June 3, 2010

In Today's Issue:

USDA Issues Proposed Rule on PACA Trust

This week, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service issued a proposed rule that would amend the regulations under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA). The proposed rule comes in response to concerns raised by the industry that sellers may lose their status as trust creditors when they agree - orally or in writing - to accept payments over time from financially troubled buyers after a default on payment.

"This is an important change in PACA rules as it looks at how to address supplier-customer financial relationships, while at the same time ensuring the PACA Trust provisions are protected and maintained for the industry," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at United Fresh.

The proposed rule follows several recent court decisions which do not preserve the PACA trust provisions for sellers who extend payment options for financially strapped buyers. Over the next couple of months, United Fresh will be working with its Market Segment Boards to analyze the impact of this important change and will provide comments to USDA on the proposed rule.

Comments on the proposed rule should be submitted by August 9, 2010. 

Chairman Steffanie Smith to Meet with Top USDA, EPA Officials

United Fresh Chairman of the Board and River Point Farms CEO Steffanie Smith, along with United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel, will meet in Washington next Tuesday with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to discuss produce industry concerns regarding environmental issues such as safe pesticide use, endangered species regulation and climate change.

In the wake of recent media reports raising hypothetical fears about pesticides and fruits and vegetables, United Fresh has urged the USDA and EPA to correct misleading information in the media more forcefully and quickly based on their own independent scientific reviews.

"As both a grower-shipper and chairman of United Fresh, I'm pleased that these top officials are willing to meet with us to listen to our concerns," Smith said.

The meeting will include a small number of specialty crop organizations and producers to talk personally about challenges they face with environmental issues and regulation, as well as share recommendations with EPA and USDA.

Chefs Move to Schools Initiative Aims to Improve School Meals

Last Friday, First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed more than 500 chefs to the South Lawn of the White House for the official launch of the new Chefs Move to Schools initiative. Prior to their event at the White House, these chefs attended a best practices seminar where they heard from White House Chef and Food Policy Coordinator Sam Kass and a select panel of chefs who worked with the White House to develop the "Chefs Move to Schools" program. Each chef has committed to partnering with local schools to support the First Lady's efforts to improve school meals.

"Start with a salad bar," was the suggestion of Chef Jorge Collazo, executive chef for New York City SchoolFood and keynote speaker at this year's United Fresh convention in Las Vegas, and New York City chef and activist Bill Telepan. Collazo and Telepan explained that New York City has made salad bars an important part of its effort to increase children’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Collazo even mentioned the United’s Salad Bar in Every School campaign in his comments to the audience. Other chefs were also supportive of school salad bars, speaking about their positives experiences and how salad bars have benefitted their students.

"The National School Lunch Program is the single greatest tool we can use to change kids eating behavior," said Kass. "And we must develop ways to make the healthy choice, the easy choice."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who also spoke at the morning seminar, was adamant that the quality of school meals must be improved. He urged the chefs to galvanize their communities to challenge the status quo, saying the fix wouldn't be made from Washington alone, but "change must happen at the local level".

For more information about this event, contact Andrew Marshall, United Fresh policy and grassroots coordinator at or (202) 303-3407.

United and Other Ag Stakeholders Ask Congress to Pass Child Nutrition Legislation

In a strong showing of support from across the country, United Fresh and other agriculture organizations sent a letter on Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) asking her to make the child nutrition reauthorization legislation a high priority this year.

"We felt it was essential to have our political leaders understand that agriculture is an important stakeholder in this debate and we feel it is critical for Congress to act this year on helping increase the availability and access to healthy and nutritious foods for children," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh. 

After several meetings over the last few weeks with the White House, USDA and key congressional leaders, it has become apparent that pushing for time on the congressional schedule is a key component for consideration of this important piece of legislation.  The Senate Agriculture Committee has already passed their version of the bill and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee is expected to introduce the House version of the legislation sometime this week. The letter falls on the heels of a similar letter sent early last month by 221 members of Congress urging Speaker Pelosi to move the legislation.

A full transcript of the letter can be found by clicking here.

Q1 Retail Report Shows Positive Signs of Growth

The volume of fresh fruits and vegetables purchased by American grocery shoppers increased over the past year, according to United's latest FreshFacts on Retail report for the fourth quarter of 2009.

The report shows an overall weekly volume increase for fresh produce of 6 percent over Q42008, as well as dollar sales increases for some categories of fresh fruit and vegetables, often a result of lower prices.

"While lower prices attracted more consumers to the fresh produce department, we see mixed results in the overall impact in volume and sales," said Victoria Backer, United Fresh senior vice president of member services, foundation.  "However, unlike the past few quarters, we are starting to see a slight increase in overall produce sales, up 0.5% compared to the third quarter of 2009, which is a positive sign in today’s unstable economy."

FreshFacts on Retail is produced in partnership with the Perishables Group and sponsored by Del Monte Fresh Produce, and measures retail price and sales volume trends for the top 10 fruit and vegetable commodities, as well as value-added, organic and other produce categories.

Highlights of this quarter's report include:

  • Fruit prices were lower by 5..7%, resulting in a 6.5% increase in volume
  • Vegetable prices were 9.2% lower on average, resulting in a 5.9% increase in volume
  • The volume of fruit purchased in Q42009 increased for every variety compared to Q42008 with avocados posting the largest volume growth, up 27.5%
  • All of the top vegetable varieties increased in volume compared to Q42008, with prepared vegetables up the most at 7.7%
  • Lower average retail prices for value-added fruits spurred a 12.1% increase in volume and a 9.1% increase for value-added vegetables
  • Organic vegetables outsold organic fruit in dollar and volume sales

In addition, the report's Quarterly Spotlight feature explores the industry's organics category, looking at price, volume and dollar sales levels for the top 10 organic fruit and vegetable commodities and the factors driving those trends.

In this report, in terms of weekly dollar sales per store, we see apples were the top organic fruit variety at $143, followed by berries and bananas.  In organic vegetables, packaged salads accounted for $331 in weekly dollar sales per store, followed by carrots and lettuce.

Fresh Facts on Retail can be downloaded free of charge for all United Fresh members ($50 for non-members).  For more information about how to obtain the report or suggestions for future category spotlights, please contact Julie Jacocks, United Fresh education coordinator, at 202-303-3400, ext. 405.  For questions about specific data contained in the report, please contact Kelli Beckel at the Perishables Group at 773-929-7013.

Produce Groups Say No to Exemptions in Senate Food Safety Legislation

Fifteen produce organizations from across the country sent a letter this week to the U.S. Senate expressing their opposition to exemptions in the pending food safety legislation that is currently before the Senate. While the current bill does not include any exemptions, there are reports that the Senate may be considering these types of carve-outs when it reaches the Senate floor.

"I think we wanted to make it clear that any decision on who should or should not have to comply with food safety requirements needs to be risk and science based standard, not based on scale of your operation or proximity to your customers," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at United Fresh.

The letter comes on the heels of this week's report from the Institute of Medicine recommending that a risk-based standard should be implemented to our federal government’s food safety regulatory scheme.

"This letter serves as an important message to Congress that we need to ensure that consumer confidence is regained in our federal government's food safety system," said Guenther.  "If Congress goes down the route of carve-outs, it risks losing support from both produce groups as well as consumer advocates."

For a full transcript of the letter, please click here.

United's Neenan Works to Tackle Challenge of Maximum Residue Levels

In order to overcome the challenges posed by arbitrarily- and inconsistently-imposed Maximum Residue Level (MRL) standards by various importing countries, United's Rob Neenan, vice president of environmental affairs and sustainability participated in the annual Maximum Residue Level (MRL) conference conducted by the California Specialty Crops Council (CSCC) on June 2 and 3 in San Francisco.

The problem varies by country, with some setting their own restrictive or outdated MRL standards which differ from US or CODEX standards, and some utilizing no specific standards in favor of using just a default factor.

"Inconsistencies in standards and enforcement practices between countries can lead to rejection of US products that satisfy US MRL standards," said Neenan. "United Fresh will be working with CSCC, the Minor Crop Farmer Alliance and USDA to urge a number of foreign governments to adopt uniform, science-based, and transparent standards that will facilitate expanded trade in fresh fruits and vegetables."

For more information on this effort, please contact Neenan at 202-303-3400, ext. 427.

Fresh Convenience Congress to Include Retail and Foodservice Tours

Tours of UK retailers Sainsbury's, Costco Wholesale and London's New Covent Garden Market will be featured at the upcoming Fresh Convenience Congress, June 22-24 in London.

"We are pleased to offer our members the opportunity to tour UK retail concepts as part of their Fresh Convenience Congress experience," said Jeff Oberman, vice president of membership for United Fresh. "Our members found our tours of German retail operations during Fruit Logistica to be a highly informative experience and we know attendees will get a great deal of value from the tours at Fresh Convenience."

The Fresh Convenience Congress, organized by United Fresh and Fresh Convenience Magazine, will explore opportunities to capitalize on the growing fresh-cut and convenience market and examine new innovations that maximize profitability. These retail tours are included within the Congress registration package and United Fresh members can receive a special discount on registration fees. For more information on the Fresh Convenience Congress, please click here or contact Oberman at 831-422-0940.

Task Force Releases Transparency Report, Solicits Comments

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Transparency Task Force has released its Phase II Transparency Report, outlining strategies for "expanding the disclosure of information by FDA while maintaining confidentiality." United Fresh has been working with the task force, which is currently soliciting comments on the content and priority of the 21 draft proposals contained in the report. Comments will be accepted until July 20 and may be submitted here.

In conjunction with the release, FDA also held a stakeholder telebriefing on the Phase II Transparency Report with task force Chair Dr. Joshua Sharfstein and Director Afia Asamoah, providing an overview of the report's contents and allowing participants to have questions answered. A replay of the telebriefing will be available at 800-890-3519 until June 19. Written questions on the report may still be submitted to transparency@fda.hhs.gov until July 20, with responses posted at http://fdatransparencyblog.fda.gov/.

United's Push for Food Safety Legislation and Accountability Makes Headlines

An article this week by the Associated Press has mentioned the work of United Fresh and the greater produce industry toward a safer and more accountable food chain as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration moves to draft implement a "sweeping [set of] rules designed to more closely track how growers, packers, shippers, distributors and retailers handle the produce Americans eat as it courses from the farm to consumer's tables."

The move comes in the wake of a number of high-profile foodborne illness outbreak investigations in recent years, including the 2006 outbreak of E. coli in fresh spinach, the 2008 outbreak of salmonella in jalapeño peppers, and several smaller outbreaks so far this year. Frustration on the part of the industry over the lack of specific safety guidelines has spurred a renewed push for action on food safety in Washington.

"The impact (the spinach outbreak) had on industry was kind of a tipping point I think on a lot of levels," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh.

Guenther continued in the article to say that the produce industry became frustrated with the FDA complaining that they weren't doing enough. I think there was a frustration level - ‘'K, you tell us what you think the rules should be.' We told them at that point to do it. Don't sit here and armchair quarterback."

The article did give the industry a significant amount of credit in terms of its cooperation and desire for stronger regulations, saying, "Most produce growers and companies have strictly abided by voluntary and state guidelines for years, as safe food is good for business. But stricter federal guidelines could help catch less scrupulous growers and give the rest of the industry more consistent regulations to follow."

For a full transcript of the article, please click here.

In Wake of Florida Freeze, USDA Announces $6M Purchase of Fresh Tomatoes

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced USDA's intention to purchase up to $6 million of fresh tomatoes for federal food nutrition assistance programs.

"USDA has been carefully monitoring the situation in Florida in order to determinate how we can help growers get through the very difficult situation caused by the freeze earlier this year," said Vilsack. "The purchase announced today will provide Florida fresh tomato farmers with some relief, stimulate the economy, and provide high quality, nutritious food to people in need."

Each year, USDA purchases a variety of nutritious food products to support the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program. USDA also makes emergency food purchases for distribution to victims of natural disasters.

Industry estimates suggest about two-thirds of the tomato crop in the major southwestern production region was destroyed because of eight days of sub-freezing temperatures in Florida during January. Growers in Florida replanted after the freeze which, in addition to scheduled plantings, has led to a surplus of tomatoes.

New Member Welcome

Each week, United Fresh welcomes its newest partners in building a stronger produce industry:

  • PakSense, Boise, Idaho

United Fresh thanks all current members for their dedication to the Association and the produce industry. Please let us know whenever we can be of service to you.  For more details about the benefits of membership, please contact Jeff Oberman at 831-422-0940 or Miriam Miller at 202-303-3410.

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