Congratulations to The Packer for its 125th anniversary! I remember the 100th anniversary clearly because I was the new kid at United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association just beginning to learn about this great industry. Reading The Packer’s Century of Progress gave me the inspiration to capture our association’s history for our own 100th anniversary a few years later.
It’s certainly been a changing industry these past 25 years. I’d suggest there are three areas where change has reshaped our industry more in the past quarter century than the entire century before.
Think about how we communicate today – between buyers and sellers and even directly with consumers. Just 25 years ago, we were sending printed invoices by mail, and faxes were our fastest form of connection. No internet to research trading partners; no hand-held devices that send photos, texts and emails (they’re sometimes used as phones also); no social media to talk directly with consumers. We are instantaneously connected today in every way with every audience. I think back in contrast to the early days of our association when growers and buyers boarded cross-country trains to finally meet a business partner at an annual convention. Today’s communication channels are light years ahead, but the value of relationships is still the same.
The second change I’d point out is a bit more evolutionary, but consolidation has continued to accelerate the past 25 years in every sector. When I started at United Fresh, the Washington Apple Commission was one of the powerful organizations in the industry, serving some 65 sales desks across the state. Today, are there still a dozen left? And, they’ve each chosen to market and sell their own brands. The same story can be told across multiple commodities.
The wholesale and retail sectors have been reshaped as well. Wholesalers have had to move from waiting for customers to come shop, to actually hit the streets selling. And retail has transformed from a diverse patchwork of regional and privately owned retailers to today’s mammoth companies operating nationally and internationally, most often with multiple banners.
Finally, I’ll mention how year-round availability and convenience have changed our industry. Technology has enabled transport of product from ever part of the world, with production moving to the lowest-cost, most efficient areas. Consumers learned that they can enjoy their favorite fruits and vegetables all year long, and despite the growth of local and seasonal trends, I don’t see us going back in any fundamental way. From the innovative early days of bagged salad, we now offer fresh-cut convenience options in every sector of the industry. Both trends are about serving consumers with the highest quality products every day of the year.
Turning to my crystal ball, I’ll mention what is really a massive change in the past 25 years, but one that will continue to cause massive change in the next 25. That’s food safety. When The Packer had its 100th anniversary, you could count the number of Ph.D. scientists anywhere in the produce industry on one hand. Today, it’s almost a requirement, and food safety teams are in place in every single company. We’ve changed production and handling practices across multiple commodities, and I believe deliver safer produce to consumers than ever before.
The insights learned from the past couple of years’ Romaine lettuce outbreaks are fundamentally changing growing standards for leafy greens. We know a lot more about pathogens in the environment and are detecting foodborne illness outbreaks in ways that will only grow exponentially. I salute the members of the Romaine Safety Task Force that have worked diligently on this area for the past year, bringing important discussions about environmental risks, supply chain traceability all the way to the store or restaurant, and consumer confidence in our products. Food safety will continue to be a game-changer in the years ahead.
Next, the labor crisis we’re facing today is likely to be on someone’s list of game changers 25 years from now. The shortage of workers at every stage – field work, harvesting, fresh processing, transportation and even at retail and restaurants – is pushing us into mechanization and labor-saving strategies wherever possible. From harvesting and processing equipment to indoor farms to self-driving trucks, investment and research in new technologies to replace labor is soaring. And this is not just a U.S. issue – growers in Mexico are having to find migrant workers from the south for the first time. Rising economic standards, higher wages, aging populations and lower birthrates are reducing labor availability in most areas across the globe.
I’ll close with a sense of optimism, and forecast that we will be better able to delight our consumers with the taste, flavor and quality of our produce, not just occasionally, but with every bite. We’re getting better, and I’ve seen firsthand how getting higher quality fruits and veggies to schools through our salad bar program can shape eating habits for a lifetime. But a major impediment to our success today continues to be the uneven quality of some fruits and vegetables. It’s partly genetics; it’s partly weather; and it’s partly cold chain management and merchandising. But we fail to match the consistent eating experience of competing processed foods. With technological innovation in seed development, growing practices and distribution chains, I’m hopeful that a new day is coming.
So congrats to The Packer on the first 125. You’ll be keeping us informed for the next 25 so be sure to let us know what comes true, and what totally unexpected trend once again turns our industry upside down.