(Sept. 18) ST. HELENA, Calif. — It’s a surefire formula.

Send invitations to a wide range of the domestic produce industry’s major movers and shakers. Then, send other invitations to topflight chefs representing a couple score of the nation’s most respected foodservice operations. Add on to that a selected few of the globe’s culinary giants. Then, have the 200 or so guests gather in a California paradise.

That was the stage set for the Third Annual Invitational Leadership Forum on Flavor, Quality & American Menus on Sept. 10-13, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in conjunction with the University of California at Davis.

Ken McCorkle, senior vice president for Wells Fargo Bank and an expert on trends in U.S. agriculture, kicked off the first full-day agenda. He said opportunities abound for product differentiation in produce and foodservice.

McCorkle pointed to organic produce as just one avenue that’s producing increasing revenues. He said even products that are virtually identical find opportunities.

“If you can brand-differentiate bottled water, “McCorkle said, “you can brand-differentiate anything.”

Former undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture August Schumacher, now with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, Mich., said more diverse ethnic foods are growing in popularity. So much so, he said, that medical industry giant Kaiser Permanente, Oakland, Calif., now buys produce from Hmong farmers in the San Joaquin Valley for use in the firm’s hospital kitchens throughout California.

Eating away from home continues to increase, said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif. He said research shows that 130 million Americans eat at least one meal away from home every day.

Nassif also warned of discouraging signs for the domestic produce industry. He said the nation is losing 20,000 acres of farmland every year.

Nassif said the growing agriculture labor shortage could have dire consequences. If the shortage continues, he said prices will not increase but consumers will see more foreign-grown produce.

That could cause problems, Nassif said, because foreign produce growers are not required to meet the health and safety regulations imposed on domestic growers. He said just 2% of imported produce is tested for safety.