(April 24, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) HERMOSILLO, Mexico — First-to-market, buy local and the role of grapes in foodservice were all on the table during a panel discussion of the U.S. market at the April 18 Sonora Spring Grapes Summit.

The panel, moderated by John Pandol, Mexican operations chief for Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros. Inc., discussed the tastes of the U.S. market in order to give grape growers a better idea of what U.S. consumers want.

When asked whether it’s better to be first to market or to wait until optimum flavor profiles are achieved, Brian Sekenske, buyer for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu Inc., said it depends on the store.

“We do like to be first to the marketplace, just to show customers that we do have the product,” he said. “We’ll carry just enough to get by until volumes are better.”

In foodservice, however, Mike Hansen, senior director of produce for Houston-based Sysco Inc., said consistency of price is more important than being the first out of the block with a new growing region.

“We have to pay a lot of attention to transitions in regions from a transportation standpoint,” he said. “That’s why we have been contracting with supply sources, so we can provide restaurant customers with a consistent price that works for them and the grower-shipper.”

Buy-local programs also affect consumer spending habits, but Melissa Hooper, corporate dietitian for San Bernadino, Calif.-based Stater Bros. Markets, said most of the feedback she’s gotten from consumers indicates they’re more concerned about sustainability.

“Some consumers are more concerned with what’s going on around the product, whether there’s abuse to animals, the environment or the human workforce,” Hooper said. “Most are concerned with wanting a consistent supply of what they’re eating.”

Sekenske said local produce is a larger part of Supervalu’s program. Local produce, however, usually is delivered only to the regions where it is relevant.

For its Illinois peach deal, for example, that fruit is available locally.

“We don’t buy Illinois peaches to go to New York,” Sekenske said.

Sysco also does a lot of local produce, Hansen said. A lot of smaller, local growers need more support and guidance when it comes to food safety and quality assurance.

Victor Murillo, program quality manager of Sysco’s produce quality assurance division, said Sysco does on-site training for local producers to ensure they meet standards.

When it comes to food safety, country-of-origin is not as big a factor with consumers as is the safety of fruits and vegetables in general, Hansen said.

“Our expectations from a food safety standpoint are no different from a grower in Ohio to a grower in Salinas to a grower in Mexico to a grower in Guatemala,” he said. “We see a heightened level of food safety awareness and quality assurance activity.”