Workshop moderator Tom Deardorff, president of Deardorff Family Farms, a vegetable and fruit grower, packer, and shipper based in Oxnard, Calif., asked if the focal point on produce innovation should focus more on value — added convenience or produce with improved flavor, quality, and consistency.

Innovation should focus on both, Corrigan says. New packaging helps sell produce while good quality produce sells itself. New seed varieties and cross breeds can stimulate consumer taste buds through great-tasting peaches, melons, grapes, and other products.

Dachman shared the results of a survey of 500 chefs and restaurants who were asked about the most important factor to increase produce consumption. Flavor was the top answer.

“In the food service industry, flavor drives new items into retail,” Dachman said. “People go to restaurants to try new things and then go to the grocery store and want to try it.”

Deardorff said organic produce sales increased about 8 percent last year while overall produce sales increased 1 percent. Corrigan called organics a “mixed bag” with a loyal following of buyers.

“We have aggressively promoted and pushed organics since the late 1980s,” Corrigan said, noting that organic sales growth last year at Raley’s was less than 8 percent. “Will organics feed the world 100 percent? No. Is it a game changer? For some people it is. It’s still a very ‘nichcy’ part of our business.”

An audience member asked about the impact of the ‘buy local’ movement on the overall produce industry. Corrigan says ‘buy local’ has surpassed the organic produce industry.

“The buy local movement is huge whether we want to accept it or not,” Corrigan said. “It is the buzz on the street. We have to pay attention to what consumers are talking about.”

Will ‘buy local’ be short or long lived?

“It may be gone in three to five years,” Corrigan said. “It’s a trend and a phase we’re going through. People want to know their produce is local.”

Dachman says the overall commercial produce industry — beyond small, local growers — is not threatened by the ‘buy local’ movement.

“I don’t think it will go away because it goes along with more people wanting good health and more flavor. When produce is picked it starts to die. The sooner you can get it to the consumer the better.”

Dachman says the produce industry’s challenge over the next two decades is to produce enough food to feed the world.

“Local doesn’t play a piece in that,” Dachman said. “You (the audience) are the people who will supply the food for the world — not small, local growers. Hopefully the local small grower will bring produce to a higher profile so people consume more.”

Both panelists addressed food safety audits to ensure a safe food supply. Dachman warned the produce industry not to engage in messaging that suggest to consumers that a company’s food safety system is better than a competitors. Doing so could cause a negative consumer backlash.

“There can be no positive result of a consumer believing that there are levels of food safety. A better way to say it is everyone is doing the best job they can,” Dachman said. 

cblake@farmpress.com