Doug OhlemeierPMA president Bryan Silbermann delivers his state-of-the-industry address Oct. 15 at Fresh Summit 2011.ATLANTA — The fresh fruit and vegetable industry is grappling with the biggest challenge it’s ever faced as it combats deadly foodborne illness outbreaks during a time of rapidly growing demand for healthier foods, Produce Marketing Association president Bryan Silbermann said.
Produce growers and shippers are under the microscope these days, Silbermann said Oct. 15 during a state-of-the-industry address at the PMA’s Fresh Summit 2011. Citing recent deaths linked to tainted cantaloupes and sprouts, Silbermann urged the industry to step up safety efforts to prevent further outbreaks.
“It does not matter whether you grow, ship or sell along this supply chain, I want you to consider some fundamental truths we must accept as we look for ways to turn this tide around,” Silbermann said during the 45-minute speech. “It must be turned around. Our future depends on it.”
Silbermann said recent weeks felt “eerily” like the lead-up to the PMA summit in 2006, when an outbreak from spinach contaminated with E. coli “hung like a black cloud over us.” In the past month, listeria-tainted cantaloupes from Colorado farm led to at least 23 deaths in 12 states, the deadliest known U.S. outbreak in more than 25 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Preventing similar outbreaks requires holding accountable everyone involved in growing, shipping and selling fresh produce and not taking shortcuts, Silbermann said.
“We have come so far, yet we find ourselves in the same situation in 2006,” Silbermann said. “It is everyone’s responsibility to use well-established best practices for growing and packing and handling, in particular where so much work has been done on guidelines already developed for at-risk produce items.
“We also need to admit that we don’t know all the answers to some of the food safety questions facing us. In fact, we are sometimes afraid to ask the real questions,” Silbermann said. “I would say that we are being confronted with the biggest challenge we as an industry have ever faced.”
Fresh Summit, which runs Oct. 14-17 at the Georgia World Congress Center, is expected to draw about 18,500. Last year’s summit, in Orlando, Fla., drew 18,284.
Silbermann also stressed the importance of using Twitter, Facebook and other social media to promote fresh produce and implored the industry to “de-commoditize” fruits and vegetables by emphasizing specific items’ flavor and unique value. His address was introduced and concluded with an appearance by country music singer Billy Dean, who performed “Earning Our Place on Earth,” with Silbermann accompanying by banging on a wooden box bongo-style.
While low food prices are important to consumers during a weak economy, Silbermann said this may create a problem for fresh produce. He cautioned against creating a “low-price future” by failing to emphasize unique fruit and vegetable qualities for which consumers may be willing to pay more.
“A price focus screams ‘commodity,’ a value or flavor focus says ‘my product is unique, my product has value,’ Silbermann said. “For many of today’s consumers, it says ‘buy me.’ Why have use-by date on your package when you can have a guaranteed-delicious-by date? Which one would you buy?”
“We are not in the commodity business — we are in the fresh food business,” he added. “We will not increase consumption … we will not achieve greater profitability until these challenges are resolved.”