(Aug. 1) MONTEREY, Calif. — While the struggling economy affects everyone, the produce industry may be in the best position to come out stronger, especially in foodservice.

Optimism was high at the Produce Marketing Association’s annual Foodservice Conference and Exposition on July 25-27.

Here are a few examples:

  • Produce costs are rising but not as much as costs in other industries, such as protein. Chef Robert Danhi, who works with PMA on several levels, said now is the time for produce to move to the center of the plate.

  • The salmonella outbreak continues to move away from the tomato industry, one that is so crucial to the restaurant industry. A town hall-style meeting July 26 discussed the unprecedented levels of communication between government agencies and the private industry, with the goal of limiting financial damage to unrelated products.

  • Chefs continue to see fresh produce as a way to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. Chef Tom Colicchio, one of the stars of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” said at the July 27 breakfast, “Protein is protein. Fresh produce is where chefs make their signature.”

  • PMA president Bryan Silbermann said PMA expected attendance to be down 5% to 10% because of the declining restaurant business and increased travel expenses, but PMA counted just over 1,450 attendees, 1% to 2% lower than last year, and about 1/3 were in the operator and distributor class. The number of exhibitors was 149, the max for the show.

“We always say, it’s about who the people are, not how many there are,” Silbermann said.

Attendees agreed.

“We saw a lot of the big players here from the operators,” said Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Rainier Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash.

“There was a good set of buyers here again,” said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce. “This show meets and exceeds our expectations.”