Interview with Cathy Burns, CEO of IFPA: Creating a Better Future for the Fresh Produce Industry

The International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA) is proving that there is strength in numbers. The new association began operations just nine months ago following the merger of the two most influential organizations in the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry, PMA and IFPA, and has since successfully moved forward on its seven strategic commitments announced earlier this year.

On October 27-29, IFPA will hold its first major exhibition, the Global Produce and Floral Show, in Orlando. It will serve as a venue for the fresh produce and floral industry to meet again in person and for attendees and exhibitors to share experiences and knowledge. 

Abasto Magazine interviewed Cathy Burns, CEO of IFPA, to learn details about the intense work the association has been doing on several fronts: advocating for growers, for greater community access to fruits and vegetables, and for immigration reform to promote the guest worker program. 

Burns took the opportunity to recognize the Latino community for Hispanic Heritage Month and its contributions to the agricultural industry.

Abasto Magazine: What is your assessment of the work IFPA has done in its first nine months of operations? 

Cathy Burns: We have been focused on delivering value concerning our seven strategic commitments announced in March 2021, in addition to our vision of uniting the farming community to grow and create a vibrant future for all.

The good news is that we are very encouraged to see the industry response to the new association, and we see it in several ways: support for our various events, our programs, and member engagement. Of course, our advocacy work has been very strong. Our government relations team works every day in Washington and beyond on our priority policy issues.

Certainly, labor is probably our number one priority. So are supply chain challenges, food safety, nutrition, and organics. But what we have accomplished so far we have helped alleviate trade disruptions. We were active at the Texas border crossing. We advocated for and celebrated the passage of the Shipping Reform Act, all of which occurred in the first six months of the year.

We also pushed for immigration reform to get a stable farm labor force, specifically the Farmworker Immigration Reform Act. This is vitally important, especially now that labor is so necessary, so we have used our collective industry voice to press legislators and members of Congress to move forward on this vital part of immigration reform.

And on the advocacy front, our recent big announcement is that we have put forward eight fresh produce recommendations that we want to see incorporated into the U.S. national nutrition strategy at the September White House Food, Hunger and Nutrition Conference.

Related Article: IFPA Demands Senate Action on Immigration Reform

AM: How is inflation affecting fruit and vegetable growers and the prices of their products?

CB: Consumers are very aware of what is happening with inflation, and many are applying lessons learned during the Great Recession. We are seeing them restrain spending. We also see that supply chain challenges in terms of costs, from labels to packaging to transportation to labor, remain significant. In particular, growers and shippers are looking for ways to be more efficient and effective given these challenges. 

Our most recent survey, published in June, found that concern about inflation has reached its most pervasive level. Ninety-three percent of grocery shoppers are very concerned about inflation. Eighty-one percent of those shoppers have changed what and where they purchased fresh produce in June.

In terms of inflation, fresh produce prices were up. Since last year they increased 8% per unit and 7% per kilo. Input costs increase for the farming community, and so is labor, fuel, transportation, and packaging. I am not sure there is a cost associated with farming and production that is not going up.

AM: What are the most pressing challenges facing the sector?

CB: Labor is the number one challenge our growers are experiencing. Our growers have told us that labor is one of the most significant issues they face, and without labor reform, they will continue to face price and supply uncertainty, and that’s not good for anyone in the supply chain.

That’s why IFPA have joined a coalition representing many different segments and not just food but all sectors, and we’re going to the Senate with one voice. I think it can be powerful and show that the challenge is real, and we have a solution that can at least help us and ensure that we have year-round availability of labor.

AM: On October 27-29, IFPA will host the Global Produce and Floral Show in Orlando. Why is this the event that no one should miss?

CB: For two years, due to circumstances beyond our control, the global fresh produce and floral community have been unable to come together and connect on this scale. The Global Produce and Floral Show is the first of its kind for IFPA, and we intend to make it memorable.

It will be a celebration of all things produce and floral, with many opportunities for attendees to connect and learn from each other. Networking is a crucial part of the education component, it’s an essential part, and we’ll have a full day of education.

We have a robust program for Orlando. We have the renowned humanitarian chef José Andrés as our keynote speaker on Friday morning. And he’s going to discuss how to change the world through the power of food, so I can’t think of a better speaker on a more timely topic than Chef José Andrés. Also, on Thursday afternoon, we’re going to have a panel of executives talking about consumer trends, sustainability, technology, innovation, talent, workforce, how all of this is shaping the future of food retail, and, with a specific focus on fresh produce and floral.

We will have retail executives from around the world talking about these challenges and how they are thinking about them for the future. I will also deliver the state of the industry address, which is a great opportunity to share what we see worldwide.

We will have a very dynamic speaker for our Women’s Fresh Perspectives Breakfast on Saturday. It’s another can’t-miss event, and it’s open to both men and women. You’ll be able to network and hear people talk about the issues women face in the industry and how to address them.

And I want to emphasize that the Expo floor is 97% sold out. So if you are hesitating to exhibit, I encourage you to reach out and contact us at IFPA because we are very close to selling out.

AM: With Hispanic Heritage Month in mind, what message can you send to this community that is key to getting agricultural products on the tables of U.S. consumers year-round?

CB: The first thing that comes to mind is that the world needs you. The world needs you to ensure a steady, stable, and secure supply of fruits and vegetables, now more than ever. Focusing on our food, especially fresh produce, can bring people together around the table and around the world.

At the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), we believe in the joy of fresh and how the produce our industry grows and sells every day provides an incredible variety of flavors, textures, and aromas that help consumers live vibrantly healthy lives. And again, the world needs you more than ever to provide that consistent, stable, and safe supply of fresh fruits and vegetables.