SAVANNAH, Ga. — The Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference, featuring seminars on the Affordable Care Act and food safety, attracted a record number of attendees.

More than 3,100 growers attended the Jan. 9-11 show, co-sponsored by the LaGrange-based Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, said Charles Hall, executive director.

At a Jan. 9 safety session, David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, updated growers on the Food Safety Modernization Act’s proposed food safety rule.

“It’s an evolving topic and every year we see something different coming out of the (Food and Drug Administration),” he said. “Even though the comment period is closed now, the changes will continue. It’s important for the industry to stay engaged and be aware of what’s being recommended, suggested and what will come out in the final rule.”

Amy Philpott, with Washington, D.C.-based Watson Green communications firm, said a crisis is not the time to engage in crisis planning.

Southeast show focuses on food safety, sustainabilityShe cited some recent recalls, including the Shafter, Calif.-based Bidart Bros.’ recall of all its granny smith and gala apples.

“Up until Jensen Farms in 2011, farmers in general were kind of left out of the publicity,” Philpott said. “They may have run into an FDA investigator coming onto the farm, but generally they weren’t brought into it too much as it was the brand owner that took on the responsibility.

“That has changed. As we’re seeing with the apple recall, it’s going back to the farm,” she said. “The FDA is now more often going back to the farm.”

In a session on sustainability, Nikki Rodoni, the former sustainability director for Oxnard, Calif.-based Gills Onions/Rio Farms and the founding principal of Salinas, Calif.-based Measure To Improve LLC consultancy, said the concept of sustainability includes a balance between people, planets and profits.

“When you mention sustainability, some people only think of the environmental side of things, but it really includes the profit and the people as well,” she said. “It’s a way to run a business efficiently and bottom line, if it isn’t profitable, it isn’t sustainable.”

In another session, Lorrie Merker, the vice president of grower relations for Grand Junction, Mich.-based MBG Marketing, a co-owner of Naturipe Farms LLC, discussed social accountability in produce operations.

“When we started our program five years ago, social accountability was a new thing,” she said. “Today, it’s an expectation. The customers we’re dealing with it mandate it.”

The show was co-sponsored by the Columbia-based South Carolina Peach Council and also featured educational sessions that covered business development, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, peaches, watermelons, Vidalia onions, vegetables, muscadines and organics.