To merge or not to merge: United and PMA talk on - The Packer

To merge or not to merge: United and PMA talk on

05/08/2012 11:06:00 AM
Tom Karst

National Editor Tom KarstThe Food Marketing Institute is having one show every two years, while the two national produce associations are each having a show every year.

What’s wrong with that picture?

That was one ironical observation I heard on the show floor at the Dallas United Fresh 2012 show.

All the people I visited with on the show floor were pleased with the traffic, so the fact that people came and exhibited at the Dallas show wasn’t irrational behavior.

Yet more and more industry leaders who are prodding United Fresh and PMA to merge are feeling the weight of the two national produce expos is unsustainable.

If enough members who feel that way stop writing big checks to both organizations, the wisdom of bringing the groups together will appear God-given. As somebody referenced on the show floor yesterday, “It’s the economy stupid.”

But it seems enough questions remain that some put the actual prospects of a merger at just 50-50.

Who will lead a unified national association? What members of staff will be considered “redundant” and thus subject to the chopping block?

From a simple self-preservation perspective, don’t look for executives of either organization to embrace the idea for a merger.

Can the “business model” that is the Produce Marketing Association meld with the government relations and the down-home grower-shipper representation mission of the United Fresh Produce Association.

Can a unified PMA-United Fresh organization lobby for grower-shipper interests as effectively as United Fresh did alone?

Can a unified organization save money for the industry?

When retail and grower-shipper instincts clash, what principles will drive a unified trade association? Will support of minor use pesticides, the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act trust and immigration reform initiatives be as fervent? The PMA has long leaned on FMI to take the lead on issues like country of origin labeling. How would a unified and more powerful national produce association engage with an issue like that?

While it is easy to appreciate the value of closed door negotiations, the greater industry needs more sunshine about the proposal to merge the two groups.

Yet even with full disclosure, it is no guarantee the industry could get beyond 50-50 on this long-simmering issue.

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I enjoyed Dan’l Mack Mackey Almy’s speech at the Women in Produce reception. Her heartfelt retelling of her roots in Texas and the story of her ascent in the produce industry was compelling and moving, notwithstanding its considerable duration. Her unmatched force of will should make her challenge for the industry to donate 500 salad bars by May of next year doable.

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Laura Bush assured United Fresh convention goers that her father in law had “made peace” with broccoli, which brought hearty laughs from the May 1 general session audience. Her appearance and reflections about years in the White House lent a big time feel and a nice winning moment for the show.

It was refreshing to hear Fred Morganthall, chairman of the Food Marketing Institute and president of North Carolina-based Harris Teeter, give a self-deprecating vision of the future in his keynote address.

Noting how wrong predictions from 10 years ago were (remember how RFID tags and self-checkout lanes were supposed to be everywhere by now) he put no great stock in his own vision for the next decade. He did seem quite assured, however, about the staying power of local food and the certainty of increased online sales by retailers and by suppliers.

He said large suppliers like Proctor and Gamble will ship products to consumers directly, and Amazon will challenge Wal Mart as the number one retailer in the country.

That observation made me think; can produce suppliers of the future craft a market edge by delivering perishables directly to the consumer and bypassing the retail store all together?

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There had  been no official announcement as of the United Fresh show, but there was excitement about the addition of blueberries to McDonalds’ oatmeal options. Sounds like a winner to me and big business for the blueberry handlers. The most recent coverage in The Packer on blueberries and McDonald's can be found here.



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