(April 2, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Buyers attending the Produce Marketing Association’s produce solutions event got a peek into the lives of their consumers who buy in retail and foodservice sectors.

They also received an update on the industry’s efforts to shape food safety regulations at the March 22-24 Consumer Trends ’07 Produce Solutions Conference.

This year’s program — the second one outside of California — also saw the former Retail Produce Solutions Conference expanded to interest foodservice buyers.

Produce industry leaders discussed the industry’s reaction to the food safety scares just an hour before the Food and Drug Administration March 23 released its final report on the September E. coli outbreak linked to spinach.

Tim York, chief executive officer of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative Inc., a broadline produce foodservice distributor purchasing and marketing organization, revealed responses to industry efforts to improve food safety.

Of the 22 companies in a retail and foodservice buyers’ coalition that has called for the industry to develop a single set of safety standards, only six companies plan to require suppliers to join the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, said York, former PMA chairman and member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s fruit and vegetable industry advisory committee.

Eleven of the companies said they would strongly encourage their suppliers to sign the agreement and two said they told their suppliers to investigate rather than adopt the pact. Three didn’t ask their suppliers to take any position.

“We think it’s critically important that everyone is on board with the California marketing agreement,” York said. “The buyers in this room have the capability of helping push those additional percentages of suppliers.”

During a luncheon, Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said the industry and its allies, through its retail, foodservice and produce associations and boards, are finally doing the right thing in regards to food safety assurance.

“If there’s a silver lining in what we’ve lived through in the last few months, it’s that attention to food safety is almost universal,” he said. “Our industry must really recognize the reality of federal food safety oversight.”

This year’s conference attracted 280 attendees, an increase from the 250 who participated in last year’s Houston show.

PMA president Bryan Silbermann said the 2007 show attracted attendees with higher-level positions in their companies.