AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — Food safety and labor issues remained key discussions at the National Watermelon Association’s 98th annual convention.

During a Feb. 25 awards banquet, the association installed new president Al Wroten, president of Global Produce Sales Inc., Lakeland, presented industry awards and crowned Katelyn Kelley, Branford, 2012 National Watermelon Queen.

Watermelon industry discusses safety, crowns queenDuring the convention’s Feb. 25 general session, Reggie Griffin, former vice president of produce and floral The Kroger Co. and chairman of the United Fresh Produce Association, and Tom Stenzel, United Fresh’s president and chief executive officer, discussed industry issues.

“The Produce Traceability Initiative is a game-changer for the industry,” Griffin said, referring to the 2008 Food and Drug Administration’s investigation of a food safety outbreak originally linked to tomatoes, but later pinned on Mexican peppers.

“Food is an emotional attachment. When we had the (2008) tomato advisory, they said ‘don’t eat tomatoes,’” Griffin said. “They didn’t say to quit eating tomatoes from this area, or not eat romas or grapes. They basically stopped everyone from selling tomatoes. That was a travesty.”

Stenzel pressed for standardized food safety rules.

“We have to get a harmonized approach where everyone’s on the same page,” he said. “We don’t need 10 different audits. We are working real hard with these new food safety regulations to end up with one common approach across the industry.”

Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, La Grange, discussed how a Georgia E-Verify law harmed growers there.

“As they worked the season last year, we had many growers across the sector including watermelons that could not harvest their crops because they couldn’t get the workers,” Hall said. “Workers didn’t come up from Florida because they were afraid they would have been arrested crossing the border because they didn’t have their paperwork.

“You can easily see what happens if you pass an E-Verify and enforcement law without having a guest-worker program to go with it,” Hall said.

Bob Morrissey, the watermelon association’s executive director, told convention-goers what the industry plans to do during the remaining days of the Washington, D.C. legislative session.

Watermelon industry discusses safety, crowns queen“Complacency is not in our plan,” Morrissey said. “Our plan is to continue to move forward, press the flesh and expand our public affairs efforts.”

During the banquet, the association named Richard De Los Santos, Texas Department of Agriculture coordinator for horticulture, produce and forestry, the watermelon marketer of the year.

A Feb. 24 auction of truckloads of watermelon generated a record $542,217 to finance association activities.

Wroten succeeds Jim Schmidt, managing member of SunTerra Produce Traders Inc., La Quinta, Calif. Schmidt now serves as association chairman.

Association second-vice president John Corsaro, executive vice president of The Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles, advanced to first-vice president and Don Hiller, salesman with Class Produce Group LLC, Jessup, Md., is second vice president.