(Aug. 16) SAN RAMON, Calif. — Despite challenges that range from consolidation to changing business models to food safety and security, the produce industry has within its very products the means to double its business. Elements of the produce industry just need to work together to capitalize on the healthiness of its products.

That’s the message from Tom Stenzel, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, who spoke Aug. 13 at the first Fresh Produce & Floral Council membership luncheon in Northern California.

More than 250 grower-shippers, retailers and marketers of fresh produce and flowers turned up for the event, which was aimed at developing council membership in Northern California. The council, based in the Los Angeles suburb of Buena Park, Calif., has traditionally served members from Southern California.

Linda Stine, president of the council, said she was delighted with the turnout and said that as a follow-up to the luncheon she would meet with companies in Northern California to see how they and the council could work together.

“This was a test to broaden our mission of promoting fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers and to reach out to additional communities,” she said.

And membership in the council is increasing. At the luncheon, the council honored three new members: Meritech Inc., Creston; Stockton-based Diamond of California; and, Fresh Kist Produce LLC, Salinas.

United’s Stenzel was the guest speaker. He pointed out that those in the produce industry need to work together to make clear to the nation that increasing fruit and vegetable consumption will make people healthier. Only through concerted efforts to increase consumption can the industry improve its business, he said.

“If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that increasing consumption is important,” Stenzel said. “I think we can double consumption. That means going from $80 billion to $160 billion.”

There are several major trends with which the produce industry is grappling, Stenzel said. First, the industry is changing from simply selling what it grows to ascertaining what the consumer wants and then providing it.

Second, food safety is becoming increasingly important, something that’s challenging to deal with when the product is grown outside in the ground.

“Our product used to be considered raw. People knew they had to wash it,” Stenzel said. “Not anymore. Consumers walk into the store and expect 100% safety.”

Third, produce is beginning to be sold more and more like grocery products, which adds complications when it is still tied to commodity pricing, he said.

And finally, consolidation and globalization are both adding competition from abroad and shrinking the numbers of competitors in the industry.

“We’re an industry in transition,” Stenzel said.

But industry leaders already are taking steps to put a national spotlight on the healthfulness of produce. As summer turns into fall, for example, industry leaders will pressure Congress for a $25 million increase in funding for nutrition information, Stenzel said.

“If we get that extra $25 million, it will fund 5 a Day throughout the country,” he said.

And one of the most exciting parts of the new farm bill is a $6 million program that provides free fresh fruits and vegetables all day to children in 100 schools in four states, Stenzel said.

As the produce industry pulls together to push its health message, it also needs to make sure it is providing the best products it can, he said.

“Stop talking about consumer satisfaction and start talking about consumer delight,” he said.