BATON ROUGE, La. — The food marketplace is shifting from production-driven agriculture to consumer-driven agriculture, and consumers want variety, convenience and nutrition.

That was the message a leading administrator in the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Louisiana food processors.

"These trends spell opportunities for food processors," Joseph Jen, undersecretary for research, education and economics with the USDA, told the Louisiana Food Processors Conference. Sponsored by the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Department of Economic Development, the two-day meeting in early March drew more than 135 representatives of the Louisiana food processing industry and other interested people to Baton Rouge.

Jen said challenges for the food industry range from food safety to worldwide competition. And he said changes to the food industry are propelled by globalization.

"Today, we enjoy the highest-quality and lowest-cost food in the world," he said.

"In the United States we spend 6.4 percent of our income on groceries — food eaten at home," he added, explaining further that the Japanese spend 15.9 percent and the French spend 17.7 percent.

Citing changing demographics, including new immigrants and growing ethnic diversity, Jen said, "The time is right for the food processor to make new ethnic foods."

Jen said world trade has opened vast new markets for the United States. With 96 percent of the world population outside the United States, 25 percent of farm sales totaling $55 billion will be exported this year.

World demand is increasing, and the United States needs fair trade and access to international markets, Jen said. From 1995 to 2000, rice sales to Japan increased 400 percent along with a 300 percent increase in soybean oil sales to Korea.

"Opportunities for expansion will grow as we eliminate barriers to free trade," he said.

The conference was intended to help participants become better educated, provide networking opportunities and impress on policymakers the importance of the food processing industry to Louisiana, according to Kelsey Short, cluster leader for food, science and technology with the Louisiana Department of Economic Development.

"Louisiana has core competency when it comes to food," Short said. "Food business is a fundamental business and important to the state, national and global economy."

LSU AgCenter Chancellor Bill Richardson said one of the challenges facing agriculture is the relationship between farmers and food processors.

"How do we work together as a team to improve the economic base of this state?" Richardson asked rhetorically. "We need to work on how better to add value to those products. Food is part of our culture; we need to make it part of our economic culture in this state."

Richardson was one of initiators of the conference, according to Robert Yarborough, chief executive officer of Manda Fine Meats and a member of the steering committee that developed the program.

Yarborough said some Louisiana food processors met a couple of times at Richardson's urging. With leadership from Mike Moody, head of the LSU AgCenter's Department of Food Science, that group formed the steering committee that brought the industry together in this conference.

"We're known for our food; we're involved in food making. It would be great if we had more spinoffs," Yarborough said. "We could grow bigger as a segment — maybe one day be No. 1. It would be great to be known for food rather than oil."

Yarborough saw the conference as "very healthy" for the Louisiana food processing industry. "We all have a sense of ownership and want to become a recognized group," he said. "The biggest benefit of the meeting is the opportunity to get together. Whether meat or rice, we face many of the same issues — training issues, business issues."

Troy Romero, director of manufacturing for the McIlhenny Co., makers of Tabasco products, also was on the steering committee and served as one of the moderators of the conference.

"We're building a collaboration where all people can get information from the university and develop best practices," Romero said.

The LSU AgCenter's Moody agreed.

"I believe Louisiana has potential to be the great food processing center in the United States," he said. "We have the infrastructure, and we are a gateway to the rest of the world. Food business is becoming more international."

As the conference adjourned, participants agreed to hold another conference in 2004 during the two weeks following Mardi Gras.

Rick Bogren writes for the LSU AgCenter.