PALM BEACH, Fla. — The question of how the produce traceability initiative will affect the entire industry dominated discussions at the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association's annual convention.

Grower-shippers attending the Sept. 27-29 event also discussed how they could prepare for possible foodborne illness outbreaks and learned what the industry is doing on the blossoming topic of sustainability.

During a Sept. 28 panel discussion that featured leading industry people, growers learned how the industry is grappling with traceability from the growing end to retail distribution centers.

William Pool, manager of agricultural production and research for Wegman's Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y., detailed how the 73-store chain recently handled a recall of four cases of bunched spinach it had received from a distributor that had sourced from Salinas, Calif.-based Ippolito International LP.

In mid-September, Ippolito issued the recall over concerns that shipments to 12 states and three Canadian provinces could have been contaminated with salmonella.

"We have some 800-pound gorillas in the rooms," Pool said. "You have challenges and we have challenges. The really expensive gorilla is scanning outbound cases. Ultimately, if I want to limit my liability on product on the shelf and boost the confidence of customers, I have to deal with that. There has to be a better way."

Traceability, sustainability topics dominate FFVA meeting

Doug Ohlemeier

Mike Stuart (right), president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, talks with Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., at the Sept. 29 traditional cracker breakfast during the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association's convention in Palm Beach, Fla. The 66th annual convention tackled industry issues such as traceability and sustainability.

Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said proposed legislation in Washington, D.C., essentially points to the produce traceability initiative.

"If we have electronic traceback mandated, we will figure out how to do this as an industry," Fleming said. "If the consumer doesn't think produce a safe choice, we will all be hurt financially and some of us will go out of business. Some shipments will slip through the nets as we can't test every bulk load.

"We have to have some process in place to quickly locate what the problem is so when we are guilty by association, we can clear ourselves. Just because you may not be the guilty party, don't think you're in the clear. You have to prove you're in the clear."

During the traditional Florida cracker breakfast, outgoing Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., who is running for the state's commissioner of agriculture position, discussed legislative challenges in the nation's capital, including card-check and cap-and-trade issues.

"Elections have consequences which tend to be fluid, incremental and dynamic," he said. "What we are witnessing (in D.C.) is not fluid, incremental or dynamic, but a paradigm shift between the government and the people."

Jim Mulhern of Watson & Mulhern LLC, a Washington-based public relations agency specializing in crisis communications, urged growers to prepare for possible food safety crises.

He said he expects Congress to send President Barack Obama a bill overhauling food safety regulations bill by the end of the year or early next year.

"This is the major negative issue we (the produce industry) have to deal with," Mulhern said. "This one is so important to get right so we get the static out of the air so people can focus on the positive messages coming out of our industry."

This year's industry gathering attracted about 300 participants, up from 250 last year, said Lisa Lochridge, FFVA's director of public affairs.