Six executives discuss key issues in produce at the United Fresh outlook general session June 10. ( Ashley Nickle )

CHICAGO — A panel of produce industry executives considered topics from sourcing and branding to disruption and the next generation of consumers during the opening general session of the United Fresh Produce Association conference and expo June 10.

The panel included Walmart vice president of global produce sourcing Rich Gonzales, Camposol CEO Jose Antonio Gomez, Bonduelle Fresh Americas CEO Mary Thompson, BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot, Produce Alliance president Melissa Melshenker Ackerman and Apeel CEO James Rogers. United Fresh president Tom Stenzel moderated the discussion.

Gonzales said there are currently few brands in produce that mean something to consumers but expected that might change as voice shopping technology becomes more widely used. People would likely ask for Halos or Cuties instead of mandarins, for example, Gonzales said.

“To me, that’s where (branding) becomes more important is as we shift into more voice buying,” Gonzales said. “That could then shift the demand toward more branding than what we’ve historically seen in the last 10 years.”

Gomez said brand is key for Camposol because it provides a platform for the company to share about its social and environmental sustainability initiatives.

“Brand is important,” Gomez said. “It exposes you, but at the same time, if you’re doing the right thing and you’re doing things that are different than your competition, it could be a differentiator.”

Rogers said the challenge for all produce suppliers is to build a brand that end consumers – rather than just their customers – recognize and request.

“When you’re in that position and you’re one of the brands that Rich just listed, it’s an entirely different situation for you as a supplier,” Rogers said.

The panel also tackled the topic of sourcing product for optimal quality. Gonzales noted that Walmart tends to defer to consumer demand on what items to source at what times of the year.

“For us, it’s clear the closer you are to source the better the product tastes – the better the product tastes, the more consumption you drive,” Gonzales said. “The challenge with what you’re saying though is our consumer wants it year-round when we typically can’t grow year-round, so it is about do we make a choice in saying we’re not going to offer a berry at a particular time of the year because it doesn’t grow in Michigan? … or do we do what our customer wants and give them that berry?”

The panel concluded with discussion on what factors make them excited about the future of the produce industry.

“One of the things I think is fabulous for the world and particularly for the people in this room and this industry is the mentality of young people, at least in the U.S., today,” Lightfoot said. “Young people, and I’m thinking of people in their 20s and teens right now who will dominate the economy when they start growing up even more, they are not interested in the center-store food brands that was foisted upon me by my parents when I was growing up.

“There is a lack of trust for the iconic food brands that I think gave that trust away by converting their products to being bad for the planet and bad for the health of Americans … They’re also eating a more plant-based diet, which is the way they talk about eating produce,” Lightfoot said. “As those people continue to have a bigger vote economically in what’s happening, it’s going to shift more business to the produce industry from other parts of the food industry.”

Gonzales said he expects the challenges that produce faces – and needs to address with advanced technology – will draw talent that can help the industry over those hurdles and future ones.

“We’ve seen a lot of new people into the produce space in the last five years,” Gonzales said. “It’s nontraditional, and I think that diversity of thought is going to help to bring more talent, and this next generation of people that come in will actually understand the technology versus trying to learn it secondhand … They’re going to understand AI and IoT and all these things and how to apply it.”