The combination of an aging population, more emphasis on a healthy lifestyle and the quest for convenience will prompt consumers to increase fruit and vegetable consumption significantly.

“The moon and the stars are aligned; the industry faces the opportunity of a lifetime because fruit and vegetable consumption (in the United States) could double,” says Steve Grinstead, Standard Fruit and Vegetable, Dallas.

Grinstead moderated a panel discussion at the recent Texas Produce Convention in Houston and said the industry is “on the verge of having a lot of money coming in to help support marketing efforts. Elected officials have become more interested in the industry because of the national focus on obesity and other health issues.

They recognize that fruit and vegetables in diets are important contributors to improved health.”

He says the “billions of dollars the federal government has already spent to promote produce does not include the fruit and vegetable health message.”

Better information for such opportunities as the school lunch program could mean significant increases in produce use. Grinstead said industry collaboration makes the opportunities even more realistic.

“In the past individual segments of the industry worked against each other,” he said. “Now, we're working together. We've learned how important a good relationship can be. Change will take place and it can either happen to us or we can effect change. We have to grab this opportunity.”

One of the major changes will be an increased demand for value-added products. Panelists Michael Marx, Kroger, Houston; Bryan Herr, Country Fresh Produce, Houston; and Steve Gill, Gill's Onions, Oxnard, Calif., looked at the industry advantages for pre-packaged products.

Cut fruit may offer the best growth potential, Marx said. “Fresh cut fruit will outpace the packaged salad industry,” he said. “Cut fruit could experience a 20 percent growth rate.”

That's good news for Herr, who has launched an aggressive program to provide fresh cut fruit to supermarkets. “We're adding value to a product,” Herr said, “but the value is determined by the consumer who is looking for convenience, quality and a reasonable price.”

Herr said quality is paramount and believes fresh cut allows a consumer to appraise what she's buying.

“It's visible, so she can check color and evaluate freshness,” he said. “She can't do that if it's still in the peel. Fresh cut builds confidence.”

It's convenient because it's already cut up. “That saves time,” Herr said. “We're also focusing on different fruit mixes to provide variety and unique flavor combinations. We also hope to extend shelf life.

“Currently, we expect four to five days from the time it's packaged. We'd like to extend that so the consumer has three to four days to enjoy the produce after it's bought.”

Herr said growers might help improve the fresh-cut business. “We look for suppliers who can give us varieties that do well as fresh cut,” he said. “We want the proper sugar content, texture and flavor. Yield is also a factor. We need to identify the best varieties for value-added processing.”

Gill said value-added meshes well with both an aging population and a young generation attuned to health benefits of fruits and vegetables.

“As folks age, they use more produce in their diets,” Gill said. The convenience of value-added appeals to an aging population.

“It also fits for youngsters. Pre-packaged fruits and vegetables are easy to use, they're easy to carry and they are popular, especially when packaged with a dip or sauce. It's ideal for a time-strapped consumer.”

Gill said making a product easier to prepare increases demand.

He said the change would alter the way farmers produce and market fruit and vegetable crops.

“Prices will be more stable as growers produce on contract for specific types of fruits and vegetables. They'll miss the highs and lows. Many may grow only for contract and get out of the shipping business.”

Panelists agreed that food safety has become an even more critical issue following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. “Farmers will need to keep better records of pesticide applications,” Gill said. “We'll have trace-back capabilities to identify where products originate.”

Marx said other trends will include more emphasis on organic produce and innovative packaging.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com