(UPDATED COVERAGE, March 3) TAMPA, Fla. — The Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure 2012 opened March 2 with record participation.

Southern Exposure opens with high attendanceThe organization’s big winter event saw large numbers of retail, foodservice and wholesale buyers converge on the Sunshine State.

This year, 1,487 growers, shippers, brokers, marketers, distributors and buyers are in Tampa, up from last year’s record 1,403 participants, said Terry Vorhees, the East Ellijay, Ga.-based organization’s executive director.

More than 300 retail and foodservice buyers converged for the show, higher than the 280 buyers who trekked to last year’s event in Orlando, Vorhees said. 

“The show is going very well,” said former council president Tom Page, the East Coast procurement manager for the Lakeland office of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu Inc. “We are at record attendance again. We have record booths and record people here.” 

On March 2, buses loaded with retail and foodservice buyers visited 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., a subsidiary of Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., tour participants saw how Del Monte handles its banana and tropical imports in its second largest U.S. port.

“We have a big operation here,” said Dennis Christou, Del Monte’s vice president of marketing. “We are proud of being part of the growing trend of helping consumers eat healthier.”

In a March 3 session on the Produce Traceability Initiative, 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.

The confab welcomed participants with a golden age of Hollywood-themed gala opening party at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina the evening of March 2. Events on March 3 include a large trade show that features 240 exhibits.

Up to 270 participants played golf during the March 1 pre-convention golf tournament, Vorhees said.