Jennifer McEntire is Chief Food Safety & Regulatory Officer at International Fresh Produce Association

What value do trade associations bring? Is it individual technical support, speaking to policy makers on behalf of an industry, networking and sharing of practices between industry professionals, or something else? The past year has afforded the opportunity to reflect on what produce safety professionals need most from an association as we built the International Fresh Produce Association.

The establishment of a new trade association is an infrequent event. In recent years, new associations have generally formed in response to very specific issues and needs. It’s less common that a brand new, big and broad association comes into being. And yet that’s what happened in January 2022, with the launch of the International Fresh Produce Association. To be fair, IFPA builds on the legacy of United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association, each with their own strengths and reputations. Still, with the development of a new association came the opportunity to rethink how to serve the industry, in this case the global produce and floral supply chains.

As both United Fresh and PMA gathered input from existing members, as well as nonmembers within the industry, it was validating to hear that many of the produce safety topics that had been prioritized at the associations were still priorities for IFPA. As staff, we also considered whether the new association needed to build capacity and expertise in areas where we’d previously been unable to address member questions.

There were a few immediate revelations as we launched IFPA and sought to serve members — and our own staff — around the globe.

The first and obvious question to answer pertained to the association’s role in the global regulatory landscape relative to food safety. Our team has incredible depth of expertise when it comes to the Food Safety Modernization Act and implementing Food and Drug Administration regulations. We don’t have that expertise for every country in the world. Honestly, we don’t have it anywhere outside the United States. We had to decide if we needed to build that capacity internally — build relationships and partnerships in other major markets to have access to that expertise or focus on the U.S. only. As we continue on that journey, we have prioritized ensuring that we have a seat at the table when global food safety discussions occur. We’ve dedicated staff to participate in Codex Alimentarius, the Global Food Safety Initiative and other efforts aimed at harmonizing the global food safety system.

With the development of a new association came the opportunity to rethink how to serve an industry.

The next opportunity relates to the country representatives and other staff strategically located around the world. For the most part, the in-country representatives are not food safety professionals, but we quickly learned from them that some markets have greater needs for food safety resources. These in-country connections help guide the development of resources and services that will deliver greatest value to members and the industry at large. PMA had an affiliated, but independent, produce association in Australia-New Zealand that does have a food safety staff person. He happens to be remarkably qualified, and there are tremendous opportunities to collaborate across hemispheres. We quickly learned how to adapt to time differences. This was not difficult, seeing as food safety professionals are accustomed to working all hours. The old United Fresh food safety team of three is now up to five, six, seven or eight within IFPA, depending on how you count!

As I referenced earlier, in becoming IFPA there are many more staff, and we can do more. There’s a member of the marketing team who focuses on all aspects of science, including food safety and government relations, and there’s a member of the sales team who specializes in food safety-related offerings. There’s even an insights and analytics team that can deploy surveys and gather and analyze data.

Members’ expectations are understandably high, but our team, while mighty, is still finite. One topical area where we’ve decided to invest is in produce quality. Produce safety issues get headlines, but the perishability of produce presents daily challenges to the industry, and the association is boosting support in this area.

As we continue to sort through the numerous things we can do, we anchor these decisions around several core principles, which boil down to three key words: advocate, connect and guide. We’ll retain our visibility within Washington, D.C., but will expand the scope of our advocacy to include spreading the great stories of produce and floral everywhere. With our expanded reach and depth of relationships, we can facilitate more connections than ever. And with a strong team, we’ll continue to guide and support the industry as the science, practices and regulations pertaining to produce safety continue to evolve.