Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

The Food Marketing Institute has one show every two years, while the two national produce associations each have a show every year.

What’s wrong with that picture?

That was one observation I heard on the show floor at the Dallas United Fresh 2012 show.

All the people I visited with on the show floor were pleased with the traffic, so the fact that people came and exhibited at the Dallas show wasn’t irrational behavior.

Yet more and more industry leaders who are prodding the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association to merge are feeling the weight of the two national produce expos is unsustainable.

If enough members who feel that way stop writing big checks to both organizations, the wisdom of bringing the groups together will appear God-given.

As somebody referenced on the show floor May 3, though, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

But it seems enough questions remain that some put the actual prospects of a merger at just a 50/50 chance of happening.

Who will lead a unified national association? What members of staff will be considered “redundant” and thus subject to the chopping block?

From a simple self-preservation perspective, don’t look for executives of either organization to embrace the idea of a merger.

Can the “business model” that is PMA meld with the government relations and the down-home grower-shipper representation mission of United Fresh?

Can a unified PMA-United Fresh organization lobby for grower-shipper interests as effectively as United Fresh did alone?

Can a unified organization create significant savings for the industry?

When retail and grower-shipper instincts clash, what principles will drive a unified trade association? Will support of minor-use pesticides, the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act trust and immigration reform initiatives be as fervent?

PMA has long leaned on FMI to take the lead on issues like country-of-origin labeling. How would a unified and more powerful national produce association engage with an issue like that?

While it is easy to appreciate the value of closed-door negotiations, the greater industry needs more sunshine about the proposal to merge the two groups.

Yet, even with full disclosure, it is no guarantee the industry could get beyond a 50/50 split on whether this long-simmering issue will come to fruition.

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I enjoyed Dan’l Mackey Almy’s speech at the Women in Produce reception.

The heartfelt retelling of her roots in Texas and the story of her ascent in the produce industry was compelling and moving, notwithstanding its considerable duration.

Her unmatched force of will should make her challenge for the industry to donate 500 school salad bars by May of next year doable.

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Laura Bush assured United Fresh convention-goers that her father-in-law had “made peace” with broccoli, which brought hearty laughs from the May 2 general session audience. Her appearance and reflections about years in the White House lent a big-time feel and a nice winning moment for the show.

It was refreshing to hear Fred Morganthall, chairman of the Food Marketing Institute and president of North Carolina-based Harris Teeter, give a self-deprecating vision of the future in his keynote address.

Noting how wrong predictions from 10 years ago were (remember how radio frequency identification tags and self-checkout lanes were supposed to be everywhere by now?), he put no great stock in his own vision for the next decade.

He did seem quite assured, however, about the staying power of local food and the certainty of increased online sales by retailers and by suppliers.

He said large suppliers like Procter & Gamble will ship products to consumers directly, and Amazon.com will challenge Wal-Mart as the top retailer in the country.

That observation made me think ... can produce suppliers of the future craft a market edge by delivering perishables directly to the consumer and bypassing the retail store all together?

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No official announcement yet, but there is excitement about the addition of blueberries to McDonalds’ oatmeal options.

It sounds like a winner to me — and it sounds like big business for the blueberry handlers.

tkarst@thepacker.com

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