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.”