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IFPA Chairman Sees Industry Consolidation Continuing

With only seven years under his belt, Mark Miller is fairly new to the fresh-cut industry. However, in an industry that’s only about 20 years old, that’s OK.

“Every day is a challenge,” said Miller, who is the chairman of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association (IFPA). “We’re very happy we made the choice we made seven years ago.”

Before buying Energy Sprouts, dba Fresh From Texas, Miller and his wife, Lisa, had only personal buying experiences in the fresh-cut industry. Mark was a banker and Lisa an attorney.

“As a young, professional couple, we were users of the product and felt that there would be continued high demand for healthy, fresh-cut fruits and vegetables,” Mark said. “We didn’t know much about fresh-cut other than it had good potential.

“Luckily, we made that assessment correctly.”

Miller credits their business sense and complementary skills as the reasons for their success in the fresh-cut industry. He also said the existing team and staff at Energy Sprouts eased the couple’s transition into the new venture.

When they bought the 25-year-old company, its main products were bean sprouts and vegetables. In the seven years since the Millers have owned it, Fresh From Texas has grown into a full-line fruit and vegetable processor, primarily for retail customers. Fresh-cut fruit products make up 60 percent of the company’s business. One product Miller thinks is unique is the company’s fresh soup kits. The tortilla soup kit includes all of the fresh vegetables, cheese, tortilla chips and cooked chicken.

“We’ll continue to see more and more combinations of ingredients like meats and pastas, with fresh-cut produce,” Miller said. “There will be more and more meal replacements.”

Consumers are more demanding than ever – and shelf space is at a premium, which means fresh-cut processors have to continue to develop their product lines as needs change. Miller said he is looking forward to moving into the future and developing new products as the market demands.

Fresh From Texas is a local distributor, which means the company’s customers are not too far from the company’s San Antonio location.

“We’re continuing to look at what the customer wants,” Miller said. “We’re able to look at specific products for specific customers. The customers want to have products that meet the demographics of their specific customers. What may work in one area won’t work in another.”

Being a smaller company allows Miller to capitalize on that opportunity.

“As a small, regional processor, we know we have to go above and beyond customer service,” he said. “We will do whatever it takes to make a customer happy.”

Fresh From Texas has a fast turnaround and responds quickly to customer requests. The company has its own trucks and is able to deliver to customers’ distribution centers.

Miller said one of the best things Fresh From Texas offers customers is safety. In the last year, the Millers hired an on-staff microbiologist and set up an in-house lab. They now are able to monitor their processes at every level – from raw product to finished product.

“It’s something we’re really excited to do in-house,” he said. “We’re getting a lot more data this way and a much more thorough analysis.”

Industry Outlook

Food safety is one of the areas Miller looks forward to working on in his role as IFPA chairman.

“We need to continue to work to make sure that our product is perceived as safe, healthy and of value,” he said. “We have to be proactive and communicate what a safe product we have.”

Miller cited recent foodborne illness outbreaks associated with lettuce and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s warnings as a reason to be more vigilant in food safety practices – and as a way to continue to educate the industry and its consumers.

Though Fresh From Texas does not process lettuce products, Miller still is concerned about the issue – both as a processor and as the chairman of the IFPA board.

“Bad publicity can hurt the whole fresh-cut industry,” he said. “Our company doesn’t do any lettuce, but I’m very interested in wanting to make sure our industry association tackles this issue because I think it impacts everybody in the fresh-cut industry.”

On that issue, Miller said the IFPA is doing a good job by working with other industry organizations on the lettuce coalition and on drafting guidance for the entire industry.

In addition to food safety, Miller sees consolidation playing an important role in where the industry is headed.

“I don’t know where it’s ultimately going to go, but I think there will continue to be consolidation,” he said. “I still firmly believe there’s a place for a regional processor who can be quick with reaction time and customer service.”

The trend toward consolidation is just part of the industry’s growing pains, though.

“We’re probably 20 years old, and I think we’ve gone through a growth spurt and we’re starting to see maturation, and it’s typical to see some consolidation,” Miller said.

Consolidation also will affect the way the IFPA does business, Miller said.

“As we have more and more consolidations and the member make-up changes, what we did five years ago may not be relevant today or in the future,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re in tune with our members.”

Some of IFPA’s roles won’t change.

Miller sees IFPA continuing to speak for the industry, which is what members said they wanted in a recent survey conducted by the association.

“IFPA is the only organization that is the voice of processors,” he said.

Members also want IFPA to be a technical resource, providing research and information processors can turn to when they need it.

“We need to have specific programs to meet the needs of individual members,” Miller said.


Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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