Doug OhlemeierWes Liefer (from left), partner in Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Pura Vida farms LLC; Raul Gallegos, senior director of produce and floral for Bristol Farms, Carson, Calif.; and Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh Produce Association, chat prior to the United Fresh town hall meeting in Yorba Linda, Calif., March 5.YORBA LINDA, Calif. — With the Food and Drug Administration on the verge of unveiling regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act, and immigration polarizing the U.S. like never before, the produce industry has its work cut out for it.
That’s especially true for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh president and chief executive officer, met with about 50 members of the Southern California produce industry March 5 as he kicked off a week of Fresh Impact Town Hall luncheons in several California cities. The meetings focus on issues facing the industry and the goal is to learn what’s on the mind of produce professionals.
“If there is one issue that can undercut consumer confidence in our produce, (food safety) is it,” Stenzel said.
He mentioned the recent contaminated cantaloupe crisis and called on growers — large and small — to implement good agricultural practices.
“We’ve got to make sure that we as an industry are preventing those kinds of things from happening,” Stenzel said.
The industry should get some help within a month when new regulations come out, but he issued a caveat.
“We’ve got to make sure those regulations help food safety,” he said, “without adding needless costs, extra burdens and more inspections that don’t make a difference.”
Farm labor is another critical issue, he said.
“Immigration policy in this country has gotten so polarized that it’s very unlikely that we will see much progress on it in the near future,” he said. Nonetheless, “We have to tackle it as a country.”
An estimated 10 million people are in the U.S. job market who entered the country illegally, he said. Up to 1.2 million of those are working in agriculture in harvesting and packing.
“What we’re looking to do is develop a system where those workers come out of the shadows,” he said, and follow steps to become a legal work force.
Stenzel said he is hopeful that Congress will refocus attention on the issue after the November election.
Stenzel also put in a good word for the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools program. United Fresh teamed up with first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and now has established more than 1,100 salad bars in schools nationwide, he said. The organization has committed to 6,000 salad bars.
“We think we’re changing the norm,” he said. “We’re changing the way kids relate to fresh produce.”