Tom Stenzel, Produce Marketing Association
Tom Stenzel, Produce Marketing Association

When I conclude a trip like our recent California Fresh Impact Tour, I think I must have the best job among the thousands of associations based in Washington, D.C.

I occasionally get to go on the road and spend time with the most passionate people I know, committed to growing and marketing fresh produce to consumers around the world.

As I drove 1,574 miles up and down the state of California, I visited 22 cities; hosted eight town halls; participated in the California Grape & Tree Fruit League annual meeting; and finally joined a closing celebration in San Diego, with the hosts of the United Fresh Horizons convention in May.

I had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of growers of different commodities, service providers to our industry, value-added fresh processors, wholesalers, retailers and foodservice operators.

At every stop, I learned first hand what’s most important to our members today, and will carry those insights back into our government relations program in Washington, D.C., our educational programs at upcoming conferences, and our networking events bringing our supply chain partners together to grow the fresh produce business.

In the grower community there’s no question that the No. 1 issue I heard was the shortage of labor and critical need for immigration reform.

Growers told me again and again how difficult it is to find workers today, and their concerns for the future as our agricultural work force is aging without being replenished.

As I talked about our current negotiations with members of Congress to develop legislation leading to real immigration reform, growers listened carefully and tried to be optimistic.

Yet after so many years of hard, but futile, efforts, I understood their skepticism as well.

We’ve worked on this so long, and can anyone really see Congress addressing a tough controversial issue like this? But I do see a change coming.

Over the past several months, we’ve been working with diverse leaders such as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Repupblican Sen. Marco Rubio to try to develop legislative solutions specifically for agriculture.

These leaders and many others in the House and Senate are reaching out beyond their comfort zones because they know our nation — and our industry — has a problem that must be solved.

So, I have to believe we have a shot at getting this done — the best shot in many years.

As I traveled from Bakersfield north to Sacramento, then San Francisco south to San Diego, the new food safety regulations proposed by the Food and Drug Administration to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act rose to a close second in concern.

Statewide tour shows industry concernsQuestions about the Produce Safety Rule and Preventive Controls Rule came from every quarter of the industry from grower to retail.

In fact, we were pleased to co-host a food safety Web seminar with the California Grocers Association, briefing retailers throughout the state on how they and their suppliers will be affected by the new regulations.

We also talked about the problem of some farms being exempted from the regulations, and thus the importance of retailers sourcing produce only from food safety-qualified suppliers.

United’s FSMA member working groups and expert councils have now completed three in-person meetings and a dozen Web conferences poring through each of these regulations.

While it’s still too soon to draw conclusions, we are hearing a common refrain that the FDA rules do not adequately follow the legislative intent to focus on commodity-specific food safety practices.

Certain commodities such as leafy greens and tomatoes that have developed extensive commodity specific best practices seem to be finding FDA’s outline of risks and required controls largely similar to their best scientific knowledge.

But for commodities such as citrus or treefruit that have very different growing practices, and no history of significant foodborne illness, the same practices seem out of place and unnecessary to protect public health.

Concentrating resources

Ultimately, our focus — both industry and FDA — must be on concentrating our resources where it will matter the most, and not chasing after illusory theoretical risks. A one-size-fits-all approach is not our most effective means of protecting public health.

Beyond these issues, I found continuing passion everywhere I stopped to deliver the very highest quality fresh produce to our customers.

Our industry is passionate about fresh produce — both for the better health of our consumers and for the growth of our businesses.

I was reminded time and time again how unique our supply chain really is. Growers coming together with wholesalers and retailers — not just as buyers and sellers, but as partners in a common and noble enterprise. And, the packaging companies, IT consultants, equipment manufacturers, financial service institutions and all of our service providers play an equally important role in our successful delivery of fresh produce.

As we prepare to celebrate the donation of 350 salad bars to California schools, there is something about fresh produce that will never be matched by any other foods!

As I think about the passion for produce I saw throughout this trip, I have to mention four special individuals I was able to meet along the way. It was my privilege to personally congratulate four of our winners in this year’s Produce Managers Awards program by visiting their stores in Visalia, Elk Grove and Auburn, Calif.

These guys, and the 21 other men and women from across the country to be honored in this United/Ready Pac program at our San Diego convention, are truly the front line of our industry.

Congrats to Darren Estermann, Save Mart/FoodMAXX; James Gordy, Safeway; and Corey Watkins and Ryan Acosta; Raley’s. I’ll see you soon in San Diego! It is their passion for produce that we should all emulate.

Looking back, it was a great two weeks out of the D.C. office, in the real world of produce. But I have to say it wouldn’t be possible without our great staff that kept up with all the Congressional meetings, talking with FDA, and planning our many education programs.

They told me I had to end the tour doing something crazy to promote our opening night party on the USS Midway aircraft carrier in San Diego harbor.

I’ve done a lot of crazy things over the years, but jumping out of an airplane was certainly a first. I think I’ll now go back to town hall luncheons!

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

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