One of the nation’s largest fresh fruit and vegetable organizations, the Produce Marketing Association, just wrapped up its annual “Fresh Summit” in Atlanta with a warning from its chief executive officer.

Bryan Silbermann, PMA president, told his members their biggest challenge is combatting deadly foodborne illness outbreaks during a time of rapidly growing demand for healthier foods.

In his “state of the industry” report, Silbermann said produce growers and shippers are under a microscope because of recent fatal outbreaks involving sprouts and cantaloupes.

“It does not matter whether you grow, ship or sell along this supply chain,” he said.  “I want you to consider some fundamental truths we must accept as we look for ways to turn this tide around.  It must be turned around.  Our future depends on it.”

The 2011 “Fresh Summit” was “eerily” like the lead up to the PMA summit in 2006, according to Silbermann.  At that time, the spinach-caused E. coli outbreak “hung like a black cloud over us,” he said.   

The PMA chief said the industry finds itself back in the same place with the current cantaloupe-caused Listeria outbreak that has killed at least 25 people out of 123 sickened in 26 states to become the most deadly food poisoning in the U.S. in 25 years.

PMA is the leading trade association for companies involved in every segment of the global produce and floral supply chain.  The group also elected its officers and board to serve for the next year during its meetings at the Georgia World Congress Center.

Attendance was estimated at 18,500, more than 200 over the previous summit.