Houston — The booming market for local foods and the ongoing expansion of organics both indicate that many consumers are supporting social causes with their shopping dollars. But in a broader sense, these trends illustrate that a growing number of shoppers simply want to know where and how their food was grown, Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, said during a portion of his State of the Industry presentation here at PMA's annual Fresh Summit.
“They're striving for connections — connection to local farmers, to unique products, to a lifestyle that seems more in harmony with what nature intended,” he said. “While flavor is a key to this trend, it is also fueled by the perception that local equals safer, healthier, more flavorful and grown with less impact on the environment.”
He continued: “Though some believe the drive to local demonstrates the loss of confidence in the larger commercial sector, the majority of locavores are actually motivated by a very basic instinct: the need to match a product with a place or a face. It's about connections.”
Recent food recalls, most notably the E. coli spinach outbreak in September 2006, and contamination scares involving imported products this year, have intensified that need. PMA has responded by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a communications campaign that helped prepare leading growers, processors and distributors to act as spokespeople to the consumer media, and helped arrange segments on popular television programs like NBC's “Today” show.
“Our research has shown that farmers rank first as a credible source on food safety,” he explained. “Consumers want to hear from farmers who grow and know and care about the food they sell day after day. They want to hear from processors about the latest techniques to add convenience and safeguards to produce they process day after day. They want to see a real, honest-to-goodness face of someone who walks the talk — every day.”
Yet, PMA's research also indicates that the consumer desire for these connections extends to the store level as well, and shoppers are reporting little, if any, interaction with associates in most produce departments, even though they say they would probably buy more produce if that interaction increased.
“Is it any wonder why market-leading retailers always — and I do mean always — have well-trained produce staff who make it their business to engage their customers?” he asked.
This demand for connection and interaction is evidenced by the rapid growth of farmers' markets. According to Silbermann, Packaged Facts estimates that locally grown foods could be a $7 billion business by 2011, and the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. has doubled in the last two years.
“Food has literally become the new social movement,” he said. The difference between this new back-to-basics movement and the intellectual debates of the 1960s and '70s, however, is that “this one is backed by Boomer money and moms with disposable income.”
Growing demand for local foods “is already driving business decisions about where to grow, how to purchase and what to promote,” Silbermann noted. “Large growers are looking at regional growing opportunities, and forward distribution deals are increasing.”
But growers and retailers are well aware that this movement won't quash year-round demand for grapes and bananas. The challenge, Silbermann said, is recognizing that at the core of these movements toward local, organic and sustainable products is shoppers' desire to understand the values of the companies they are buying from.
“Share how your organization takes responsibility for the impact of its activities on customers, employees, shareholders, communities and the environment,” he said. “Social responsibility is really all about another basic business rule — remembering there is a face behind every business decision you make.”