(Sept. 15) WASHINGTON, D.C. — An immigration rally in front of the U.S. Capitol was an exclamation point to the industry plea that Congress deliver comprehensive immigration legislation this year.

The Sept. 13 rally was a focal point of the Sept. 12-14 Washington Public Policy Conference, the first event of the newly formed United Fresh Produce Association.

A news conference Sept. 12 formally unveiled the association that resulted from the merger of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association and the International Fresh-cut Produce Association.

The conference featured more than 300 attendees and had the familiar features of congressional visits and high-profile speakers from Congress and government agencies.

A heavyweight lineup of Food and Drug Administration officials were on hand to discuss foodborne illness outbreaks linked to lettuce and other commodities.

On the lobbying front, attendees pushed for more fruits and vegetables in U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition programs and more funding for industry priorities.

Longtime nutrition advocate and an ally in the fruit and vegetable snack program Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told attendees at a Sept. 13 luncheon that he also supports the proposal to add fruits and vegetables to the Women, Infants and Children food packages.

Harkin said it was his goal of putting the snack program in every school in America and maintaining planting restrictions on fruits and vegetables on subsidized program crop land.

However, immigration was the central focus of the conference.

United Fresh president Tom Stenzel addressed the Sept. 13 rally at the Capitol with a cautionary note about keeping the U.S. food supply from being outsourced.

“Congress needs to get serious,” Stenzel said. “We know it is complicated and difficult, but now is the time for action.”

EXPECT MORE, GET MORE

While the industry was expecting more and getting less than it wanted from Congress, United Fresh leaders said their new message to their members is to expect more and get more.

Stenzel said the merged association will offer superior value in programming and top-shelf food safety and lobbying expertise to the industry.

Stenzel said he anticipates membership. United’s board of directors was expected to give United staff a growth target later in September, he said.

Jerry Welcome, who had served for three years as president of the IFPA, is United Fresh’s executive vice president of business development.

United Fresh will offer two produce trade shows in 2007 — United FreshTech, set for April 25-28 in Palm Springs, Calif., and United Fresh Marketplace, scheduled for May 5-8 in Chicago. The association also is promoting Fresh-Cut Europe 2006, set for Nov. 2-3 in London. The event is organized by United Fresh in cooperation with Eurofruit magazine.

Stenzel, who has been president of United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association since 1993, said the merger was legal Sept. 1. The budget for the coming fiscal year is $7.2 million, with an additional budget of $500,000 for United Fresh’s Research and Education Foundation.

With 22 employees at the group’s Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters, Stenzel said United Fresh will be run as a “lean and mean association” with low overhead but abundant expertise on staff.

Members of IFPA and the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association are automatically members of the new association until Jan. 1. A new dues scale has not been finalized, Stenzel said, but he pledged that members who were previously members of both associations will save money in the new association.

The co-chairs of the new association are Torrey Marshall and Mark Miller, president and owner of Fresh From Texas/Energy Sprouts Inc., San Antonio.

Stenzel said Torrey Marshall and Miller will operate as leaders of United Fresh through May, at which time leadership will transition to chairman-elect Emanuel Lazopoulos, senior vice president of North American sales and marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla.