TAMPA, Fla. — More retail and foodservice produce buyers traveling to the Sunshine State helped bring another year of record attendance to Southern Exposure 2012.

The Southeast Produce Council’s ninth retail and foodservice conference and exposition attracted 1,599 growers, shippers, brokers, marketers, distributors and buyers to the shore of the Tampa Bay convention center, higher than last year’s record 1,403 participants, said Terry Vorhees, the East Ellijay, Ga.-based organization’s executive director.

Up to 305 retail and foodservice buyers converged on the March 1-3 show, more than the 280 buyers who participated last year, Vorhees said.

“There is a tremendous number of retailers here,” said Mark Hanks, vice president of North American sales and marketing for DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce. “It’s amazing. The turnout of retailers and the time you get to spend with them makes this one of the best shows in the country. The growth of this show is unbelievable.”

Maximum exposure as SEPC takes TampaThis was the fifth time Kent Kuwata, category manager of Los Angeles retailer Smart & Final Inc., traveled to the spring show.

“This is one of the top shows around,” he said. “Hats off to Terry (Vorhees) and the council. They do a very nice job here. Every year it improves. They really make it interesting for the retailers.”

A panel of some of the industry’s leading retail and foodservice distribution executives driving food safety changes tackled the Produce Traceability Initiative during a March 3 session.

“Part of our problem as a distributor, we can come up with solutions for this, but if we do it for U.S. Foods and the rest of the industry comes up with another solution down the line, we’ve put money into this to come up with a system that we have to get rid of later,” said Frank Swanson, national category manager of fresh produce for U.S. Foods, Rosemont, Ill.

“We don’t want to be put into that situation. We’re willing to be a leader and do what everyone else does, but as of today, I don’t know what that answer is. But we’re working on it. You can see how this little bitty thing is a huge problem for a company like us that uses a packer label for 50% of the items we sell.”

Gene Harris, senior purchasing manager for Denny’s Corp., Spartanburg, S.C., said the restaurant chain has a list of approved distributors which must employ effective traceback systems for the 120 U.S. produce distributors Denny’s uses.

“We have 1,650 restaurants and growing,” Harris said. “We’re in 50 states and four countries. Our distribution is fragmented. That’s why traceability is important to us. We want to know where everything’s coming from.”

A session also covered how food bloggers are influencing produce consumers.

On March 2, two motor coaches took supermarket and foodservice buying executives to central Florida growing and importing operations.

At Plant City-based Wish Farms’ Duette growing operation, Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer, described growing, harvesting and distribution operations.

“We have had some real weather challenges this season,” he said. “This season has been one of the worst we have ever gone through.”

At the Port Manatee importing operations of Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., tour participants saw how Del Monte handles its banana and tropical imports in its second largest U.S. port.

Delivering the conference’s March 3 keynote speech, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam described some of the problems Florida and southeastern grower-shippers endure.

“Poorly thought-out labor regulations threaten the viability of U.S. agriculture,” he said. “Water and labor issues, these are typically regional issues, not just Florida issues. These issues the industry is struggling with will chart the course for the future of the produce industry.”

The council welcomed participants through its golden age of Hollywood-themed gala opening party at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina the evening of March 2.

During the March 3 trade show, 240 exhibitors, 40 more than last year, displayed their products which this year included an additional hour of exhibition.

Note on correction: This story originally incorrectly identified the people in the photo.