One of the enjoyable things about the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Groups, on LinkedIn and Google, is getting reaction from readers on open ended issues. Recently, a put these questions to the group:

What should be the top priorities for United Fresh and PMA this year?

What should the board of directors of each group focus on?

There were some thoughtful responses, and I will list a few of them in this space, without names attached:

1. Alternative chemical treatments for Food Safety/Food Spoilage reduction in packing houses, food processing, and repack operations. Many packers/processors are looking for chlorine alternatives and although there are many other chemical options, there hasn't been sufficient communication from the industry letting people know what are EFFECTIVE alternatives to chlorine.

\2. One area in particular still not high enough a priority, nor moving fast enough, is an efficient, much faster process, that helps "local" "small scale" farmers comply with food safety expectations. With all the consumer interest and demand, and retailers pushing hard to procure more local, this is a time bomb waiting to go off. Small scale farmers are not paying enough attention to water, and land drainage, rodent control, etc. etc. the degree necessary. It's only going to take one "local" farm incident for this to blow up nationally. Right now, the approach by retailers is to demand from the farmer a certain level of liability insurance. That's a really poor approach.

3. How will SB 510 (Food Safety Modernization Act) affect our businesses both large and small? I just read the entire bill and there is a lot in there! How can we as an industry effect what regulations will eventually come from this act?

4. United Fresh and PMA should add a "small grower" membership level that is affordable for the small independent farms exempted by the Tester Amendment. Say $100 a year. Forgive me if there is such a program, because I am honestly not aware of one if there is. $100 per year is better than nothing and I bet if you did a survey of United Fresh/PMA membership I bet you would find that very few of their members gross under $500K a year. If that is the case, PMA and United Fresh do not represent the growers exempted by the Tester Amendment and therefore should not imply that they speak for the entire industry. I know that won't be a popular comment, but I am sincere about the $100 per year thing. It would buy lots of goodwill and the small growers would sure appreciate it.

5 .In addition to the Food Safety and Child Nutrition bills on the table, I would like to see them ratchet up their involvement in the Farm Bill discussions. Specialty Crops made some good headway in the last Farm Bill but with budget and "pay-go" policies on the board, many of these programs (including the highly successful MAP Program) are in the cross-hairs for cuts.

6. I would like to see them more forward thinking. Let's tackle the larger issues that can help our industry. This includes efficiencies in growing, harvesting and shipping fresh produce to reduce the strain on natural resources. Let's return to flavor as the top priority when selecting seed varieties. And let us all work together to raise consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by improving accessibility, education and promotion. It is easy to talk about trendy topics like local and organic, but more difficult to not disparage other parts of the industry while singing their praises. Don't scare people off of blueberries in January. They are more likely to turn away from fresh produce entirely if we use guilt or scare tactics to promote one part of the industry.

TK: The effect on the industry of the new food safety law is weighing heavy on the minds of operators. What's more, there appears to be a call to do a more effective job in reaching small growers with food safety education and programming. It raises the question of whether United and PMA can expand their "tent" to include small growers. It would be ironic if small growers were given concessions or discounted prices to join PMA and United. After all, wouldn't that be another prick in the side of the larger commercial growers who have to carry the heavy load of food safety regulation? Still, it is easy to see the need and appeal to bring small and large growers together for the goal of produce safety. Thanks to discussion group members for their input on what they think industry priorities should be.