One of the welcome reflections of the “outside the Beltway” diversity in the latest incarnation of the USDA’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee was when one member asked a government speaker to dispense with the acronyms and speak in actual words.

Committee brings outside-the-Beltway thinking

Tom Karst
National Editor

Another self-deprecating member relished the fact that he had never been a part of a “brain trust” before and joked that he kind of liked the idea. He said he hoped that his participation in such a group was being duly noted back home.

Another committee member asked United Fresh Produce Association president Tom Stenzel about how effective the industry’s Produce Traceability Initiative plan could be as a voluntary effort.

“Isn’t that like being a little bit pregnant?”

Finally, the best evidence committee members weren’t taking themselves too seriously was when a member asked USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan a question after her brief speech to the group March 30. It was not some query about the PACA fee increase or food safety regulation, but rather if Merrigan had any pull with the White House to score a trip for the committee to visit the vegetable garden when the committee meets again in September.

Make no mistake, the committee was not all “gee whiz” and wonderment at Washington. The group has several industry veterans and rolled up its sleeves on industry issues. Working groups were established on federal government procurement programs, food safety issues, labor and the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

But the March 30-31 meeting of the Fruit and Vegetable Advisory Committee showed that its diversity will be its strength.
The small grower with an agri-tourism business, the Midwest retailer, the quality assurance manager, the berry marketer — all of their voices were heard in the two-day meeting. That’s a promising start.

——

Speaking of acronyms, what does the industry make of the PTI Steering Committee survey results? I see that a couple of reader comments on The Packer story online about the survey were not cheery.

One said: “Is this really necessary? If more American produce was bought by the major brands instead of being imported, Americans could be put to work in this time of need and you would know where it came from. Your local American farmer.”

Another said: “I will sell my store first. I am fed up with all of this. Puleeze don’t even try to tell me it’s for my own good.
What an absolute crock all of this is. They’ve taken every bit of profit out of reasonable sale prices and all we do at the retail level is deal with angry customers who have to pay extra for the product!”

When I talked earlier in March with Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce and floral for St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets Inc., he stressed that PTI progress doesn’t happen overnight.

O’Brien said survey data that showed silence between buyers and suppliers about GTIN numbers may be an indication that work is being done.

For example, O’Brien said Schnuck’s was working on how to receive the GTIN numbers from suppliers.

“We really can’t be asking the supply side for their numbers until we can do something with them and the supply side is saying, ‘I’m working on this. What should I do with them?’” he said.

“We’re working on it, so I think silence is a good thing in relation to where we are at with our timelines,” he said.
“Everybody is committed to the process and committed to PTI, and I think we will be fine.”

Regarding milestones six and seven — scanning of inbound and outbound produce cases — O’Brien said the goal of PTI is a best practices approach.

“Scanning is a loose term,” he said. “Capturing the data is what we will be doing. We will be looking for technology solutions.”

To me, the biggest question remains how PTI will work at distribution centers. How much of handling costs are retailers and other receivers willing to absorb to comply with PTI?

If retailers do buy in all the way then the industry will be more than a little bit pregnant with PTI.

E-mail tkarst@thepacker.com

What do you think about PTI or the USDA's Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.