(April 14) NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — One of numerous things produce industry members learned at a recent Produce Marketing Association event was tomato trends, with much of the information coming from Dino Cancellieri, sales manager for Veg-Fresh Farms, an Anaheim, Calif.-based grower/repacker/shipper featured on a foodservice tour April 3.

News and notes gathered at the Produce Marketing Association’s Consumer Trends ‘08: A Produce Solutions Conference:

An April 3 foodservice tour featured Legacy Farms LLC (Buena Park, Calif.), Veg-Fresh Farms and Family Tree Produce (Anaheim).

Veg-Fresh Farms is all about tomatoes, and if the large repacker is any indicator of industry trends, specialty tomatoes from Mexico could be on the rise.

“One of the largest growth items for us, in the last year and a half, is the hothouse and hydroponic, the tomatoes on the vine, beefsteak tomatoes, specialty yellow and black tomatoes — these are all coming from central Mexico,” Cancellieri said.

“Aside from roma tomatoes and greenhouse tomatoes, the grape tomato has been the single biggest growth item in the industry over the last six or seven years, and it’s such a big item for us,” he added.

To make sure the boom continues, Veg-Fresh uses a new, custom-built grape tomato washing, sizing, clamshell-filling and bulk-grape tomato-filling machine that also sends product through a check-weigh system.

According to Cancellieri, Veg-Fresh is the largest tomato repacker in the West and among the biggest in the U.S. Just in roma tomatoes alone on a weekly basis, Veg-Fresh buys 25,000 to 35,000 tomatoes — or an average of about 20 loads, Cancellieri said.

Citing safety concerns, some members of a nine-person consumer panel at the PMA Solutions conference told attendees all along the food chain that they will only feed their families U.S.-grown produce, although others said it didn’t matter to them where the produce came from, as long as it tasted good and wasn’t too costly.

Cancellieri and Veg-Fresh, however, are firm believers that Mexican-grown produce has become just as safe — or possibly even safer — than U.S.-grown produce.

“There’s kind of been a stigma about product coming from Mexico,” said Cancellieri, alluding to U.S. notions that fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico are not monitored as well as in the U.S. and the growing conditions are not as conducive to food safety. “But I think that’s come full circle. The requirements we’re putting on Mexican growers are now much more stringent than what has been transpiring even up into the Central Valley (of California) and into Florida.

“The product that comes from the Culiacan area (is bolstered by) the inspections that are being done now by Primus Laboratories and now there are probably three or four independent labs that are doing field audits, plant audits and inspections of the product. You can see now in our warehouse, we’ve got more tomatoes out of Mexico than domestic,” Cancellieri said.

Family Tree Produce looks to add on to its current facility in the near future. R. David Figueroa, vice president of operations and development, expects the need if the company continues its current growth rate. Figueroa said at least 95% of his company’s business is foodservice-related. The site of the operation used to be a consolidation point for gold, Figueroa said, noting his office was bulletproof.

Insight forums and other networking sessions provided another opportunity for conference attendees — the chance to develop new working relationships — and members took advantage.

“The networking from it was outstanding,” said Richard Pirozzoli, national logistics manager for Christopher Ranch LLC, Gilroy, Calif. “I really enjoyed the panel discussions and I really liked the new people I met.”

Retailers and foodservice attendees also expanded their horizons.

Joseph Giannetti, vice president of franchise services for Saladworks Inc., Conshohocken, Pa., said the event helped him build new business relationships that will help his company’s plans for future expansion.