March, 1989

Fruits of Thought

Lessons In Fundraising

At the United convention in New Orleans, the Center for Produce Quality (an organization established by United and PMA) unveiled a substantially revised program designed to enable the produce industry to address consumer concerns about food safety.

The program they presented is a significant improvement over what was shown at the PMA convention in October. This is principally because implicit in the new mission statement is an acknowledgement that the way produce is currently grown, packed and merchandised may not be adequate and that the Center’s mission may include supporting programs to make changes, as appropriate, to increase and maintain food safety. This willingness to not blindly defend all practices of the produce industry has the potential, if carried out, to transform the CPQ from an industry PR effort to a constructive effort designed to make a real contribution towards alleviating consumer concerns over food safety.

Alleviating these concerns should be a top priority, because the problem is growing and it is not just a pesticide issue. Today, in both Sweden and West Germany, laws against the use of most waxes on apples are being enforced. Similar laws have been proposed throughout Europe and many are likely to pass before the start of the next apple season. Even where laws do not ban waxed apples, negative publicity in the consumer press regarding the risks to health of these waxes has served to depress consumption. Imported, unwaxed Washington Reddels have generally not sold well in Europe. The Washington Reddel, once stripped of its wax, doesn’t have that much of an edge in appearance over many European apples. Plus, the lack of shine seems to make people pay more attention to the taste, and the European trade has heard many complaints from consumers who find the Red Delicious to be a tasteless apple, bred for eye appeal, but lacking in flavor. Unwaxed Goldens, on the other hand, are doing better, because, regardless of their appearance, they have a delicious taste.

It will not be long before the fight against pesticides broadens into a fight against all additives. In fact, it is likely that those who use waxes and chemicals for principally cosmetic reasons may be the most vulnerable to activist demands. Pesticide use can often be defended as necessary to grow the crop in volume and at a reasonable price. Activists can be expected to hit hard at those whose only real justification for using a chemical is to increase sales.

Retailers may find themselves under increased pressure as well. Are retailers stocking produce on non-refrigerated racks? Retailers should be prepared to answer questions about how this increases the growth rate of bacteria and increases the possibility of produce serving as the host for germs. Some retailers have started steaming their shopping carts daily. Perhaps consumers need to be warned not to place their bunch of broccoli on the shopping cart seat where a baby just sat! What about the fact that everyone touches produce in a bulk display. What diseases can be transmitted through unwashed hands?

The day may not be long off when the age of creating massive bulk displays to imitate the farm stand look may come to a close, giving way to new promotions urging consumers to buy new “SANITIZED” package produce. This produce would be carefully washed and packaged under highly sanitary conditions at a packing processing facility.

So this issue is important. It has the potential to affect every facet of the industry. It could determine the varieties that are grown, the way they are packaged and transported and the manner in which the produce is sold.

Yet despite the enormous problem and the obvious industry stake in doing what can be done, the Center for Produce Quality is having trouble raising money to fund its operations. Why is this?

There are many reasons. It is always tough to raise money and the Center has not brought on a staff of experienced fund raisers. But I have to also say that an unwillingness to show respect for industry members and to get them involved at the earliest possible point, has a lot to do with a failure to raise funds.

Just to give one example: At the presentation given at United, the Center for Produce Quality had the public relations team that designed the program giving a presentation complete with slides. It was a professional presentation given by highly paid experts. What a waste of an opportunity. These professionals know how to get people excited about this project, how to make people believe it will work. Yet instead of holding an open meeting and inviting industry members to attend and hear the presentation, instead of calling up prospective donors and encouraging them to attend, they made it a closed meeting. In the first place, this is dumb. Now, when they try and get money from a wholesaler in Pittsburgh, instead of hearing the proposal from the high-powered PR agency, he is likely to hear a distorted version, not presented very well and thus much less likely to be convincing.

Second, not inviting the industry is just not very polite. The truth is that had they stood up at lunch and invited everyone who was interested to attend the presentation, I doubt they would have gotten 20 people. But as the saying goes “it’s the thought that counts.” Seriously, you just can’t not invite people to meetings, not ask for their input, not show them the respect of their judgment and then turn around and expect them to bankroll this effort.

Disregard for people’s feelings is a mistake that will cost this program plenty.  pb