Good news. Bad news. The produce industry has enjoyed considerable growth due to consumers’ interest in “healthy” foods, a label that fits fruits and vegetables like a peel.

And consumers seem to believe that if produce is good, organically grown produce is even better. Sales of organic produce jumped 24% in 2006. Recent attention on the economy, though, has some shoppers reconsidering whether organic’s higher price is worth it.

But the market continues to be plagued by contamination scares. The most recent: A salmonella outbreak tracked to certain tomatoes (red plums, red Romas and round reds), the origin of which had not been pinpointed as of press time. And growers and packers were still reeling from the E.coli-tainted spinach incident in 2006.

The category continues to do well, though, when it combines its natural healthiness with convenience. The latest marketing wonder: Frozen vegetables in microwavable steamer bags. Created by Birds Eye during its transition to a branded-products-only company, this value-added package has a solid position in the freezer case. Even private-label products now tout this convenient cooking feature.

1. Dole Food Co.

Dole, the world’s leading producer of fresh fruits and vegetables, operates in the fresh, canned and frozen arenas. The privately held company appears on Ethisphere magazine’s 2007 and 2008 lists of “World’s Most Ethical Companies.” It also prides itself on its environmental policies. In January 2008, it converted all its harvesting equipment in Salinas, Calif., and in Yuma, Ariz., to bio-diesel fuel.

2. Chiquita Brands Int'l

Chiquita Brands is more than just bananas. Its Fresh Express business unit, the segment leader in the U.S. in value-added salads, was strengthened in 2007 with the addition of Verdelli Farms. The company’s strategy also includes new products, two of which were: “Chiquita To Go” bananas, which use proprietary packaging technologies to extend shelf life, making it profitable to market individual bananas in non-grocery convenience outlets; and Gourmet Café, individual salads packaged with toppings, dressing and utensils.

3. Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc.

Although it shares the Del Monte name and logo through a perpetual, royalty-free licensing agreement, Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. is completely separate from Del Monte Foods. Its global sourcing and logistics system allows this vertically integrated company to provide regular delivery of consistently high-quality produce. New distribution centers emphasize fresh-cut, ripening, re-packing and other value-added services.