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United Fresh LIVE! workshop

Retail panel discusses challenges and changes in international sourcing

This year’s United Fresh Trade show, due to its virtual platform and free registration, had more international visitors than ever before. Attendees came from over 75 countries across the globe to visit the expo floor and experience the many educational sessions, workshops and panels that United Fresh had organized for the event. With such an international audience, sessions focusing on the global aspect of the industry were vital.

One of these sessions was entitled How International Sourcing Has Changed. This session was moderated by Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk, from Seald Sweet International/Greenyard USA, who is also a member of the board of directors of the United Fresh Produce Association. This session focused on how retail produce leaders approach international sourcing, and what they need from their supply chain partners both now and in the future. The panel was made up of Shanan Cox, Senior Merchant at Sam’s Club Produce, Kelly Davis, Director of Produce and Floral for Alliance Retail Services, and Pat Burlinguette, who is the Citrus and Grapes Buyer for Costco Wholesale.

Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk moderated the session.

Globalization of the produce industry
Over the years, the world has become increasingly globalized, and this can be seen within the produce industry too. Cox shares: “This is one of the biggest changes I’ve seen happen within the industry in the past years. Companies are becoming more reliant on international grower regions to fulfill demand, and consumers are expecting and demanding that seasonal items are available year-round.”

Davis, too, has experienced this similar pattern. “Twenty years ago, items such as avocados, papayas, dragon fruit, and even kiwifruit weren’t in our weekly circulars, but now these have become mainstays on our calendars. We also increasingly see consumers coming into stores asking for specialty items that aren’t grown domestically.” Burlinguette agrees, adding: “We don’t really see seasonal items anymore, most items are being shipped 52 weeks out of the year.”

Pat Burlinguette is the Citrus and Grapes Buyer for Costco Wholesale.

Food safety standards for imported produce
Besides the more complex logistics that go along with importing produce from other countries, there are a few other challenges that retailers have to deal with. “We have very specific specs we look for when importing produce. The imported product has to match the domestic product in quality,” shares Burlinguette.

Beside the all-important issue of quality, food safety is also at the top of the list. “Consumers, of course, really want to feel that their produce is safe, and this is even more important for imported produce. One of the reasons local produce is popular, besides the sustainability aspect, is because consumers believe it to be safer,” Davis explains.

Cox continues: “The consumer is not always aware of where their food is coming from, but food safety is always at the top of their minds, especially in recent years after there have been a few major recalls in the US. This is one of the reasons why visiting the growers is so important. It allows us to see how they work, and ensure they are up to the standards. But it also allows us to really build relationships with them and understand what challenges they are facing so we can tackle these challenges together. And it’s also important for them to come see us, and how we operate, too. It goes both ways.”

“We expect the same standards from these producers, and sometimes need even higher standards than we have for the domestic producers. There are more steps in the supply chain when the product is imported, the product is in transit longer, and more people are involved, so you need to be more careful, and hold people accountable above and beyond what we do in the US,” Burlinguette adds.

Kelly Davis is the Director of Produce and Floral for Alliance Retail Services.

Import on international trade
One of the effects of the pandemic has been the increasing realization that we are all very dependent on other countries. “Globalization has taken a hit due to the pandemic, and countries are looking at ways to become more self-sustaining,” Davis observes. Prior to the pandemic, however, importers were also already faced with protectionist restrictions and regulations.

Davis explains: “There has been an increasing number of imported fruits and vegetables into the US, and this has hurt some of the domestic items like citrus. As these exporting countries grow and expand their production, they increasingly overlap with domestic seasons, and there are many tariffs, quotas, and regulations in place that work to protect the domestic produce which make importing more difficult.”

Cox agrees, adding: “A lot of these regulations are having a negative effect on cost and supply, and there are a lot of unintended consequences, such as either oversaturating a well-supplied market, or food shortages in undersupplied areas.”

Shanan Cox is the Senior Merchant at Sam’s Club Produce.

United Fresh trade show connects exporters and buyers
During the pandemic, with normal in-person channels of communication mostly unavailable, it has become more difficult for exporters to reach potential buyers. All three panelists agreed that during these times, events like the United Fresh virtual trade show are the perfect opportunity to make and build connections that might otherwise be lacking during the pandemic.

“Attending shows like these and being involved in these panels is a good way to interact with the buyers and get some sort of facetime with them. It may be a very different mode of communication than what we are used to, but this is how it’ll be for at least the next few months so we should all take the fullest advantage of these opportunities,” Cox concludes.

While the United Fresh LIVE! virtual trade show has wrapped up its week of events and Expo Power Hours, the expo floor will remain open throughout the summer.

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