modifications to food products on the horizon include nutritional advantages such as improved oil quality and lower fatty acid content.

“We also expect improvements in food safety. Reducing allergens is a possibility. Sensory traits also may change, making foods more aromatic, sweeter or with altered textures.”

Tomatoes with improved taste and potatoes with herbicide and insect resistance are just hitting the market, he said.

“Within 10 years, 80 percent of all fruit and vegetables will be genetically engineered in one way or another.”

Garrett said adding value to products already on the market offers another profitable opportunity to growers and others up the processing line.

“Folks in the industry see a lot of interest and a great need for value-added products,” she said. “This represents a real growth opportunity.”

She said fresh cut produce, for instance, offers the same products but in a different form that provides convenience for consumers and restaurants.

“Fresh cut reduces labor costs for food service companies and restaurants,” she said. “Companies can use labor more efficiently and they can eliminate waste. With fresh cut, 100 percent of the product is usable.

“The combination of reduced labor, less waste and increased efficiency means food costs are easily identified and controlled.”

She said food safety improves as well, since the product is already packaged and reduces the number of contamination points to just one.”

“The bottom line for producers is to develop commodities that taste good. That's why we eat.”

Wong said third-party audits will become more important as a means to assure product quality and safety.

“We help producers meet the expectations of their customers,” he said. “Retailers want to know what growers are doing to assure food safety. We focus on how to get through an audit and prepare our clients for the process.”

He said a typical audit requires from four to five hours and includes a look at all documents and a field inspection. Communication, all three agreed, will be key to improving efficiency in the industry.

Garrett said the industry must consider ways to educate consumers on how to use fresh cut products. “We can provide tropical fruits in a fresh cut format,” she said, “but we need to include on the package instructions on how to use the product.”

“We need to concentrate on incorporating genes into foods that solve problems in society that people see as problems instead of problems that affect mostly producers. Then we need to communicate the benefits of GM foods,” Vestal said. “We haven't done that very well.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com