NAPLES, Fla. — As they were planting their fall crops, Florida fruit and vegetable growers discussed how food safety legislation and other issues could affect their livelihoods.

At the 67th Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association meeting Sept. 19-21, growers were urged to become involved in the fall state elections. The group also honored Sav-A-Lot Food Stores Inc. for its support of Florida and local grown produce.

Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, executive director of the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis, used a Sept. 21 food safety session to announce the center is awarding $2.8 million to 17 food safety research project.

“In Florida, the industry has created safe food,” she said. “There is no better place in the produce industry for us to make announcement.”

Martha Roberts, University of Florida consultant and former deputy commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Florida growers helped shape national produce safety standards through mandatory Florida tomato safety rules and urged them to remain involved in the Food and Drug Administration’s crafting of safety regulations.

“The more activity you have the more you stay engaged and the more you are at the table,” she said. “Do everything you can to stay engaged and to be prepared and involved. If your voice isn’t heard, there’s no chance of the proposed rules being changed.”

Roberts said FDA officials are planning a spring visit to Florida growing and packing operations to help develop the rules.

Because all of the state’s executive cabinet positions are up for election, Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., a candidate for Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner, urged growers to advocate agricultural issues during the fall elections.

“That peoples’ livelihoods even in downtown Miami depend on a vital agricultural economy in Florida, as well as the airports and seaports, the future of agriculture is bright in the state with the right leadership,” he said during a Sept. 21 luncheon. “The future of Florida is bleak without agriculture. If we get it right, our children and grandchildren for generations to come will be able to talk about the benefits of agriculture to our state.”

The Maitland-based FFVA also awarded its merchandiser of the year honor to Save-A-Lot, St. Louis, a division of Supervalu Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn.

Adam Lytch, operations manager for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., nominated the chain for its promoting locally grown and Fresh from Florida products.

David Bryant, a buyer with Supervalu’s Lakeland office, accepted the award on behalf of Supervalu.

“I have worked in the field in Florida, and a lot of our retailers probably don’t realize the importance of each and every one of you here,” he told growers. “It is said the greatest reward is for the risk takers. I can’t think of any more of a risk taker than the grower. I know what it takes to grow the crops and I appreciate it.”

A benefit auction generated $28,000 for the Immokalee-based Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which cares for and educates farmworker children. Since 2003, the organization has generated more than $400,000 for the charity.

More than 300 people attended the convention, similar to last year’s meetings, said Mike Stuart, FFVA president.

FFVA members also elected Drew Duda, senior vice president of Oviedo-based A. Duda & Sons Inc.’s Duda Ranches, which includes Duda citrus, sod, sugarcane and cattle operations, as its 2010-12 chairman and Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, as its vice chairman.

FFVA convention promotes food safety issues

Doug Ohlemeier

Jerry Mixon (from left), vice president and farm production manager for SunnyRidge Farm Inc., and Keith Mixon, SunnyRidge president and chief executive officer, talk with Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., at the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association convention Sept. 21 in Naples. Keith Mixon is the 2010-12 FFVA vice chairman.