SAN ANTONIO — For a smaller convention focusing on a specific region, the Viva Fresh Produce Expo show floor was Texas-sized, featuring close to 200 booths, with more on waiting lists hoping to be included next year.

The show, March 31-April 2, included a golf tournament, tours of the new San Antonio Wholesale Produce Market, virtual field tours, the expo and educational sessions on myths about doing business with Mexico, the future of retailing and how weather patterns affect rainfall in growing regions.

“The concept for the show was to put together an event that really highlighted the Texas to Arizona and Mexico produce corridor,” said Bret Erickson, president and CEO of the Mission-based Texas International Produce Association, which puts on the annual show, now in its second year.

“There’s so much volume (of fresh produce) coming out of that geography and we felt like putting a show together that highlighted the Southwest U.S. and Mexico filled a really important niche, and it absolutely has.”

More than 1,500 people attended the show, and it was “elbow to elbow” on the show floor, Erickson said, with more than 230 retail representatives and other buyers visiting about 180 booths.

Last year, he said, about 950 attendees included 140 buyers and 145 booths showcased products.

Throughout the conference, both exporters based in Mexico and the U.S. companies selling their products — in some cases, they’re the same company — focused on food safety measures and the attention to quality to keep Mexican fruits and vegetables on store shelves safe and appealing to U.S. consumers.

Tommy Wilkins, director of sales and business development for Grow Farms Texas, Donna, moderated the “Mexico Mythbusters” session posing questions about common misperceptions the average U.S. consumer might have about Mexico:

  • Is the food safe for export?
  • Is the supply chain and the people involved safe from the drug cartels?
  • Do growers follow sustainability/fair wage and labor practices?

Will Steele, president and CEO of Frontera Produce Ltd., Edinburg, Texas, admitted vulnerability in the fresh produce sector when it comes to the cartels and their influence, but there are safeguards.

“Know who you are dealing with, know the area you are dealing with,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but at the end of the day, it’s no different than anywhere else we travel. Mexico, as far as I’m concerned, for the most part is a very safe country.”

His message: build trust with partner-growers, a theme repeated several times throughout the conference when discussing issues of general safety, food safety, and business transactions concerning perishable products and companies on both sides of the border.

Although the conference agenda didn’t list an immigration reform as a topic, it wasn’t far from the surface, especially Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s plan to build a huge wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This is something I’m passionate about. Immigration reform has been on the table for I don’t know how long, and no candidate so far has done anything about it,” said Steele, who called assertions that undocumented immigrants steal U.S. jobs as “baloney,” and disparaged Republicans, Democrats and presidential candidates, for failing to come up with an acceptable guest-worker program.

“... What I get accused of is (that I’m) trying to find cheap labor. I don’t want cheap labor. I want skilled labor,” he said. “So when the politicians start talking about building a wall, it terrifies the entire workforce.”

United Fresh Produce Association president and CEO Tom Stenzel, speaking at the April 1 luncheon, took some shots at both parties and their candidates for inaction and rhetoric on immigration, but focused heavily on strides taken over the past several decades on increasing fresh produce consumption. With thousands of salad bars introduced in schools in recent years and a public health priority on healthful eating, Stenzel said the outlook is bright for the industry.

But, he cautioned, as technology advances the ability to track foodborne illnesses, the industry must have a dialogue with consumers — there is no such thing as a 100% pathogen-free food, no matter how closely a company follows new food safety regulations.

“I believe we are going to have to come to grips with consumers about this,” Stenzel said. “(An outbreak) doesn’t mean this was a shoddy operator. It means someone was doing (his or her) absolute best to follow every single thing they should be doing, with great inspections.

“But we can’t get to zero,” he said. “This is a conversation I think we’re going to have to have or else it’s a real impediment to some of the (consumption) growth I talked about.”

Other facts from the show:
  • More than 50 attendees participated in the inaugural Viva Fresh 5K Run and 1K Walk 
  • More than 19,000 pounds of fresh produce was donated to the San Antonio Food Cank after the show closed.
  • The golf tournament raised $15,000 for the Texas Department of Agriculture