Perhaps it is customary to play it cool when one has launched a successful new industry institution such as The New York Produce Show and Conference — make it seem as if we always knew that success was inevitable.
Yet, through the years, we would say that one of the things that has led to some measure of success for this Pundit and sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS is that we have had the advantage of the entrepreneurial experience. We have sweated out payrolls and have seen things not work out. Yet we made more right decisions than wrong and so we are not only here, 25 years after launch, but have grown and prospered and made contributions that people have valued. One of those contributions has been telling the truth.
LET THE SHOW BEGIN: The Pundit cuts the ribbon with (left to right) Philanthropist Laurie M. Tisch, South Carolina Commissioner Hugh Weathers, Famed Author Joan Nathan, EPC’s Executive Director John McAleavey and New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher
The truth is that maybe we should credit the success of the Show to Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, who wrote a great business book titled Only the Paranoid Survive. Whether survival is the right word we are not certain about, but certainly a sense of paranoia leads one to not rest on one’s laurels and triggers actions that, in this case, ultimately led to the success of The New York Produce Show and Conference.
NETWORKING IN NEW YORK: Paul Kneeland of King’s Super Markets pauses for a pose with Peppe Bonfiglio and Paul Mastronardi of Mastronardi Produce
Those of us at PRODUCE BUSINESS linked hands with the good people at the Eastern Produce Council to create the event, because we knew that two heads are better than one, and that the group was more powerful than the individual.
LEARNING ANNEX: The morning’s Keynote Breakfast featured 10 retailers on stage, and the educational micro-sessions featured lectures from professors, authors and one of Africa’s largest retailers, who brought his own vuvuzela to the event.
Yet, even with this solid alignment, if we can share the actual entrepreneurial dream it mostly involved a nightmare — waking up in the middle of the night for a full year haunted by the vision of an empty hall. Imagine an event — a giant hall — and not a soul in it.
NOW ON DISPLAY …Top Chef Camille Becerra put on continuous demonstrations of more than 12 produce items throughout the day while 212 exhibitors displayed their latest and greatest.
Yet we are grateful for that paranoid nightmare because that is what drove us. We just wouldn’t be satisfied. So we wound up with a World Class general session and conference program, an incredible media program, an unprecedented “consumer influencer” program, a fantastic spouse program on the 41st floor over looking New York. There were chefs and baseball players and the unveiling of new programs and the revealing of hitherto unknown research.
There was Jim Allen, father of an Afghanistan War veteran, giving an invocation on the eve of Veterans Day; there was Theresa Nolan, who we stood by during her tortuous trial, rising to speak with the awesome power that comes when love and justice are combined. The leaders of retailing stood en masse, declaring that they were part of the community assembled. Yet others from as far away as Africa also spoke, showing that we were open to learning from near and far.
WELL REPRESENTED: Exhibitors were well balanced between regional suppliers and national brand marketers.
The trade show was incredible; one booth more artful than the next, each revealing more innovative product than his neighbor. Not only was traffic sustained all day, but the ratio of buyers to exhibit space exceeded one buyer per twelve square feet of exhibit space — an almost unheard-of accomplishment in these days of consolidation.
This all happened because, as all success happens, opportunity met preparation. The community needed a place to gather and for a year a team of dedicated professionals worked day and night to build it. Of course we also had the enormous advantage that comes when you are doing work that comes from the heart.
AFTER THE SHOW: Capping off the events were Thursday’s bus tours to the Hunts Point Produce Market, Philadelphia’s new Wholesale Market (and Wegmans on the way home), Manhattan retailers and New Jersey suburban retailers.
On the last day of the event, we sent out 150 people on tours around the region. One was to the Hunts Point Market. When they went around the group asking each member of the tour to identify themselves, the turn came for Ellen Rosenthal, who heads up the New York region for PRODUCE BUSINESS, to identify herself. When she said she was one of the organizers of the show, the assembled attendees and exhibitors gave her an ovation.
This was an incredible few days in the Big Apple.
There is much more to tell and we will have pieces related to the event for some time to come.
For now, an immense thanks to all who participated — sponsors, exhibitors, attendees. No plans would have meant anything without your support and participation.
We would also like to make a promise. If the first rule of business is Andy Grove’s “only the paranoid survive” — we will add a second suggestion for all successful businesses: Don’t get cocky.
We promise to work twice as hard and, with a little experience under our belt, twice as smart — to make the 2011 version of the New York Produce Show and Conference twice as fantastic!
If you would like information on exhibiting or sponsoring at next year’s show please let us know here.
If you would like information on attending next year’s event, please let us know here.
But all of these topics have been approached in the context of an unwitting consumer who, it is presumed, goes to the store expecting safe food.
This position has always been a bit problematic. After all, consumers drive in cars even though they know they could have an accident; they fly in planes although they know planes can crash; they go on boats though they might sink, etc. To select out food as the one and only area in life where, somehow, consumers expect perfect safety is most questionable. Still, this has provided a framework for thinking about food safety.
As we discussed here, the industry associations are turning against the Food Safety Bill in the Senate because it has been amended in a non-scientific way.
Watch the video below. It is about a raw foods “club” in which everyone who becomes a member has to sign a statement acknowledging they want raw foods and accept the risks. The club, Rawsome Foods in Venice, California, was raided, as was one of its suppliers, Healthy Family Farms. Most of the issues involve raw milk and raw milk cheeses, but the question is why the government is interfering with consenting adults who have decided what they would like to eat.
The intrusive nature of this kind of government is to some extent what the public was rebelling against in the last election.
Charles Krauthammer, the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist caught the flavor of the age by writing about the young man who cautioned the TSA security officer not to “Touch my junk” and comparing it to an older cry for freedom:
John Tyner, cleverly armed with an iPhone to give YouTube immortality to the encounter, took exception to the TSA guard about to give him the benefit of Homeland Security’s newest brainstorm — the upgraded, full-palm, up the groin, all-body pat-down. In a stroke, the young man ascended to myth, or at least the next edition of Bartlett’s, warning the agent not to "touch my junk."
Not quite the 18th-century elegance of "Don’t Tread on Me," but the age of Twitter has a different cadence from the age of the musket. What the modern battle cry lacks in archaic charm, it makes up for in full-body syllabic punch.
Don’t touch my junk is the anthem of the modern man, the Tea Party patriot, the late-life libertarian, the midterm election voter.
Food may well be a central battleground in the fight for liberty. Watch the video here:
Unless you are a policy wonk following the nuance of inside-the-beltway politics, you probably didn’t realize that he was also using a DC code word for “let’s exempt certain competitors from food safety standards we demand of others.” That code phrase is “scale appropriate.”
He said it many times, tried to express it as a concept still searching for a definition, and he asked for help in defining what it means.
Well, it is an odd thing to endorse a concept you don’t know the meaning of, and we would say that this tortured quest for understanding is somewhat disingenuous, because it can only mean one thing.
“Scale appropriate” is a way of saying that in considering what food safety standards to apply, one is going to think of something other than food safety.
If one is serious about raising food safety standards, this is a triumph of politics over science.
Now a Who’s Who of produce associations has sent a letter to the powers that be in the United States Senate, announcing that due to an amendment to the food safety bill that would provide exemptions for small and local growers, they can no longer support the bill that they have been supported up to this point:
As the Senate begins final deliberations on S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, we are writing to express our opposition to the latest “compromise” on Senator Tester’s amendment to exempt small farms and business operations from basic federal food safety requirements. As organizations representing the vast majority of fresh produce grown and consumed in this country — from small, medium and large-sized farms — the Tester amendment utterly fails to protect consumers by including blanket exemptions from the rest of the bill’s strong safety net, without regard to risk.
We applaud the leadership of the Senate HELP Committee and Senator Durbin who worked hard to construct a bill that embraces a risk-based approach to food safety. Providing a framework for developing preventive control standards from farm to table was a fundamental principle of a new food safety structure at FDA and had broad support amongst fresh produce companies across the country. Unfortunately, by incorporating the Tester amendment in the bill, consumers will be left vulnerable to the gaping holes and uneven application of the law created by these exemptions. In addition, it sets an unfortunate precedent for future action on food safety policy by Congress that science and risk-based standards can be ignored. And most importantly, this amendment rejects the fundamental purpose of S. 510 that requires FDA to develop standards and set requirements that are based on science and risk.
Comments from Senator Tester and supporters are now making it abundantly clear that their cause is not to argue that small farms pose less risk, but to wage an ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers that seeks to feed 300 million Americans.
We are appalled at statements by Senator Tester reported today in the Capital Press that “Small producers are not raising a commodity, but are raising food. Industrial agriculture, he said, takes the people out of the equation.”
The consequences of inadequate food safety precautions have no boundaries as to size of operation, geography, nor commodity. The consumer has a right to know that all food that they purchase has been produced, transported and offered for sale under the same food safety requirements. The undersigned produce organizations strongly oppose inclusion of the Tester amendment in S. 510. If this language is included in the bill, we will be forced to oppose final passage of the bill.
United Fresh Produce Association American Mushroom Institute Fresh Produce Association of the Americas National Potato Council National Watermelon Association Produce Marketing Association U.S. Apple Association Western Growers California Citrus Mutual California Strawberry Commission California Grape and Tree Fruit League Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association Florida Tomato Exchange Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association Idaho Grower-Shipper Associations Idaho Potato Commission New York Apple Association Northwest Horticultural Council Texas Produce Association Washington State Potato Commission
Unfortunately, it may not matter. The Senate voted for cloture — to end debate — on the bill by a vote of 74 to 25, meaning the vote will take place within 60 days. A vote for Cloture required 60 votes; passing the bill only requires 51. If the bill was going to be stopped, it probably had to be stopped at the cloture vote.
Perhaps the industry can still influence the shape of the bill but we would say the math is against this effort.
The reality is that the Senate is not a scientific committee; it is a political body. The expectation that it will act in accordance with a science and risk-based standard is truly an exercise of hope over experience.
The problem for the produce industry on this issue is obvious: There are only a few states with large quantities of large-scale produce growers; that means only a few senators who are going to care about this issue. Most are more concerned about the objections the small produce growers in their states are going to make.
The truth is that the whole matter is a travesty. Yes, the associations are 100% correct on the substance. If we are going to have food safety standards, they should apply uniformly.
However, there are other issues:
First, we just elected a new Congress. There is absolutely no emergency that justifies dealing with this issue in a lame duck session. In 1933, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified reducing the time between the election and the seating of the new Congress. The whole point was to end lame duck sessions in which the recently expressed will of the people could be ignored. You can read more on this point here.
In fact, the reason they are pushing this bill now is that it represents a massive grant of power to the FDA. It is unlikely the new Republicans in the House would support it.
Jesse Kelly was a Republican candidate for Congress in Arizona. He narrowly lost. He is not an expert on food safety, but we think his attitude when asked about food safety represented that of many people, including many of the new Republican members of Congress. Check out the video of how he handled an unexpected question:
Second, although the associations are correct that there is no science in exempting small farmers or those who sell locally from food safety standards. it is not strictly correct to say that, up to this point, everything in the bill was strictly science-based. The bill consists of lots of completely arbitrary rules. For example, the bill states:
The Secretary shall increase the frequency of inspection of domestic facilities identified under paragraph (1) as high-risk facilities such that each such facility is inspected — ‘‘(i) not less often than once in the 5-7 year period following the date of enactment of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act; and ‘‘(ii) not less often than once every 3 years thereafter.
‘‘DOMESTIC NON-HIGH-RISK FACILITIES — The Secretary shall ensure that each domestic facility that is not identified under paragraph (1) as a high-risk facility is inspected — ‘‘(i) not less often than once in the 7-17 year period following the date of enactment 8 of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act; and ‘‘(ii) not less often than once every 5 years thereafter.
This is all very nice and, maybe, as a matter of public policy we want to make the decision to do this. But to pretend that this has something to do with “science” is absurd. There are no controlled studies that indicate that high-risk facilities that are inspected by the federal government every three years are safer than those inspected every four years or not inspected at all. There are no controlled studies that indicate that a federal inspection of low-risk facilities every five years does anything at all for food safety.
This is either politicians pretending they are doing something or the lobby for federal employees creating jobs.
Third, if you read the bill, almost everything is left at the discretion of various agencies of the federal government. It is not obvious to us that most in the produce industry — or in the country — want the government to have that kind of discretion or that such discretion will be exercised scientifically.
Fourth, this all costs money. It will cost the federal government money and industry money. Industry advocates don’t like to speak about this because someone is likely to turn it around and propose more fees on the industry to pay for it all. But in this day and age, which is a bigger problem, not enough food safety regulation or deficits as far as the eye can see? What about the depressing effect of government mandates on entrepreneurialism and job creation?
It was built around reforming the liability laws in such a way as to make retailers more focused on food safety.
It is commendable that the associations have drawn a line in the sand saying that this local grower and small grower preference is anti-scientific and unacceptable when it comes to food safety. We will see if they have the heft to keep it out of the final bill or to block passage.
We would argue that giving such power and discretion to the government is bound to lead to political decisions down the road, and that we would be better off starting with a blank piece of paper in the new Congress. In fact, maybe we have bigger problems to deal with and could just put the whole issue aside until we right the economy, end the deficit, kill the terrorists and stop the nukes in Korea and Iran.
We’ve written a great deal about traceability, but that is just a part of the equation. Our friends at HEB asked for some help identifying vendors who can assist with another part of the puzzle:
You have provided much valuable information on the PTI. As a retailer, we are moving to complete our portions of the PTI. We are also looking at revamping our recall system, which is used to notify our store partners, record the timeliness of responses and quantities of affected product.
While traceability is paramount in identifying where a potentially unsafe product is or where it went, the ability to expediently and effectively remove that product is no less important. Could you help solicit solution providers to identify themselves and tell us about their products?
This is actually a crucial issue. As we mentioned here many retailers and foodservice operators respond to recalls with really broad actions. A small recall can lead to everything a producer delivered that day or everything produced by a particular grower or processor being discarded. If we can target in on the removing the right product, PTI will probably pay for itself. Of course, so far, most retailers just don’t want to take a chance. It is easier and more effective to just pull everything — especially since they usually can bill back the supplier.
So, Ok, solution providers, stand up! Please let us know here what you can offer and we will pass it along to Richard and prepare a synopsis for distribution to all retailers.
Jan Fleming is an exceptionally thoughtful person. She has been kind enough to send notes to the Pundit anytime we’ve had an achievement and to acknowledge other industry members when they have accomplished something.
In fact just before PMA, when we published this piece about Tonya Antle’s retirement from Earthbound Farms, Jan sent off this note:
What a wonderful tribute to a truly remarkable person.
Thanks for always being there to remind all of us of the privilege it is to work in this industry where we get to meet such amazing, dedicated professionals (including you, of course).
Have a great convention. We’ll have 3 people from Strube there, but, unfortunately, I’m not one of them.
Jan supported her recently deceased father, Bob Strube Sr., in all his endeavors. She supported her husband, Tim Fleming, through periods of great service to the industry including a term as Chairman of United.
She has nurtured a crop of perhaps a dozen Strubes and Flemings who now run the place.
She now could use our prayers and support.
Less than a month ago, she contacted her doctor with abdominal pain. In a whirlwind of assessments, she came to be diagnosed with appendicular cancer, which she also was told was mucinous adenocarcinoma.
She was sent to Pittsburgh to meet with Dr. David L. Bartlett, Chief, Division of Surgical Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Surgery. Dr. Bartlett is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on the treatment of abdominal malignancies.
Having worked through the Pundit Poppa’s own Leukemia, we know it sounds absurd to say but Jan is very lucky.
With a large family, the business can run easily without Jan and her husband Tim. So they were free to seek the very best treatment. In accordance with their values, they have lived prudently and so can afford the travel and time off from work and other costs that prevent even people with the best health insurance from receiving the best care.
Tim, her husband of 43 years, is alive and well and by her side — so she need not face this alone.
Though they have no family in Pittsburgh, another former United Chairman lives there — Alan Siger of Consumers Produce Co., Inc.
Alan and his wife Pat immediately stepped up and let the Flemings know that they most certainly did have family in town. It was an example of the produce community at its very best.
As we write, Jan is scheduled for surgery the day before Thanksgiving. There will be chemo afterwards and, maybe, more surgery. The doctors have explained that the cancer is treatable. That is the great blessing. But the whole process will not be easy.
Perhaps as we all prepare for Thanksgiving, Jan’s situation can remind us all to be thankful for our many blessings. For all the blessings she has, Jan would surely rather be home, and to think of a lonely Thanksgiving on a liquid diet in a distant city far from home can help us remember what we all really value.
Fighting cancer is hard. It requires great motivation on the part of the patient. Before the Pundit Poppa went into the hospital, we gathered the whole Prevor clan, including his newly born granddaughter whom he had never seen, to remind him that life was worth fighting for.
Perhaps you can spare a moment to let Jan know that we are rooting for her and that this Thanksgiving, although it may be cold in Pittsburgh, she is held warmly in the prayers of produce industry friends throughout the world.
If you feel so moved, please send a note to Jan here.
Now we have received a letter from an important player in the field:
Your article echoes many of our concerns. National Onion Labs, Inc. was formed in 1998 with the purpose of identifying and applying scientific solutions to the issues you raise. Since its inception, NOL has tested more than 1.3 million onions utilizing an array of public and internally developed methods to identify factors that cause onions to provide consumers’ pleasant or unpleasant taste experiences.
One quick clarification, your comments implied that only short-day onions could be sweet. The Walla Walla Sweet Onion, easily the oldest sweet onion in America, is an intermediate to long-day onion. In addition, over the past decade, selections made by New Mexico State University and others have resulted in some intermediate and late-intermediate varieties, which can also be produced with lower pungencies. In our experience, some of these should be considered “sweet” onions though they are not a short-day variety.
I think you are absolutely right in identifying a global issue resulting from competition on price, at the cost of quality, due to a failure in establishing product criteria that match the desired consumer experience. I agree that the most efficient place to move toward a solution is for retailers to adopt specifications.
The first step in this process should be a Product Description, which specifies the desired consumer experience. Something along the following lines could be considered: “Onions with the designation of sweet should, when eaten raw, have mild and pleasant flavors that leave a lingering impression of sweetness. These onions should be free from pungent, bitter, metallic or other ‘off’ flavors, which interfere with the consumer experience of mild and sweet flavors.” The material in quotations is an adaptation from Horticulture Australia Project VN07010: Mild Onion Certification Program Development — Phase I, Mild Onion Product Objective, Description and Specification Sheet. The term “mild” is used in Australia where the term “sweet” would be used in the US.
The second step would be to establish Product Specifications, which are best able to identify qualifying and non-qualifying product. If, however, there cannot be agreement on what the definition or description is, then there will be little chance of agreement as to how to identify it.
Obtaining agreement as to appropriate specifications may be challenging as it will take more than the pungency or Pyruvic Acid test to do an adequate job. There are a number of onions that are mild (low in pungency) but do not have appropriate flavor qualities.
This very issue is the origin-of-variety specification efforts by the State of Georgia that began in the late 1990’s. (IE: Onions with low pungency or low Pyruvic Acid test numbers that do not taste sweet.) In many ways, the nation is now facing the same challenge of flavor quality and product integrity.
Other tests are needed and are available that directly measure what the consumer tastes. Beyond variety and the limitations of the pungency test, there will be additional challenges to face. In our experience, onion flavor results from the interaction between variety, environment and grower management. Two adjoining fields with the same variety and identical grower management can have very different results. Testing, to be accurate, must be done at each individual field.
These challenges are surmountable, and anyone who wants to, can and will get it right. There is a small cost to accurately know what is being produced, and it may be more costly to actually produce qualifying product. However, if the only criteria is price, then the producer who knows and cares may be at a competitive disadvantage.
Sweet onions appear to be driving category growth. Imagine what would happen to producer, distributor and retailer sales if a higher percentage of consumers experienced the unique flavors that sweet onions present. Many old timers will tell you, “They simply don’t taste as good as they used to.”
If we can get it right, revenue growth and increasing profits for all industry stakeholders will occur.
We look forward to the dialogue which your article will bring.
We thank David for this informative letter. To us it raises substantial questions. If, for example, as David states, “Two adjoining fields with the same variety and identical grower management can have very different results,” we wonder how consistent can sweetness possibly be within a field? After all, if a farmer sold his field to two different people who each continued farming, those would now be two fields.
Although we are sympathetic to the notion of establishing a definition of sweetness that addresses the consumer experience, we suspect that subjective terms such as “should, when eaten raw, have mild and pleasant flavors that leave a lingering impression of sweetness” are likely to spread as much smoke as light on the situation.
Yet, of course, David is correct. Without a definition, we can’t really make a specification.
Of course, whether there is an industrywide specification or if buyers develop their own specifications, David’s end point is the crucial one:
“…if the only criteria is price, then the producer who knows and cares may be at a competitive disadvantage.
Sweet onions appear to be driving category growth. Imagine what would happen to producer, distributor and retailer sales if a higher percentage of consumers experienced the unique flavors that sweet onions present. Many old timers will tell you, ‘They simply don’t taste as good as they used to.’ If we can get it right, revenue growth and increasing profits for all industry stakeholders will occur.”
There has been a lot of industry buzz lately about increasing flavor and enhancing the consumer experience with fresh produce.
The issue with sweet onions combines this industry imperative with common notions of consumer fraud. We have onions out there labeled as sweet that are not. That is defrauding our customers and hurting future sales.