(Feb. 28, 11:30 a.m.) ORLANDO, Fla. — Supermarket and foodservice buyers at the Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure 2008 convention heard how increasing food safety audits are crippling growers.

They also learned at the retail and foodservice conference and expo what the industry can do to encourage children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

The fifth year of the convention, held Feb. 21-23 at the Caribe Royale Resort & Conference Center, drew the highest turnout ever, said Terry Vorhees, the council’s executive director.

“From the feedback we received … this show was without question the best we have had to date, not only in the attendance but also with all the functions, the receptions, the educational workshops and the field tours,” he said.

Nearly 900 grower-shippers and buyers from supermarket chains and foodservice purveyors and distributors attended the show, up from last year’s previous record of 700 participants.

Edith Garrett, president of Edith Garrett & Associates, Asheville, N.C., and former president of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, moderated an educational session that addressed produce food safety risk and prevention.

One of the presenters, Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, expressed grower-shippers’ frustrations with “audit fatigue.”

“The one thing that is driving the producer community absolutely stark-raving mad is that we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars doing multiple audits, looking at the same thing for different customers who want different audits,” Brown said. “The questions are the same and we’re not making food any safer. But we are continuing to bury the grower with costs.”

Brown recommended the industry wrap its arms around escalating auditing costs by developing universal auditing standards.

Audience member Richard Dachman, vice president of produce for Sysco Corp., Houston, and a former FreshPoint senior vice president, echoed the industry’s frustrations.

“The reason we’re having so many different inspections and so many different things happening (is that) people are afraid and are protecting their interests,” he said. “When we talk about tomato food safety, we should talk about all tomatoes. When we talk about produce, we should talk about all produce.”

Michelle Smith, an interdisciplinary scientist for the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, said the agency has beefed up training for its farm investigators.

She said the FDA’s food safety initiative targeting Eastern Seaboard tomatoes has gone well and has received “an unprecedented” amount of openness and cooperation from Virginia growers and packers.

“I’m guessing it will be unprecedented again in Florida,” Smith said. “It’s kind of a contest, I think.”

Another big focus of the convention was helping produce marketers persuade mothers to buy more produce for their children.

Glen Reynolds, regional sales manager for Imagination Farms LLC, Indianapolis, the company handling the Disney license for fruits and vegetables, said attractive packaging remains critical.

“It’s up to us and to everyone in this room to get engaged in the program (of marketing produce to kids),” he said.

“We can all make a difference by taking action and by getting involved in it. If you’re a buyer, open your mindset up to other things and ideas. If you’re a retailer, consider high-graphic point of sale material and make it fun for everyone. Really look for ways to get kids involved and engage them in the process.”

Heidi McIntyre, executive director of Produce for Kids, said produce marketers must engage children and their mothers together.

“It’s not about getting moms and their kids to eat more green beans and broccoli at the dinner table,” she said. “What it really is about is how we can develop an interaction and a relationship with the food. As an industry, we need to do a better job making standard offerings more interesting.”

Pete Luckett, owner and operator of the Halifax, Nova Scotia-based Pete’s Frootique stores and Canada's Favorite Greengrocer, recommended retailers return to what made produce fun and special.

“Customer engagement has been stifled out of our business,” he said. “They (grocery corporations) have taken the produce business and made it into the grocery business. There’s no sizzle or excitement. We need to bring the sizzle back into our industry.”

The exposition featured 162 booths with companies ranging from BC Hot House Foods Inc., Surrey, British Columbia, to Tanimura & Antle Inc., Salinas, Calif.

Yakima, Wash.-based Sage Fruit Co. LLC, has exhibited at the show since it started in 2004.

“This is the best year yet,” said Bill Olvey, Sage’s Longwood-based vice president of southeastern region sales. “The show has been very productive in terms of meeting customers and retailers.”

The convention also included tours of Orlando-area produce and retail operations.

This year’s tours took supermarket and foodservice purveyor attendees to Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms Inc.’s Zellwood mushroom growing and packing facility and Salinas-based Taylor Fresh Foods Inc.’s Taylor Farms Florida Inc. Orlando fresh-cut operation.

Busloads of participants also visited two Orlando-area Publix Super Markets Inc. stores.

SEPC meet covers safety, kids’ marketing issues
Joe Caldwell, vice president of the Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms Inc. (left), discusses portabella production with Steve Pinkston, regional buying team leader for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc at Monterey’s Zellwood, Fla., mushroom growing and packing operation. Retail and foodservice buyers toured the facility as well as Taylor Farms’ Orlando, Fla., fresh-cut operation during the Southeast Produce Council’s Southern Exposure convention Feb. 22 in Orlando.