AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — The Sunshine State’s produce industry trekked to northern Florida to make this year’s Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association convention one of its biggest.

FFVA show attracts record attendance, tackles issuesMore than 360 growers, packers and other industry personnel packed the Sept. 23-25 meetings to learn the latest on critical industry issues including food safety, immigration and health care reform.

Mike Stuart, president of the Maitland-based organization marking its 70th year, said attendance increased 20% from the 300 that participated in last year’s show and is the highest in at least two decades.

During a Sept. 23 labor session, Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, Washington, D.C., said reform supporters are entering a key period in November and December for possible bill consideration after lawmakers settle the federal budget mess.

“We can’t afford to lose these workers,” Conner said. “We must do something about the legal status of the existing workers. We have more than what we want more or less in the Senate bill. If we can get the house to pass almost anything and get to conference, we can begin to work on these issues with the good Senate agricultural provisions.”

In a Sept. 24 session on the Food Safety Modernization Act, Samir Assar, director of produce safety staff for the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the agency has received nearly a thousand comments and anticipates receiving more.

FFVA show attracts record attendance, tackles issues“The bulk of our comments usually come at the end of the comment period and usually come from the bigger associations and are very lengthy,” he said. “We have heard one stakeholder plans to submit 600 pages of comments which blows my mind. But all comments are welcome and we want them all.

“We plan to further analyze them down to a point where we can determine if there’s information that would cause us to move in a certain direction or something that needs further investigation,” Assar said.

To more effectively market produce, grower-shippers also learned how they can capture the attention of young people who are more interested in food than other generations.

On Sept. 23, Phil Lempert, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based industry analyst known as the Supermarket Guru, discussed how produce can benefit from changing consumer trends.

He said the Baby Boomer generation is big enough to reunite Cheech and Chong, who promoted Fiber One bars.

FFVA show attracts record attendance, tackles issues“Produce, you’re stronger than Fiber One bars,” Lempert said. “We often blame candy and soda companies for obesity. But they’re really smart marketers. I would find the smartest person at Coca Cola and hire them to do your marketing. If we really want to change behavior, it’s not just pointing fingers at candies and sodas. It’s offering alternatives.”

At a Sept. 23 breakfast, FFVA chairman Keith Mixon, the Winter Haven-based president of Dole Berry Co. LLC, reported that FFVA is experiencing increasing social media interaction.

On the legislative front, Mixon reported every bill the organization supported in Tallahassee was signed into law and that none of the bills FFVA members opposed passed.

During the Sept. 24 traditional Florida “cracker” breakfast, retired U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Robert Darling gripped listeners as he described the 24 hours he worked inside President George W. Bush’s underground chamber during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.