(April 23) NAPLES, Fla. — At the April 19 annual meeting of the Fruit & Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corp. in Naples, president Stephen Whitney outlined the group’s focus for the coming year.

"I’ll sum it up in three words," he said. "Membership, membership, membership. That’s the lifeblood of our organization."

Actually, the Ottawa-based DRC has come a long way in its membership drive over the last 2 1/2 years. Reaching its goal of 1,500 members (800 from Canada, 500 from the U.S. and 200 from Mexico) isn’t that far off.

"We’re two-thirds of the way there," Whitney said, noting the DRC’s membership includes 720 firms in Canada, 240 firms in the U.S. and just 10 in Mexico.

Whitney said U.S. membership should get a boost this year from the help of Patrick Hanemann, whom the DRC hired last fall as a recruiter. Hanemann, a consultant in McAllen, Texas, and a former executive with several leading produce firms, will work with regional organizations such as the Newport Beach, Calif.-based Western Growers Association and the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

And the so-far lagging interest from firms in Mexico should get a huge boost with the establishment of a separate dispute resolution organization south of the border. The DRC expects quick action in the next few months on a Mexican DRC that should give U.S. and Canadian exporters reassurance in shipping to Mexican receivers.

At the meeting in Naples, Ernesto Maldonado Garza made a presentation outlining Mexico’s vision for an organization that will help with cross-border disputes. Garza, Mexico’s director of trade promotion and foreign market development, said the Mexican government has committed financing, and the U.S. government has agreed to provide technical assistance to forming an organization that will, among other things, establish a credible destination inspection service in Mexico.

While the DRC remains short of its targeted $750,000 annual budget, the group operated this past year with a surplus of nearly $100,000, wiping out the previous year’s deficit. When it reaches its goal (1,500 members paying $500 in annual membership dues), the DRC will be able to operate offices in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, Whitney said.

One positive sign: The DRC has a membership retention rate of about 90%.

In its first two years of operation, the DRC closed 159 complaints within an average time of 45 days. Thirteen cases could not be settled and went to the DRC’s expedited arbitration process. Of those cases, the claimants won 11 of them in full or in part.

Among the resolutions passed at the meeting in Naples was one that gives the DRC the right to publish the names of members that have been suspended or expelled from the group, along with the names of everyone responsibly connected and the reasons for their censures.

Matt McInerney, chairman of the DRC and executive vice president of WGA, said aggressively pursuing those who don’t live up to the rules of the DRC will serve the organization well heading into the future.

"I think that has resonated with the members," McInerney said. "I look at the suspensions and revocations as validation that the organization is working."

McInerney was re-elected chairman during the annual meeting, and Cristabal Fox Quesada of Congelados Don Jose was elected vice chairman.