Sysco Corporation’s Richard Dachman says a shift of fresh fruits and vegetables from a side dish at the meal table to the middle of the consumer’s dinner plate makes today an exciting time for the U.S. produce industry.

“I believe there is a mini revolution underway on the (produce) consumption side,” said Dachman, Sysco’s vice president of produce. “There is a lot of talk about health and our products are necessary to achieve that. It is an exciting time to be in our business.”

Dachman discussed produce consumption and sales during a retail-food service workshop at the 2011 Western Growers annual meeting in San Diego, Calif., in November.

Pushing produce to the center of the plate is tied to the healthy attributes associated with fruit and vegetables including a plethora of essential vitamins and minerals.

“I think we’ll look back a few years from now and say wow — I didn’t see that coming.”

Sysco is a food service company — a global leader in selling, marketing and distributing food products for consumption away from home including at restaurants, lodging establishments, healthcare and educational facilities, and other locations.

Dachman wears a second hat as the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) chairman.

Enthusiasm for the produce industry’s future was echoed by Greg Corrigan, senior director of produce and floral for Raley’s Family of Fine Stores. Raley’s is a regional grocery store chain with 132 stores in Northern California and Northern Nevada.

“We are definitely working to drive (produce) consumption, Corrigan said. “I’ve been running produce for Raley’s - Bel Air for 10 years. The last several years have been unbelievable; so much is changing so fast. It is never a dull moment.”

Several major agricultural organizations, including PMA, have established a bold goal to double fresh fruit and vegetable consumption in the next 10 years. Measuring progress toward the goal will include counting ‘produce mentions’ — how often produce appears on restaurant menus.

Dachman says major fast food chains are adding produce to traditional burger and fry menus. Today’s McDonald’s menu includes fresh apple slices with a dipping sauce, snack-sized fruit and walnut salad, plus maple oatmeal with fresh fruit. At Wendy’s, parents can choose sliced apples over french fries in kid’s meals. The Subway ‘Eat Fresh’ chain now offers avocado, carrots, and apples.

“We have to get the younger generation to like fruits and vegetables so when they get older they’ll eat more,” Dachman said.

On the production side of the produce industry, Dachman said the industry is fragmented by money spent promoting specific brand names. Produce growers should not compete against each other but instead compete as a group against the potato chip aisle.

Dachman believes generic commodity marketing can sell more produce and better improve margins over the long haul.

“The industry needs to get together as a single voice with a single fund,” Dachman told the produce crowd. “We need full page ads in USA Today and Super Bowl commercials to make people aware of the connection between (good) health and fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Focus on value

Workshop moderator Tom Deardorff, president of Deardorff Family Farms, a vegetable and fruit grower, packer, and shipper based in Oxnard, Calif., asked if the focal point on produce innovation should focus more on value — added convenience or produce with improved flavor, quality, and consistency.

Innovation should focus on both, Corrigan says. New packaging helps sell produce while good quality produce sells itself. New seed varieties and cross breeds can stimulate consumer taste buds through great-tasting peaches, melons, grapes, and other products.

Dachman shared the results of a survey of 500 chefs and restaurants who were asked about the most important factor to increase produce consumption. Flavor was the top answer.

“In the food service industry, flavor drives new items into retail,” Dachman said. “People go to restaurants to try new things and then go to the grocery store and want to try it.”

Deardorff said organic produce sales increased about 8 percent last year while overall produce sales increased 1 percent. Corrigan called organics a “mixed bag” with a loyal following of buyers.

“We have aggressively promoted and pushed organics since the late 1980s,” Corrigan said, noting that organic sales growth last year at Raley’s was less than 8 percent. “Will organics feed the world 100 percent? No. Is it a game changer? For some people it is. It’s still a very ‘nichcy’ part of our business.”

An audience member asked about the impact of the ‘buy local’ movement on the overall produce industry. Corrigan says ‘buy local’ has surpassed the organic produce industry.

“The buy local movement is huge whether we want to accept it or not,” Corrigan said. “It is the buzz on the street. We have to pay attention to what consumers are talking about.”

Will ‘buy local’ be short or long lived?

“It may be gone in three to five years,” Corrigan said. “It’s a trend and a phase we’re going through. People want to know their produce is local.”

Dachman says the overall commercial produce industry — beyond small, local growers — is not threatened by the ‘buy local’ movement.

“I don’t think it will go away because it goes along with more people wanting good health and more flavor. When produce is picked it starts to die. The sooner you can get it to the consumer the better.”

Dachman says the produce industry’s challenge over the next two decades is to produce enough food to feed the world.

“Local doesn’t play a piece in that,” Dachman said. “You (the audience) are the people who will supply the food for the world — not small, local growers. Hopefully the local small grower will bring produce to a higher profile so people consume more.”

Both panelists addressed food safety audits to ensure a safe food supply. Dachman warned the produce industry not to engage in messaging that suggest to consumers that a company’s food safety system is better than a competitors. Doing so could cause a negative consumer backlash.

“There can be no positive result of a consumer believing that there are levels of food safety. A better way to say it is everyone is doing the best job they can,” Dachman said. 

cblake@farmpress.com