Horticulture meeting focuses on food safety, volatile markets - The Packer

Horticulture meeting focuses on food safety, volatile markets

12/08/2011 09:36:00 AM
Renee Stern

WENATCHEE, Wash. — Food safety and volatile markets were key threads running through the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting Dec. 5-7.

Attention focused on anticipated release of proposed regulations to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“They’re coming up like a freight train,” said Chris Schlect, Northwest Horticultural Council president.

Meanwhile, economic and political volatility around the world presents challenges and opportunities for tree fruit sales.

Presenters from Driscoll Strawberry Associates, Watsonville, Calif., and sliced apple market company Crunch Pak, Cashmere, Wash., offered potential lessons for success.

Lynette Smith, the association’s communications director, estimated attendance at the three-day meeting at 1,500.

Jim Gorny, the Food and Drug Administration’s senior advisor for produce safety, said the agency anticipates publishing proposed produce regulations next month in the Federal Register. He urged the audience to offer suggestions on the draft rules.

Schlect and U.S. Apple Association president Nancy Foster said they expected regulations addressing risks and practices found in individual crops, treating apples, for instance, differently from lettuce.

Instead, the FDA is taking a risk-based approach that focuses on specific practices regardless of crop. Gorny acknowledged the limitations, but said a crop-based approach raises equally problematic concerns.

“Our goal is to codify what a prudent operator is currently doing,” he said.

Procedures offer flexibility to consider research-backed alternatives.

Foster and Schlect said their groups plan to do just that, including addressing provisions on water applied to the edible portion of crops, such as overhead irrigation in tree fruit.

When it comes to marketing, berries and sliced apples present success stories worth studying.

At Driscolls, success stems from developing a year-round supply and ensuring quality, said John Johnston, director of blueberry business.

Berries have posted impressive growth in retail sales: 5.7% for the year ending in July, overtaking apples, which are now No. 4 in retail produce sales.

Concerns about health have helped cement that growth, Johnston said. Consumer demand has shifted purchases to ever-larger pack sizes.

Tony Freytag, national marketing director for Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak, pointed to those same factors for growth in the sliced apple category. Adoption by fast-food chains trying to combat childhood obesity has helped propel sliced apples to a $320 million business.

“The category is in the right place at the right time,” Freytag said.

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