FRESH FOOD: Post-PMA Wrap-up: Bumper crop

Judging by the activity level at the Produce Marketing Association's annual Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition, the fresh produce business must be on a high. Traditionally the trade's key event for getting the word out about new products, services, and solutions, this PMA show just past did not disappoint, mirroring the energy and collective talent that's driving the fresh produce industry.

PMA billed the convention as the world's largest fresh fruit and vegetable event and the only U.S. industry event focused exclusively on the global fruit and vegetable industry. There were more pavilions from various growing regions and countries than ever before, and a United Nation's worth of delegates. The show last month drew some 15,500 attendees to the expo floor of the Georgia World Conference Center in Atlanta, proving its mettle as a perennial crowd-pleaser not just for key domestic retail and grower-shipper decision-makers, but also an increasing contingent of retail buyers from abroad.

In workshops and general sessions, as well as on the shoulder-to-shoulder show floor, discussions revolved around transportation, new products and packaging, food safety, and ways to attract more consumers to the produce department.

Transportation also figured heavily in the annual state-of-the-industry address given by PMA's president, Bryan Silbermann. He cited driver shortages, as opposed to high fuel costs, as the most profound long-term threat to the transport of goods from field to shelf.

Striking a blow for diversity, PMA's board named Janet Erickson, e.v.p., purchasing and quality assurance for Lake Forest, Calif.-based Del Taco, Inc., its first-ever woman chair. Silbermann praised Erickson's "insight, dedication, and enthusiasm, combined with her background in foodservice [that] will help guide PMA through a year in which we expect to make a number of innovations that our members will value highly. She's already shown her leadership qualities in five years of service on the PMA board, and is a very popular leader."

PMA's other key officers installed during the meeting included chairman-elect Peter Goulet, director of merchandising strategy, Hannaford Bros. Co., Scarborough, Maine; secretary/treasurer Bruce Taylor, chairman and c.e.o., Taylor Farms Calif., Inc., Salinas, Calif.; and executive committee chairman Steve Junqueiro, v.p. of operations, Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif.

As usual, vendors chose the venue as a showcase for innovative products and programs.

Out on the show floor, Sunkist, the first name in citrus, made a big splash with a variety of consumer-oriented developments, foremost of which is its highly praised partnership with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, to encourage children to choose citrus as a healthy snack alternative. The partnership is part of Sesame Workshop's "Healthy Habits for Life" initiative, which is designed to address the importance of establishing an early foundation of healthy habits.

"Kids love Sesame Street, and parents trust it," said Robert Verloop, Sunkist v.p. of marketing, "As a partner of Healthy Habits for Life, Sunkist will harness the energizing enjoyment of Sunkist citrus with the power and reach of Sesame Street to encourage healthy eating with today's families."

The initiative will reach parents through new packaging, POS, and consumer promotions, and will be supported by a variety of other key components, including a comprehensive Web site, in-store display stations, and consumer sweepstakes. New custom-designed Sunkist fruit bins and floor displays featuring Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Zoe will appear in supermarkets across the country, starting this month.

Country singer Billy Dean made an appearance at the show courtesy of Sunkist. He recently signed on to be the official spokesman of Sunkist's "Take a Stand" program this spring. Going on its third year, the program, which empowers kids to give back to their communities, provides signature lemonade stands to kids ages 7 to 12 who pledge online to raise money for their personal charities. This past summer, over 2,000 kids from across the country answered the call to action within the program's first 36 hours, raising an estimated $400,000, noted Verloop. Extensive coverage in 2005 garnered more than 73 million consumer impressions, more than 10 times the exposure the program received in 2004, he added.

According to Verloop, top retail accounts are offering Sunkist their high-traffic storefronts and supplies to help kids meet their fundraising goals. "Billy Dean adds a new dimension to the Take a Stand program," said Verloop, noting that plans for the third Take a Stand season are currently underway, with more details about Billy Dean's role scheduled to be announced in early 2006.

Paramount Farms, the vertically integrated company with an established history of building successful produce brands, including Sunkist California Pistachios and Sunkist Almond Accents, unveiled its latest: Almond Munchies, a line of six heart-healthy almond snacks available in resealable five-ounce bags. Merchandised in the produce department, the new line offers a one-two punch of "nutritional benefits along with the high emotional and physical satiety of almonds, making them the ideal junk snack alternative," said Michael Galef, v.p. of marketing.

"Their placement in the produce department, often viewed as the 'medicine chest' of the grocery store, makes them a natural choice for consumers seeking healthier snack options," added Galef. Almond Munchies' sister brands include POM Wonderful, the largest grower of California Wonderful pomegranates and producer of the highly successful POM Wonderful pomegranate juice.

Over in the Dole Fresh Vegetables booth, Eric Schwartz, president of the Salinas, Calif.-based company, maintained a busy pace bringing retailers up to speed on his company's growing portfolio of fresh-cut salads and other fresh products being trotted out this year.

"The PMA conference is our annual launch pad to showcase the continual growth and enhancement in the Dole Fresh Vegetables lineup," said Schwartz. New to that lineup is Dole Fresh Makes salad kits, featuring bags of dry pasta that consumers can cook and prepare in less than 14 minutes. The four-variety line, consisting of Cheddar Bacon Ranch, Garden Vegetable, Broccoli Ranch, and Italian Herb, guides consumers through the preparation steps of boiling the pasta; tossing in prewashed, precut vegetables; and adding the enclosed dressing.

Schwartz also discussed the latest editions of the Selections of the Season salad line -- in this case its Fall Harvest blend -- as well as a new licensing partner, and new packaging that will be used across all of Dole's commodity products. The special-edition Fall Harvest medley is among Dole's seasonal salad blends, which also include Spring Garden, the second item in its Selections of the Season line and available March through May, and Sweet Baby Lettuces.

PMA attendees were among the first to sample the result of Dole's new relationship with Greenhouse Gourmet: a proprietary strawberry tomato, which is sweeter than most conventional tomatoes.

Exciting options

Following its integration of Coastal Berry earlier this year, Dole highlighted new packaging across all commodity products including berries, all of which are now gathered under the new Fresh Picked umbrella.

Green beans are also among the fastest-growing segments in the packaged fresh-cut category, and microwaveable beans in turn are becoming one of the fastest-growing items within the segment. An integral player in that realm is Bowling Green, Ohio-based GreenLine Foods, which is adding new microwaveable products to its family of fresh vegetables. Processed with the company's patented trimming and FreshStart process, GreenLine's four-serving beanbags contain 12 ounces of triple-washed, trimmed, and ready-to-eat green beans

Plenty of tasty salads were also being tossed over in the Ready Pac Produce booth, which showcased new compact containers that replace the round ones formerly used in the company's convenience vegetable line. The new containers not only take up less space, but are also easy on the eye, with labels positioned on their tops for better viewing and space utilization. The company also added three more options to its popular line of European-style salad blends, which offers grocery shoppers restaurant-quality fare.

Amid chef demonstrations, Ready Pac was also touting its Baby Romaine leaf restaurant-style salads, Fruit Duets, and a new package design for its cut-vegetable line. Steve Dickstein, v.p. of marketing, said he's expecting high consumer interest in the company's Spinach Temptations line, due to hit grocery shelves next month.

Another category seeing green as a result of strong U.S. consumption growth is California avocados, total sales of which will reach 440,000 tons this year, reported Jan DeLyser, v.p. of marketing for the California Avocado Commission, whose efforts at Fresh Summit revolved around causes to celebrate with -- what else? -- avocados.

Indeed, special occasions and holidays create the ripest avocado sales opportunities, particularly Super Bowl Sunday and Cinco de Mayo, which headline the top 10 list of occasions that offer a great opportunity to up the avocado ante, noted DeLyser. The Fourth of July, Easter Sunday, Presidents' Day, and Memorial Day Weekend each account for approximately 5 percent of the annual U.S. avocado sales at retail, noted DeLyser, while significant sales are also registered during New Year's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day and Labor Day.

For this reason, promotional opportunities for avocados are limitless when it comes to capitalizing on avocado sales, said DeLyser. "Retailer willingness to go after promotional opportunities with an aggressive campaign is key to success. This year one Southwest retailer realized a 700 percent increase in avocado sales over the previous year during Super Bowl week, which he attributed directly to increased promotion."

The Sholl Group II, Inc., the Minnesota-based marketer of selected Green Giant Fresh produce, showcased a bounty of new products at Fresh Summit that builds on the brand's heritage with a focus on added value and convenience, including its new FreshTables line of stir-fry veggies, including pre-cut vegetables, sauce, and other fresh ingredients.

All told, Green Giant Fresh made a strong showing with its high-visibility branded assortments of a number of other fresh products such as microwavable bags of beans and carrots; a complete line of fresh potatoes and onions; and tray packs of squash, cucumbers, and zucchini.

Meanwhile, in the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) booth, national fitness authority Denise Austin worked the crowds during opening day. "Denise is truly a partner with us in our mission to remind the public to eat well and to build time into their busy lives to exercise," said Frank Muir, IPC c.e.o. and president, referring to Austin's new book, Eat Carbs. Lose Weight, which advocates "what we've said all along: active people need carbs, and the complex carbs in Idaho potatoes supply the energy people need to fuel their lives."

Get packaging

The profusion of single-serve and kitchen-ready packaging applications, corn-based recyclable containers, and recyclable corrugated boxes that provide the water resistance of wax without the waste collectively underscored the important role Mother Earth is playing in the corporate blueprints of many retailers nowadays.

Chuck Dunlap, produce and dairy marketing director for Duncan, S.C.-based Cryovac, a division of Sealed Air Corp., fielded a steady stream of Fresh Summit visitors seeking more information about the company's Simple Steps heat-and-serve packaging for produce.

The packaging is ideal for a variety of fresh produce applications, including asparagus, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, red potatoes, snow peas, and stir-fry mixes, noted Dunlap. He added that the lid has the same benefits as the tray, with the added ability to "clamshell" the products together for a complete one-package meal.

"The package's self-venting technology eliminates the need to puncture ventilation holes in the package's film before heating," explained Dunlap. Another plus: The stay-cool side handles reduce the risk of burns or spills as the tray is removed from the microwave, he added.

Wal-Mart's new rollout of corn-based packaging in place of petrol-based materials shone a favorable light on Minneapolis-based environmentally friendly package maker NatureWorks PLA at the show. The retail giant's clear plastic clamshell conversion began in early November for its fresh-cut fruit, fresh herbs, strawberries, and Brussels sprouts.

The visual appeal and natural qualities of NatureWorks' extensive packaging line, which spans floral wrap, salad trays, parfait containers, and cherry and corn clamshells, are also being used by produce leaders such as Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A. and Newman's Own Organics.

PMA's Fresh Summit moves to San Diego in 2006, Houston in 2007, Orlando in 2008, and Anaheim in 2009.
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