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A Fresh Outlook

WHAT: A Fresh Outlook on the State of the Industry WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 13, 7:30-9:20 a.m. WHERE: George Bush Grand Ballroom Retailers, growers, packers and distributors are eagerly anticipating the Produce Marketing Association's 2007 Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition, which will be held Oct. 12-15 at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center. In this preview supplement, Supermarket

WHAT: A Fresh Outlook on the State of the Industry

WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 13, 7:30-9:20 a.m.

WHERE: George Bush Grand Ballroom

Retailers, growers, packers and distributors are eagerly anticipating the Produce Marketing Association's 2007 Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition, which will be held Oct. 12-15 at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center. In this preview supplement, Supermarket News takes a look at just a few of the issues that will be analyzed and discussed during the summit's extensive schedule of educational seminars and panel discussions. We begin with excerpts from a recent interview with PMA President Bryan Silbermann, who will present his annual State of the Industry address on Saturday, Oct. 13, from 7:30 to 9:20 a.m.

SN: Recently, some papers and television stations drew comparisons between last year's E. coli outbreak and the recent, voluntary recall of Metz fresh bagged spinach due to salmonella. The Metz recall, though, seemed to be a great success in that no one got sick. Is this a sign of the industry's progress since last year?

BS: It does show that the industry has taken food safety assurance to a new level. It also shows that people are much more willing to invest in systems that ensure the Good Agricultural Practices required by the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, as well as testing product before it goes out. I do think that this incident does raise the question of the overall value of what's called “test and hold,” because that in itself can cause a lot of turmoil if it's not handled properly, and I think we have a ways to go yet before we've identified what's the best way to go about testing of final product. This recall was pretty well handled, but the overall procedures, if we're still going to follow test-and-hold protocols, need a lot of work in the industry. Another comment I would make is that it's critical that we all understand — and that the buyers especially understand — that testing of finished product is absolutely not a substitute for the Good Agricultural Practices that have to be used in the field and in the harvesting and packing of the product. You have to have those [practices in place] and good manufacturing processes in place at the processing plant, and no amount of product testing can substitute for those.

SN: Another big issue that has emerged this year has been consumer concerns about products coming from China. This hasn't necessarily affected the produce industry yet, but in general, as the produce industry has become more global, how is PMA helping it deal with concerns and issues like country-of-origin labeling, traceability and even these new concerns about “food miles”?

BS: There are a couple of trends at work here, and they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive — but let's break them down. No. 1 is the concerns generated by Chinese imports — everything from toothpaste to fish to toys. All of that clearly changed the direction of debate over COOL. Even if one had believed that there was a more cost-effective system on the supply side or the retail side to provide COOL labeling on a voluntary basis, the fact of the matter is, consumers are concerned about the way in which products were coming in, particularly from China, and not being labeled as such. It really turned the whole debate around. We had to acknowledge — everybody in the industry had to acknowledge — that agreeing to a mandatory country-of-origin labeling regimen was necessary. How that gets implemented if that bill passes — thus far it has only gone through the House, there is no Senate version yet, and the president has threatened to veto the current Farm Bill for a number of reasons, so there's still a lot of miles to go before we see what the COOL requirements will be — it's still clear that consumers want information available about where their food is coming from, and I think that we must, as an industry, figure out a way to provide that.

No. 2, in terms of the food miles issue, that ties in very closely with a trend that we've watched for a number of years, which is that people want to feel connected to the agricultural community, whether that's local in their own town or vicinity or state. When we do surveys and we ask consumers how they define local, people will define that as either [food grown within] 100 miles from where they live, to the state in which they live. As a general rule, you can say that people will think “if I live in California, California grown is local. If I live in Massachusetts, Massachusetts grown is local.” I think, though, there's really a dislocation that people feel, for a range of different reasons — not the least of which is these issues of imported products coming in contaminated and not being caught — about where their food is coming from. So, they want to support local farmers, and there's also a social responsibility sentiment that makes them want to support the businesses in their local communities, whether or not that has to do with issues of safety. And so there has been a movement that's generating more and more momentum now, not just in retail but also in restaurants, toward supporting local farmers and ranchers. That's just gotten extra momentum from these imported product scares. I think we'll see it increase.

SN: What about products that can't be grown locally? Are there opportunities to market products as exotic — particularly those that can't be grown in the U.S.?

BS: I think consumers are sensible enough to understand — when you explain it to them — that some products, like bananas, can't be grown in the United States because of climatic conditions. Bananas have to be grown in tropical climates. A lot of consumers, though, have no clue where products come from. Is there potential to tell the story better? Absolutely. Is there the potential to promote the socially and environmentally responsible practices these companies employ in terms of labor, packaging and transportation? Absolutely there is. That will be one of the themes of my [State of the Industry] presentation next month. I think, overall as an industry, we haven't done nearly as good a job as we should on showing the human face of our companies — what we've called at PMA the “Heart and Soul” of the industry. The family traditions, the stewardship of the environment — those are attributes that the produce industry has, but has not touted nearly as much as we should.

SN: Green Giant last month released a survey in which one in three parents said their child would more likely be elected president of the United States than someday regularly eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. With all of the messages about nutrition and obesity that parents must be hearing, why does there still seem to be this disconnect with what kids are eating? How are PMA and its member companies working to get kids to eat more produce?

BS: If you look at the industry as a whole, you're seeing far more use of kid-friendly packaging and marketing materials. There's a push toward using cartoon characters and things that kids identify with. Whether it's Disney characters or SpongeBob, that lets kids know that produce is cool. In October — for this academic year — we'll be rolling out the Scholastic program. We contributed, through the Produce for Better Health Foundation [and its Campaign for Children's Health] half a million dollars for a four-year program with Scholastic. Aside from publishing Harry Potter, Scholastic is the largest publisher and distributor of school teaching materials in the United States. And their education specialists developed a series of materials for third- and fourth-graders that uses fruit and vegetables to teach math skills. The people who have a handle on this at Scholastic tell us that it's a great way to subliminally get across the message to kids that fruits and vegetables connect to things that you need to learn as life skills, and we have very high hopes for the foundation that that will play for a lot of kids. I think [marketing to children] was something that was put on the back burner about 15 years ago. We all kind of felt when 5 A Day first started, that we should be aiming to increase consumption among young adults, and kids ought to be a secondary target. In retrospect, I wish we had done more with kids earlier on, but better late than never.