January, 1992

Fruits of Thought

Fraud In The Produce Department

Certain chain retailers, working with the connivance of certain cooperative shippers are perpetrating a fraud against the consumer by mislabeling tomatoes as “vine ripe” when they are really gassed green tomatoes like all the rest.

This fraud is undertaken with forethought and with the specific goal of selling more tomatoes than would otherwise be sold. A number of good shippers have chosen not to sell certain major chains because the retailers informed the shippers that to get the order the condition of those sales would be that the shippers had to sticker the tomatoes with “vine-ripe” stickers and attest that they were shipping vine-ripes.

The goal here was specifically and with pre-meditation to protect the supermarket chain by maintaining “deniability” in the event that any consumer group or government agency noted the fraud. The expectation was that in the event of a challenge, the supermarket would blame the shipper for not delivering the product ordered by the supermarket chain. Thus the blame would be passed to the shipper who, not being a consumer marketer, was less sensitive to public outcry than the retailer.

It is always tough to pass on a major supermarket chain’s business, and when prices are as tough as they have been lately, desperate men do desperate things. But this type of action is bound to be discovered as there are not enough "vine-ripe" tomatoes grown in the state of Florida to possibly meet the commercial scale needs of these chains.

It is imperative for the produce industry and retail industry to police themselves and place appropriate limits on these type of claims. Because if the industry doesn’t do so, the bottom line will be not only dissatisfaction with our misrepresented products, but strict government regulation of the use of various produce-related terminology.

I suppose some might argue that a gassed green tomato is actually “vine ripened.” After all, it did grow on a vine and was ripening there right up to the minute it was picked. But it is clear that for the word to have any meaning it has to be something distinct from what is typically sold. The common meaning of the word would imply a tomato that was completely ripened on the vine without any use of gas or other processes to redden it or ripen it after picking.

We live in an age where the FDA is cracking down hard on those who usurp words such as “fresh” without having a truly fresh product. This is a time where words such as “healthy,” “low cholesterol” and “low fat” are being strictly defined, and usage of these and similar words is being severely restricted to be used only by those who can prove they deserve the name.

Surely, these supermarkets and shippers can’t think they will get away with this long.

And, one thing is for sure — as soon as the news breaks, the “5 A Day” program and all those other promotions to increase produce consumption are likely to be severely hindered by the perception that produce departments are filled with fraudulent statements.

This is not to mention that the supermarkets that do this are missing out on real merchandising opportunities. Why aren’t they selling several classes of tomatoes at several price points to cater to both those customers who want a premium product and those who are satisfied with the gassed greens and want an economical choice?

These supermarkets could be running educational programs advising consumers of how to ripen and store tomatoes for maximum flavor following up on the strong efforts of the Florida Tomato Committee to help consumers have a more satisfying product. Instead they create a group of dissatisfied consumers who think that even vine-ripened tomatoes are not satisfactory to them.

Building increased demand for produce is a tough job, but it is done every day with hard work by countless thousands across all sectors of the supply chain. Retailers, wholesalers, shippers, packers, growers, brokers plus commissions and national and regional organizations strive to better the name of produce among nutrition experts and consumers while a few very bad apples in our bunch decide to grab the quick buck and lie to their customers.

Perhaps some of them felt pressure from headquarters to increase sales or margins. Perhaps they felt their very job at stake if they didn’t boost sales. We can have compassion for the individuals but we can accept no excuses. The practice must stop.

The retailers can’t deceive their customers and the shippers can’t help them. Let us give praise to the honorable retailers who have been doing their best to sell produce and praise the shippers who refused to prostitute themselves to the whim of a few corrupt retailers. But let the industry make sure that this fraud against our industry’s ultimate consumer, the American public, is stopped, now.  pb