I chatted April 13 with Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association.

Chat - Tom Stenzel
Tom Stenzel



3:50 p.m. Tom Karst: Thanks for taking the time for another Fresh Talk chat. My first question is about what your day was like today. What have you been working on — I hear you took part in a traceability meeting. Do you think the industry is well positioned on that issue as the debate on food safety legislation grows?

3:51 p.m. Tom Stenzel: Today has been rather hectic, what with our board meeting next Monday, and the entire convention coming down to the wire. But, other business goes on as well.

3:54 p.m. Stenzel: About a month ago I had a conversation with Leslie Sarasin, the new CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, and several other food association CEOs about traceability. From that discussion came the idea to pull together all of the food association folks to compare notes across all sectors, and that was the meeting we had this morning. It’s interesting that you ask about the produce industry’s positioning — with the recent outbreak associated with peanut products as an ingredient in other foods, and now the recalls of all products containing pistachios as an ingredient, the processed food industry has found itself in a very difficult position. Tracing all the many ingredients going into food recipes is going to be even more complex than produce.

3:55 p.m. Karst: Good point — it’s difficult for food makers who use nuts, for sure.

3:56 p.m. Stenzel:: In this case, the Produce Traceability Initiative put together with PMA and CPMA is really out in front of some other sectors. We have our challenges with re-packing, but even those aren't as great as various food ingredients. We have a long way to go with PTI, but we’re certainly on the right track with a standardized approach to case coding that will allow shippers and receivers across the supply chain to enhance whole chain traceability.

3:59 p.m. Stenzel: One more point I guess, since it's almost convention week — we added a new Produce Traceability Demo Center to our show floor this year, and can't even keep up with the number of vendors who want to participate to help educate our attendees. I also want to thank a number of industry leaders like Reggie Griffin, Jim Corby, David Dever, Steve Grinstead, Roger Harkrider, Larry Nottingham, John Aune and Amy Gates, who have agreed to schedule time in the center talking informally with colleagues about traceability from their perspectives.

4 p.m. Karst: That leads right into my next question. Are you pleased with your staff’s work on the United show? Where do you think the industry will find value in the show this year?

4:03 p.m. Stenzel:: Omigosh — there are so many critical topics the industry is addressing right now, I can't see how anyone could afford to miss the convention. Traceability is tops for sure, but the Global Conference on Produce Food Safety Standards is right there too addressing the critical need for harmonization and benchmarking of audits. I can’t think of a more important effort than to try to bring some rationality to all the duplicative and costly audits we face right now. The good news is we’ve seen real progress among the retail and foodservice community in wanting to see standardization of this process, and I believe the conference will be a major leap forward, in what is admittedly still a long path.

4:04 p.m. Karst:  GFSI, GlobalGAP, etc. All must be sorted out, but it will be revealing to see everyone come together.

4:05 p.m. Stenzel:  I don't have a time in the chat to mention everything at the show, but another hot topic is the Town Hall discussion on the new PBH concept of a national fruit and veg research and promotion order. I think that is also “rules-changer” for our industry, and something that must be seriously weighed for its potential. Our board is hosting Produce for Better Health Foundation president and CEO Elizabeth Pivonka) to make a presentation next Monday (April 20), and we’ll be using the next several months for that industry dialogue to find out how the real stakeholders feel about this. I hope we see a really large turn-out for that discussion.

4:07 p.m. Stenzel: Back to the various standard-setting agencies and auditors — like you said, it will be very interesting. I don't believe I've ever seen them all together in the same room, addressing similarities and differences in their approaches. All with the major retail and foodservice customers, and the grower-shippers and processors, right there.

Karst:  You mention a very big story — the PBH task force on the national promotion board. As a member of the PBH executive committee, how do you see your role — advocate, facilitator, voice of reason — as the dialogue begins and goes forward?

4:11 p.m. Stenzel: Definitely a facilitator — not to give away any confidential info, but the executive committee had some very spirited discussions on just that point. As much as we all believe $30 million could be very well spent in promoting fruits and vegetables, we know that there are a lot of questions about how such a board might be put together, who it should cover, what the assessments should be, how it would operate, etc. Now’s the time for open and candid discussion, not for selling the concept. The last thing I would want to see is for us to take this proposal to USDA, schedule a referendum among the industry, and have it voted down. We've got to understand the real opinions out there now — the next few months will be “our internal referendum” so to speak, so we have a better idea of the industry's interest and commitment down the road.

4:12 p.m. Karst: Good thoughts. I've kept you quite a while. One more question. Which of the roles — managing your staff, lobbying policy makers or connecting with your members and the industry — do you think you are best at? What do you enjoy the most?

4:19 p.m. Stenzel: Unfair question, Tom! Being an association exec — which means that driving consensus is my job — I have to say they're all equally important and fun challenges. But if you pin me down, I'll tell you this. When I was hired as president of United almost 16 years ago now, one of the things I was interested in was working the industry on a variety of challenges and day-to-day responsibilities. I had already been CEO of the Intl. Food Information Council for 8 years, and we were a pretty high-powered group working with the packaged/processed food industry on food safety, nutrition, biotech and similar issues. United offered the opportunity to be more than a full-time lobbyist or issues guy, and actually get into the day-to-day business world of our members. I think that’s enabled me to merge those two worlds much more effectively, so that I know first-hand in the supermarket produce department what it's going to mean that we've been able to win the battle to add fresh fruits and vegetables to the WIC program. That’s what makes this job fun, and the effort rewarding.

4:21 p.m. Karst: Very good. You answered well. Again, thanks for your time on a busy Monday. See you next week in Las Vegas.

4:22 p.m. Stenzel: One more thing Tom — remind next time not to schedule a chat the week before my board meeting and convention! But I'll be glad to chat any other time. Thanks!