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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

PMA’s Fresh Summit Triumph And New Commitment To Educating Women

The PMA convention in Anaheim was undoubtedly a triumph. There were more people — more than 21,000, according to PMA — nearly 3,000 more than ever have attended before. The new format, a day of workshops followed by two days of the trade show, was well received with traffic heavy throughout the show. The PMA/United imbroglio was finessed, with both David Krause at United’s Washington Public Policy Conference and Rich Dachman at Fresh Summit saying pretty words to try to smooth things over. United, which emerged stronger as a result of the talks — causing firms to reassess what they really want from a trade association — bought a booth at the PMA show to promote membership and its various activities.

There is so much at PMA that it is like a vast field filled with hidden gems behind every corner. Eboni Wall holds the position of Senior Director of Events at PMA, but she must have felt like a Dowager Empress for her “baby” this year. Not only was the Women’s Fresh Perspectives event terrific, with speaker Vernice “Fly Girl” Armour literally transforming herself from military to civilian before the audience, but that small event, which Eboni has shepherded over its six years, has now blossomed into a separate conference, the Women’s Fresh Perspectives Conference, which PMA will be conducting in 2013.

Triumph must be acknowledged. This year PMA launched a new award, the Carey Leadership award, the first of which was won by Mike O’Brien, Vice President of Produce and Floral at Schnuck Markets, Inc. Bob Carey was the longtime chief executive of PMA, and it was under his leadership that the PMA convention went from a small trade show to the giant event it is today. He also had the wisdom to develop an internal candidate for succession, Bryan Silbermann, now President and CEO at PMA. Bryan was a controversial choice to succeed Bob. He was deemed by many too much of a technocrat, but he was awarded the position, and you have to give the man all the credit in the world because PMA has continued to grow and prosper.

Of course, projection of trends into the future is far from certain, and we sensed some strains. For example, PMA changed Bryan Silbermann’s annual State of the Industry message to be a panel discussion — oddly following the same format that United’s Tom Stenzel uses for his annual keynote. We didn’t ask — a wise man once said “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies” — but it came across to us as a consequence of the PMA/United talks. We have done similar “state of the industry” type talks and they take months to prepare well. It felt to us as if, with the intensity of the PMA/United talks, Bryan just didn’t have time to do his normal bit and so they improvised this solution.

It really didn’t make sense otherwise. From a substantive standpoint, none of the panelists said anything that couldn’t have been incorporated into Bryan’s typical address, and from a branding standpoint, it reduced the uniqueness of PMA’s offering as lots of people can participate in a panel — it is a special talent to be able to do a state-of-the industry address. In a sense, the same technocratic qualities that made some doubt Bryan could do the back-slapping job of being an association leader were now being underutilized.

In some cases, the long term implications of things are uncertain. Reducing the show to two days from three and increasing the show hours is clearly popular with exhibitors and even with the key PMA retailers and board members who felt pressure to support the slow third-day by being there. Yet, in the end, we doubt that compressing the event will make it more influential in the produce world. How can it? The bottom line is that the key components of PMA’s Fresh Summit event are A) The Trade Show, B) Education, C) Networking, and D) Private Meetings. With one less day, there is inevitably fewer hours. So something has to give. This won’t impact most people, as most never stay from opening to close, in previous years or even now. But for those who do stay for the whole event, or for those whose schedules had a conflict on an early date of Fresh Summit but decided to come late because this third day still justified the trip — the constriction of time reduces the opportunities.

PMA’s biggest competitor in the battle for most influential event in the world of produce is actually not United or other US shows — it is Fruit Logistica. The trade show portion of that event lasts three days. Over long periods of time, these things impact people’s experience and that often has unintended consequences.

The new Women’s Fresh Perspective Conference will surely be extremely successful. Sponsorship money will flow like water as companies trip over themselves to make clear they stand on the side of female executives. Equally, large companies will loathe to turn down requests from their female executives to attend such an event. As for the female executives, the program quality will probably be high; the networking exceptional and, well, lots of time women enjoy being together and don’t really want men around. This is why fraternities and sororities continue long after co-ed dorms became the norm.

We will, of course, wait to see the final program before coming to any conclusions, but we have to say we are skeptical that attending “female executive” programs is actually the best thing for female executives. If a woman wants to be a top executive, she could read a specialized women’s business magazine but she would probably help her career more if she read The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune and Business Week — in other words, the same things that male business executives read.

There are, of course, some special issues that women face in the workplace, just as there are special issues African-Americans face in the workplace and Jews face in the workplace — nobody is saying that these shouldn’t be addressed. For the most part, however, the issues required to be successful in business have to do with, well, business, not gender, and thus the training and education focus should be there.

In universities all across the country, individuals “ghettoize” themselves in Africana and Women’s study programs, and it provides the students with few opportunities. We once mentioned an article in The New York Times titled Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt which profiled a woman who graduated from NYU with a Women’s Studies degree and 100 thousand in debt and was struggling to find a job. PMA has its Thunderbird program; United has its Cornell program. We hope that companies in the industry will be as quick to support a female executive who wishes to attend these programs as a program that happens to have “women” in its title.

DECISIONS FOR ELECTION DAY: From California’s Proposition 37 (GMO Labeling) To The Presidential Election Coming Down To Maine’s Potato Growers 

Editor’s Note: subsequent to the publication of this article, voters in California soundly defeated Proposition 37 and thus rejected the requirement to label most GMO products. President Obama was reelected with the help of Maine’s 2nd congressional district, which voted in his favor.

The election is, of course, upon us. We live in a country that is torn, and so the election is close. It is standard for Pundits to wencourage everyone to get out and vote. We, though, always add a caveat… we urge everyone to vote, provided they have been willing to do the hard work of thinking about the issues and the people. Otherwise the votes are empty and unlikely to advance the public interest which is in good government..

The big food-related issue this election is Proposition 37 on the California Ballot, which calls for labeling of any food that has been genetically modified — this is about 90% of all the processed food in the country. It is a superficially appealing proposition — give people the “right to know” about their food — but it fails intellectually.

First of all, consumers have an absolute right to refuse to buy from any vendor that does not guarantee their food products to be GMO-free or, for that matter, free of any other characteristic. But that right does not create an obligation on others to do anything. If Cereal A doesn’t speak to an issue that is important to a consumer, the consumer can refuse to buy the product.

Second, for those consumers who wish to eat a GMO-free diet, there happens to be a handy alternative. All they have to do is buy organic product. That is automatically GMO-free — so there are loads of products available to meet the needs of such consumers.

Third, the way the initiative is drafted, it will lead to endless lawsuits. It is one thing to have a law or regulation that the government can enforce — the phrasing of this proposition creates a right of private action by which lots of people can bring individual lawsuits for damages. That means lots of lawyers will be interested in contingency lawsuits.

Fourth, though some consumers want to know this, other consumers want to know other things. Is the product Kosher? Is it Halal? Is it certified for sustainable seafood? Was it shipped via high carbon footprint technology? One could go on and on — to pick out this one interest is not sensible. We do not require people to label everything with anything that people might like to know.

Fifth, one of the advantages of the United States is that we have a large common market. This enables economies of scale that provide lower price points for consumers. In other words, people are more prosperous in the US because we do not impose special costs on marketing in each state. This type of state-only regulation complicates commerce and thus increases costs. If this is to be done at all, it should be done on the federal level.

Sixth, the proposed policy is irrational. Genetic modification of food can involve many things. At its simplest, it can be no different than hybridization. In the old days, if one type of corn had high yield and another type tasted sweet, we could do little but continually cross breed in the hope of getting the desired mix of traits. Think of the difficulty of have a brilliant mother with brown eyes and a dull father with blue eyes — what are the chances the child is sharp with blue eyes? Still if we keep cross-breeding the corn, we may, eventually, after much time and at great cost, get the mix we want.

Genetic efforts can skip the trial-and-error and pluck the gene for sweetness, put it in the high yield corn and come up with what we want. The new GMO corn is genetically identical to what is bred traditionally – there is no difference. Yet the GMO corn would have to be labeled but the hybrid corn would not — although they are identical products. It simply makes no sense.

Seventh, you would think there had been lots of studies done showing that such information, when given to consumers, actually changes buying habits. However, there are no such studies. Much as with COOL — country-of-origin labeling — it is likely to be another burden on business and expense added to the supply chain, without any known benefit to the consumer.

Eighth, it is profoundly anti-scientific. Typically we label things because they have significance — poison, for example. Or nutritional information. There are labels on things where a scientific basis for believing that information could lead to better decisions.

But there is no basis for thinking that knowing the technology by which a seed was produced can lead to better decision-making. If there was a substantive issue, the solution would be banning the use of the technology or regulating its use. Labeling is more an appeal to Luddite prejudices than a coherent policy statement. It would imply — wink, wink — this is bad, without ever establishing that it is bad.

Ninth, the proposition includes another component that prohibits the labeling of not only GMO product but any processed product as natural. This is another recipe for litigation, but does anyone really think that some guy who makes sauerkraut from cabbage can’t call his sauerkraut “natural”? What about frozen strawberries and raspberries? How about dried fruit, shelled nuts?  Surely this issue should be handled separately from GMOs. To conflate them in one proposition is to add needless complication

So, NO on Proposition 37 is certainly the way to vote.


Despite many requests, we don’t endorse Presidential candidates. But we will say that we think this election of sufficient importance that we are rushing back from Asia to cast our vote.

If the race is as close as the polls predict, the next President of the United States may be determined by the potato farmers of Maine. Unlike most states, Maine allocates two of its four electoral votes to the overall winner of the state and then one each to the winner of each of its two congressional districts. The polls all indicate that the state will go for Obama, but the rural 2nd Congressional district — the largest Congressional district east of the Mississippi — seems like a tight race. This district may save the country from a tie in the Electoral College race despite going for Obama with 55% of the vote in 2008.

If Romney wins in Maine, it may be an early harbinger that Romney is doing sufficiently well to win the election. It also is possible, if the race is as close as projected, that this one electoral vote could save the country from a tie vote going into the House of Representatives. So potato farmers of Maine, be aware: the country may be depending on you for more than round whites. Our collective future — baked, mashed or fried — may well be in your collective hands.

Food “To Die For” May Do Just That… Seminal Study Encouraging The Eating Of Bitter Vegetables For Health To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show And Conference

The New York Produce Show and Conference is an unusual event. More intimate than the larger shows, it is second to none in its ambition to provide a world-class event in the Capital of the World.

With this year, we have expanded our University Exchange Program across the Atlantic to a most extraordinary Italian University, and the Professor the school is sending over is doing extraordinarily interesting research. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Gabriella Morini
Assistant Professor
(Ricercatore — Researcher)
Taste and Food Sciences
University of Gastronomic Sciences
(Universita Degli Studi Di Scienze Gastronomiche)
Pollenzo, Italy

Q: Could you provide a preview of your talk? What are the key issues you will bring to light?

A: I will discuss the function of the sense of taste; the influence of taste in food preferences and food choices and therefore on nutrition and health. My research makes the case that vegetables are the best trainers or the optimum way to educate your sense of taste. It is critical to introduce vegetables in the diet as early as possible, not only in children but even during a mother’s pregnancy, to influence and condition taste receptors in order to establish good eating habits and good health that will last in the long term.

Q: Is there a scientific reason why people’s taste buds wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward vegetables? Why is it so challenging to increase produce consumption?

A: I have been working since 1988 on taste sensors -- how sense works with the molecules that are present in the food we eat. I have a paper I wrote in English on the molecular aspects of taste, which might be of interest to your readers. When our ancestors were living in the bush, the only way to decide if we should eat something was to taste it. There were no labels.

People were learning in no uncertain terms what was poisonous and what was not. We never think about the chemical composition we eat in terms of taste. Everyone likes foods that are sweet or salted, and fat taste lipids are important. We also have receptors for umami, a Japanese word meaning a pleasant savory taste. This is what we naturally prefer.

We don’t like much bitter taste. Think about a baby or child and what they do when we put something bitter on their plate. We also don’t like acidic foods. It might be spoiled because it has undergone fermentation. Most of the bitter compounds are coming from plants. Plants protect themselves from being eaten from animals.

Q: Doesn’t our sense of taste mature over our lifetime? For example, adults often prefer more bitter tastes than children. Is this based on biological or environmental factors? What about food preferences built on cultural and religious differences and rituals, etc.?

A: When we grow up, we change our sense of taste, especially regarding bitter. Adults like beer, coffee, and many other things bitter. There are also differences within cultures. For example, in Italy, we have a word amaro, collectively used for bitter liqueurs, which are considered medicinal and served at the end of a meal to aid digestion.

On one side, there are information-built receptors and genetics, but also humans are different than other animals. Humans are not as strict on what we eat. It’s not just receptors, but the culture and other causes. There are people who eat cows and those who don’t, people who eat dogs and those who don’t, and the same with snakes. Raw meat is important in some parts of the world and not others.

We know that children and also adults don’t eat that many vegetables. They’re bitter and astringent.

Scientists have been working on studies to show that if you get people used to eating vegetables at a young age, it will change their taste preferences. There is also evidence that when a mother eats vegetables during pregnancy and breast feeding, it impacts a gene of taste preference

If we start introducing vegetables to babies, and serve them to toddlers, we will build a taste preference for vegetables. Koalas only eat one thing. Humans adapt to what we have available. In humans, we see we can get used to eating what is healthy.

Q: Has our genetic system and sense of taste evolved to adjust to modernity and the transformations in the food supply chain?

A: Our genetic system is geared to prefer fat and salt. We eat food because we have to. We eat molecules introduced through food to survive. We have senses that influence our food preferences. We do like sweet, salty, umami, and fat because of our genetic system that accommodated a time where there was not too much food.

The problem until 100 years ago was not eating enough. The world has changed. We have a sensory system to detect food that is old. If you go to the grocery store when you are hungry, you buy everything. In the past, there was a long process to get food. Now, we get what we want quickly. It’s important to educate people on this phenomenon. It’s like driving a Ferrari without knowing how; eventually you crash. You need a driver’s license

Q: Using your driving analogy, what are the main lessons people can pull from your research to avoid reckless food choices and reverse unhealthy eating and obesity trends?

A: We need to let people know as much as possible ways to educate sense of taste, to like or to go for healthy. Right now, we need vegetables in our diet more than ever before. Vegetables reduce calorie intake, introduce variety, and are rich in vitamins and antioxidants. We have to improve the consumption of vegetables. One way is to say they are good for you, but that doesn’t always work because we eat what we like. Nobody can force us to eat something we don’t like.

Q: That said, isn’t this an uphill battle to shake conditioned eating behaviors and food preferences?

A: We have to learn to like vegetables. This is the philosophy and there is scientific proof. Researchers have taken groups of children and introduced them to different varieties of vegetables repetitively, leading to a gradual shift in their taste preferences over time, but there is no easy fix.

You bring up eating behaviors. The problem is that it is very difficult to change habits. We are not koalas, so we can learn what to eat and train our genetic system. Now there are scientific papers to show that the best chance for success is to start with children or even better with pregnant mothers.

We also need a multifaceted effort that follows children throughout their daily activities, such as tending a school garden and integrating that into the educational curriculum. In Italy, officials are trying to improve school canteens and include more fresh vegetables.

Children gravitate to peas, carrots and potatoes because they’re not bitter. However, bitter is very good when it comes to vegetables, offering vitamins and nutrients that can’t be found elsewhere. Bitter is better. We have to get people to choose bitter. We have to teach people to like vegetables.

Q: Do you think the produce industry should try to create new vegetable varieties with tastes and flavor profiles that duplicate or simulate what we naturally like?

A: No. We have to retrain our senses to bitter, hot compounds, ginger, onions, chilies, compounds that may have strange tastes… more tastes besides sweet and sour. Also we need a way to recognize these are good for us.

Q: So produce industry executives who look for ways to compete with junk food companies by disguising fruits and vegetables to taste more like the snacks kids desire is not the way to go? For example, produce marketers, and for that matter parents, adding cheese sauce to broccoli, dipping carrots in peanut butter, spreading cream cheese on celery, or drizzling fruit with honey or chocolate could be counter-productive?

A: That is not the right direction. Now we know these bitter vegetable compounds are good for us, and responsible for the taste. It’s a code. We have to learn the language of taste. It’s an investment for a mom to prepare vegetables, but how much time do they invest in getting their children to learn French or German or something else they believe is important.

We have to give the instrument to learn the language of taste, more vegetables and also different ones. I like to say variety is the taste of life. I think it’s not a good approach to reduce bitter taste. There will always be something more fatty, more sweet or salty, or more pleasant out there. The industry will find it difficult to compete if it’s trying to out-sweeten cookies and cake.

Wild animals decide by taste. Humans are different. They may alter food choice depending on which part of the world they live, or which part of the year, say Easter or Christmas. The code is important. We change over our lifetime. We have to try to start at the beginning with what’s good for us. It’s difficult to find people who don’t like cakes.

It is not just about changing the taste code. Competing with junk food is not the solution. I’m reminded of the expression when a food is so good — “to die for” — usually when we eat something very sweet or tasty. If we just continue going that way, we will die… literally.

Broccoli with cheese sauce is just adding calories and avoiding the real issue. It’s a superficial approach.

Q: What tactics do you recommend?

A: The best time to act is when a woman is pregnant. She pays very much attention to her health and will be receptive to information on what she should eat and why it is so important. Lipids, carbohydrates and fats are present in any foods, but there are antioxidants and nutrients in vegetables that are important to human development.

Just as studies show that the music children hear during pregnancy can be influential, research shows that those introduced early to vegetables will gravitate to those tastes. In Italy, there was a concern that when a mother was eating a lot of garlic while breastfeeding, children weren’t eating meat. That’s not the problem now. We need food less rich in easy calories.

Q: There are claims that characteristics of processed foods actually stimulate bad eating habits. Is there truth to that?

A: In the industry, in the 1940s and 1950’s after the Second World War, the only mission was to sell more food. Now we have all the problems with food-related diseases. I think the aim of the industry has changed. I was reading about the ban of big size soda in New York. There is a push to limit calories in meals, reduce portions. In 50 years, we’ve moved from food keeping us alive to the source of what is killing people.

Even in the vegetable world, variety was selected for longer shelf life and the same shape. Minds are changing. What kept us alive can now kill us. At the same time, with so many advances, we live longer.

I’m not one to say the past was better, but our children are the first generation that has less expectancy of life. That is going down hill. The food system, the industry, even fast food, must change. It will be against their business not to change.

Q: As long as there is consumer demand for sweet, salty, fatty and umami, won’t companies continue to produce what is profitable? Despite all the research espousing benefits of produce, and concerted efforts from both government and private organizations to fight obesity, increasing produce consumption remains a challenge. Does the cornerstone of this change require retraining our sense of taste?

A: It’s not easy. It will take time. We don’t have time to adapt genetically. Our body is very much set to adapt to scarcity of food. We are very good at managing scarcity of food, and not good at managing the excess. We cannot wait to adapt biologically, but humans have brains.

Q: With advances in technology, the world has become so mobile, from international travel and exposure to a wide variety of ethnic cuisines, to an array of unusual produce items and unexpected spices. Doesn’t this create heighted interest to experiment with bitter vegetables and daring taste profiles?

A: We know that we have a genetic sense of taste. Detecting receptors of taste is not so different for people living in Ecuador, India, the North Pole or the South Pole. People move around the world and still generally eat the same. Yes, there is ethnic and cultural diversity within communities. I eat a dish that is traditional where I live. It has a sauce made with anchovies and a lot of garlic and raw vegetables. A lot of children in Italy love it. My American friends love peanut butter, but in Europe I don’t know anyone who does. Marmite, a spread from yeast extract, is popular as Vegemite in Australia. I think it’s awful.

But if you think about globalization of food, pizza, pasta, and fast food have become universal because they’re not bitter or acidic at all.

If you have a dog, you know it will eat all the food that is there. As humans, we learn to adapt. Why do we have to use sense of taste when we can go to the supermarket and buy whatever we want? We have to be more aware of what we eat. We can also change when we’re old, but it’s more challenging. If you want to learn an instrument, you’ll learn much faster when you’re a child. It’s the same with sense of taste.

Professor Morini’s research and the presentation that grows out of it is simultaneously perhaps the most inspiring and most challenging presentation we have ever had at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

It is both inspiring and challenging because, though the good Professor may be Italian she reminds us of Aristotle in her approach: She challenges us to be more completely human and identifies rationality as the key trait differentiating humans from animals.

She also touches on a long term concern of ours — what about the vegetables? In pieces such these herehere, here and here, we have cautioned that the produce industry efforts to increase consumption are sometimes uncomfortably close to a bait-and-switch. First, we promote the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables, research which is typically based on a diverse basket of produce items. Then, we run programs that give out only sweet snack fruit which, in and of itself, won’t deliver the promised health benefits.

In our piece titled, The Bitter Truth About Promoting Produce To Children,we examined a study that showed children recoil from the bitter taste of many of the most nutritionally valuable vegetables and analyzed the challenge this posed for efforts to both increase consumption and to use increased consumption to improve public health.

Now Professor Morini comes along with several specific points:

  1. The industry is starting too late. It is fine to have school salad bar programs and school snack programs but, we need to start with pregnant women and babies; taste receptors are established in utero.
  2. It is not enough to simply increase access to fruits and vegetables. We have to understand that there is a need to consciously train our taste buds to like more vegetables.
  3. Substituting non-caloric sweeteners for sugar — say drinking diet soda rather than regular — may help a bit on the margin with public health but, fundamentally doesn’t work because it feeds our desire for sweetness as opposed to retraining our palates to prefer other tastes.
  4. Efforts to develop sweeter vegetable varieties or to get children to eat vegetables with cheese sauce, etc., are distractions from the key job: getting people to like tastes they are not used to and getting them to realize these tastes are good for them.
  5. There is an urgency here. We do not have time to allow our bodies to adapt through the normal genetic process. We need to use our intellect and make choices that we are not driven to make by our own genetics. We are suited for living in a world characterized by a shortage of food and we live in a world of abundance. This leads to obesity and related complications.

It is a fascinating thesis and may well be true — what is not clear is whether it is possible on a mass scale.

We know that some individuals get “religion” and dramatically change their eating habits. We know that there are shifts that occur gradually as people age.

But do we have even one example of a whole nation dramatically changing its eating habits to be healthier?

It is fine to admonish people — but there are plenty of people who don’t make the effort to make sure their children speak French or German. What are we to do about those people?

Inevitably a campaign such as this seems likely to have class-based implications. In affluent countries, one reason poor people are poor is that, because of low education and relative isolation from knowledgeable social networks, they are not good at picking up societal messages as to what behaviors lead to success. It is the affluent and educated who are likely to have the presence of mind to hear messages such as this and act on them. We see this already… habits such as smoking and behaviors that lead to obesity are less common among the more affluent and educated.

What reasonable expectation can we possibly have that the general population will so dramatically change its behavior?

It is a fascinating topic, and we can’t wait to hear Professor Morini give her presentation at The New York Produce Show and Conference. In fact, she will be giving two. The main presentation will be given as part of the Educational Micro-Session Program on December 5, 2012 at Pier 94, and a second special version also will be adapted to the interests of the foodservice and culinary segment of the industry and presented as part of the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum on December 6, 2012, at the Sheraton New York Hotel.

Make sure you are there to hear this thought-provoking presentation; you can do so by registering here.

In addition, as mentioned above, Professor Morini will tailor her message to culinary and foodservice professionals at this year’s ”Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum, held on December 6. If you would like more information on this conference, please email us here.

If you are interested in coming early to The New York Produce Show and Conference and want to immerse yourself in international trade, we have a separate event — The Global Trade Symposium — held on Tuesday, December 4. If interested, please email us here.

Hotels are available at this link.

And we have negotiated a roster of travel discounts which you can find here.

There is also an extensive spouse program, which you can sign up for here.

And a roster of great tours can be signed up for here.

We invite you to come to The New York Produce Show and Conference and Celebrate Fresh! It’s also where the industry starts thinking in new ways. Come and be part of that conversation.

From Anaheim To Singapore… Jetting Into The Future

I am eating fruit. A banana — StaReyna brand — a mandarin of some sort, a persimmon, an Asian pear and a plum — so if we still had 5-a-Day, I could say I did my bit in one sitting.

I enjoy fruit, and when it is presented to me on bended knee by an austerely beautiful Asian woman, wearing her hair up and exotic eye shadow which matches a modern day interpretation of a kimono-like dress, and she seems to know no greater joy than to serve me the precise fruit I desire, I am inclined to keep the fruit basket coming.

I write from the first class “suites” on a brand new A-380. This one is operated by Singapore Airlines — the first airline in the world to fly the A-380, which has a reputation as one of the finest airlines in the world, a unique combination of ultra-modern western technology and safety standards with an eastern culture that offers pure luxury in service.

The A-380 is an example of the technology part. Produced by Airbus, it is the largest plane in the world. List price: 375.3 million. Plus four massive Rolls-Royce engines; list price 12.5 million. Think of a 747 with its distinctive “bump” up front that represents a small second story… now extend that bump the whole length of a plane so it is a true double-decker. That is pretty much what it looks like.

Here is a picture:

In fact, the A-380 was designed in a manner not dissimilar to my description. You might think that on a project as enormous as this one, the engineers would start out with a blank sheet of paper and build the optimal plane. In reality. one of the lessons of living is that there are always constraints.

In this case, the Airbus executives demanded that the engineers design a plane that could fit into gates around the world that were sized to fit a 747. The executives realized that adoption — and thus sales — would be significantly slowed if every airport had to be retrofitted with new-sized gates before anyone could use the plane.

So the engineers couldn’t go much wider or much longer, but they could extend the second deck and thus go higher over most of the length of the plane.

Space in the air can be a great luxury. As a boy, the Pundit Poppa and Momma took the family on a Pan Am flight when it was the first carrier to fly the 747. It used to have a piano bar, and first class passengers were escorted into a separate dining room for dinner.

In time, all these amenities diminished because passengers weren’t willing to pay sufficiently higher ticket prices to support them. Ultimately the most profitable thing to do with a plane has been to squeeze in more seats.

It is difficult to know how the A-380 will ultimately be used. For now, on Singapore Air the first class section has been designed with spacious suites, each one of which contains a kind of Murphy-type bed. There are a couple of “double suites” where couples can have a kind of double bed together — and even a bit of privacy as the suite doors can be closed sort of like the old Pullman railroad compartments.

First class on foreign airlines is almost always better than first class on US airlines. This is for the best of reasons: They actually sell foreign first class while most US airlines give first class away as an upgrade to frequent flyers. This completely changes the dynamic. US airlines want to offer a first class that is just desirable enough to make people want a free upgrade. Foreign airlines want to produce a product worthy of paying a premium for — that is a big difference.

The engineers have designed special jetways for the A-380 so it can simultaneously load passengers on the upper and lower decks. This addresses the big concern that it would take too long to board and empty such a large plane.

Though the plane is massive and, in many ways, a pinnacle of human engineering, it is in many ways dated. One is reminded of the joke on the opening of the Hunts Point Market in 1967, in which it was declared that because it took so many years to develop. and trailer lengths had changed from the time the design was finally approved, that the market was the newest antiquated market in the world!

Simultaneously with Airbus developing the A-380, Boeing began development work on its 787. This plane, now flying, with ANA as its launch airline, seems much more likely to represent the future of aviation. Its key innovation is that it is built mostly of composites, rather than metal.

This allows for a higher degree of humidity in the air — 15% as opposed to 4% on other airplanes — as there is less concern with corrosion on metal. It also allows for much larger windows without a need for structural reinforcement. Finally the composite structure allows for increased cabin pressure. All combined, these three design elements correspond to a more comfortable and refreshing ride. You can see the plane here:

The plane is smaller than the A-380 and in that choice, one sees differing strategic visions between Airbus and Boeing as to the future of air travel.

Airbus looks at how difficult it is to build airports, noting that every proposal, even to expand runways at existing airports, brings howls of protest, and the company surmises that the future must involve maximizing the value of each take-off and landing slot. So it sees larger planes as the future.

Boeing sees consumer demand growing for convenience, so it sees direct flights as the future. Instead of funneling all the flights to hub airports, Boeing sees a future of smaller planes making direct flights from more cities, so it is not just LAX to Singapore, but also Cincinnati to Singapore.

In any case, we didn’t head home from PMA. Instead we followed the admonition of Horace Greeley, who famously said “Go West, young man.” He meant head toward opportunity; head toward the future.

Indeed the tale of the two jets — Airbus 380 and Boeing 787 — gives an American a sinking feeling that maybe the world isn’t exactly going our way. After all, the lead airlines are both Asian-owned.

Travel is a good time for reflection. When we first when to Fruit Logistica, we reflected on what it meant for a Jew to visit Berlin in a piece we titled Dispatch From Frankfurt — An American Jew Goes To Germany.

Now the angst is not religious; it is patriotic. Will a rising Asia supersede American leadership in the world, and, if so, will it be for better or worse?

We have become best friends with our onetime enemy, the Japanese. That relationship and the way in which two such committed adversaries could find their way to true friendship is a model for the civilized world.

Japan, though, is a declining power. For all its incredible technology and its cultural unity and insistence on perfection, the Japanese simply do not have enough babies. So the population ages and Japan has experienced annual population declines. The population of Japan hit an all-time high in 2008 of 128 million and has fallen steadily since.

Barring dramatic changes in life expectancy, birth rates or immigration, Japan's population will keep declining by roughly one million people every single year in the coming decades, which will leave Japan with a population of 87 million in 2060. By that time, a majority of the population is expected to be over the age of 60.

So Japan is frightened too.

The growing population of China and India, Indonesia and other Asian powers, combined with just moderate prosperity, changes the world. We are all in favor of free trade, but what if a power such as China uses the fruits of that trade to build better weapons than we have?

We can hope that prosperity can give each country a stake in peace. But China has been engaging in a series of territorial disputes with its neighbors, it has just launched its first aircraft carrier, and, in general, is flexing its muscles.

So in flying East, an American flies into the unknown. It is the future, but what will the future bring?

For now, though, we fly to Singapore, and Singapore is a marvel.

A small island, it is the most modern of cities, yet carries the rich heritage of its mostly Chinese citizenry proudly.

It is a place all about business, with many lessons for the US. Yet Singapore has limitations that pose a challenge for the future. More on that in our next post.

But for now, its business focus is a wonder. They get away with things we never could do in the US. As the Pundit gets off the jet, he is greeted by an escort who scoots him through the airport on a golf cart. They radio the Pundit’s bag tag number to someone as the Pundit seemingly skips customs and all those annoying details.

Instead the Pundit is swept into the “Commercially Very Important Persons” building, and his passport is stamped. The Pundit thanked for coming to Singapore and is then escorted to a Bentley waiting out front where the Pundit’s luggage has magically appeared in the trunk.

The driver starts off but not before explaining: “We know well of the importance of your work here in Singapore. For your convenience the Bentley is equipped with Wi-Fi so that you might better do your important work.”

They really know how to say they want your business here.

More on that business in the next post as well.

On-The-Ground Assessment Of Hurricane Sandy’s Aftermath By One Of NY-NJ’s Leading Retailers

As the Pundit has been jetting around Asia, our friends and family in the Northeast have been struggling with the aftermath of the storm. We work closely with Paul Kneeland, Vice President of Produce & Floral of Kings Food Markets and Chairman of the Conference Committee at the Eastern Produce Council, with whom we present The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Kings is right at the epicenter of the storm, and Paul was kind enough to send an update:

What a week……

Good news is that most everyone is safe — Staten Island, the Rockaways — not so lucky.

Hoboken was ravaged too — there was a sailboat in a parking lot — Four feet of water raced up the streets. Sidewalks are littered with soaked, ruined furniture and belongings 

We lost power to 17 stores at the height of the storm. Six generators helped save some — we lost all perishable product in 11 of our stores.

We are still (as of Sunday AM) out of power in two stores and the six generators have been moved around to bring stores back on line as full power is restored. Some stores’ full power is expected by the end of the week.

It is a disaster down here, but we will all survive. Gas is a huge issue and rationing started yesterday — I waited 2 1/2 hours in line on Friday. Cell phone service is spotty — some likened it to the days after 9-11.

Nerves are frayed and patience is no longer evident.

Looting has started but just small factions — we cannot leave anything outside the stores. Thieves know power is out and battery backup is out on security systems. Generator theft is commonplace. And gas siphoning is happening all over.

If you ever saw the movie Mad Max — it is kind of like that.

We have worked hard to get all our stores open to provide the basic necessities to our neighborhoods. Our competition often cannot react the way we have. They don’t have the same flexibility.

Pallets of ice sitting on sales floors would never be considered, for example, but we still can’t keep up. One store received 18 pallets of firewood, and it was gone in two hours.

Despite all that, we had positive sales! And we beat our budget! That is with ten stores being closed last Tuesday….

There is my update from the newest Federal Disaster area — New Jersey!

All is as well as could be expected!

— Paul Kneeland
Vice President of Produce and Floral
Kings Food Markets

Our heart goes out, of course, to all those who have been affected by the storm.

Living in Florida, we have gone through some of this, and it is frustrating that some lessons are never learned. Gas stations, for example, should always be built with back-up generators and hooked up to natural gas sources.

In our mind, these big natural disasters also give a lie to the notion that the big divide in the country is over the size of government. To us, the problem with expansive government is not so much size as that a government that tries to do everything will probably do nothing well.

Keeping the peace, having supplies of fuel and water ready… these are core obligations of the government — right up there close to national defense.

When they report the losses for Fresh & Easy, these don’t include the enormous managerial distraction that this division has caused Tesco. Equally, the issue is not whether supporting Big Bird is worthwhile, nor even, as Romney claimed, whether we have the money to do it. The issue is whether we have taken care of Job One.

We would rather have a government competent and successful in areas it undertakes, rather than spread out all over and then run out of water reserves or with madhouse gas giveaways on the Brooklyn Coast Guard base.

Even something like the Stimulus, so hotly debated, is upsetting in no small part because we spent trillion dollars and have little to show for it.

In this case — and in Florida hurricanes — much damage is caused because electrical wires are above ground. Had we decided to spend the stimulus to do something — say put all the electric wire underground — Obama would be way ahead right now in every poll. But instead, the stimulus was mostly a payoff to various constituencies, and not one citizen in a thousand could name even one permanent improvement made as a result of the expenditure.

We should note that we have absolutely no reason to believe the Republicans would have done better, but we would like to see government that was more focused and competent and not trying to bribe every constituency out there.

For now, our focus is on next month’s unveiling of The New York Produce Show and Conference.

The Pier and hotels are undamaged, and Manhattan has most of its electric back. But we want to use this event as a focus to move the region forward after this storm.

Destruction is horrid and painful, but it sometimes clears the deck for reconstruction and new ways of thinking. It causes us to reassess how we do business and how we live our lives.

With dozens of workshops, hundreds of exhibits and thousands of minds, we are going to turn The New York event into a fulcrum of creativity and ingenuity: Call it PRODUCE INDUSTRY FORWARD: Where we go from here.

Come be part of the conversation. You can register right here.

And many thanks to Paul Kneeland for taking time amidst all the hassle to brief the industry on the situation at the epicenter of the crisis.


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