June, 2006

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Dateline Wake-Up Call

Those who understand the produce industry’s commitment to food safety were saddened and frustrated by the April 30 NBC Dateline program that challenged the safety of bagged salads.

We were saddened by heart-wrenching images of a sick child, especially when we know how committed our industry is to providing safe, nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables. One person sick from our products is one too many. And as I’ve said before, there is no place in this industry for any company for which food safety is not the No. 1 priority.

To prepare for Dateline, PMA joined the Alliance for Food and Farming, International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association and Western Growers Association to ensure the producers received fair and balanced information on the industry’s commitment to food safety and its goal of zero illnesses. The coalition worked to develop key messages used in media training, to identify spokespersons and to provide Dateline with balanced technical guidance.

PMA also commissioned Opinion Dynamics Corporation to conduct two surveys among 1,000 primary food shoppers nationwide. Our goal: to assess consumer perception on the safety of consuming fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. Our timing: the first in early February to establish a baseline, the second just days after the program aired.

The good news is consumers’ perceptions about the safety of fresh-cut produce changed little from pre- to post-Dateline. Bottom line: the news program had no noticeable negative effect on public opinion about fresh-cut produce. The percentage of consumers with any concerns about these products stayed practically the same: one-fifth of those surveyed.

Other good news from the surveys is that most consumers indicated they rely on their personal experience when making decisions about food safety. Next highest are family and friends. Bringing up the bottom of the list are the government and media, with 26 percent and 17 percent respectively.

This reliance on personal experience is doubly important as more consumers have positive experiences with fresh-cut produce. Though our research was conducted primarily to find out how and why Dateline affected consumer perceptions about fresh-cut, we also uncovered great news about consumer purchasing attitudes. Around 86 percent of consumers say they have purchased fresh-cut fruits and vegetables in the past year. Looking ahead, over one-third expects their purchases to increase over the next year.

Another positive aspect is that many consumers rely on themselves to be what I’d call “food safety gatekeepers.” This is why organizations like Partnership for Food Safety Education are important in educating the public on its critical role in keeping the safety of the food supply chain intact from start to finish.

PMA’s leadership has played a prominent role in this industry/consumer/government partnership because we believe so firmly that industry’s commitment to food safety must also include public education on basic food handling principles. Industry can never abdicate the responsibility we have first and foremost to grow and deliver tasty, convenient and nutritious fresh-cut products. But we also can never abdicate the role we must play to help consumers understand what they have to do with our products once they buy them.

We need to do a better job to communicate our commitment to food safety. Before we all breathe a collective sigh of relief that this latest negative media coverage apparently did no damage, understand that if this industry is to reach our goal of increased consumption worldwide, we can’t wait for others to paint us in whatever colors match their world view.

It is time to challenge the industry’s traditional approach to communicating with government, consumers, media and one another about ensuring food safety. To do otherwise is to continue to allow others — including perhaps some in our industry — to define us all.

We often view food safety stories with the specialized knowledge of industry insiders, so our initial reaction is often defensive. We trot out statistics of the number of bagged salads sold versus the number of outbreaks reported. We spend too much time defending the science and not enough time expressing our commitment to our customers’ health.

I’m not suggesting the scientific and technological bases underpinning the progress of our fresh-cut industry are not essential. They are. The statistical chances of ever becoming ill are miniscule, but it is the wrong message to send if that’s the only message consumers absorb. Research shows that attempting to balance illness outbreaks with the benefits of consuming produce increases consumers’ concern. It sometimes implies to consumers that we expect someone to get sick, and, perhaps, tacitly accept illness as a part of doing business.

Our goal is zero outbreaks. Our families consume our products. That’s why we work toward zero outbreaks on farms, in packaging, shipping, processing, distributing, at retail and in foodservice.

Food safety is the industry’s top priority. Our livelihood depends on it. And, it’s the right thing to do. We have a responsibility to help educate consumers, too.

Consistent messaging is key when communicating to consumers, media and government. We have to push forward with more proactive communications now if we are to effectively demonstrate how seriously we take the responsibility of providing the most healthful and nutritious fruits and vegetables to all consumers everywhere.

There’s little value continuing to debate whether news programs like Dateline are fair or balanced. Instead, let’s consider it another reminder to proactively communicate our commitment to food safety. This is a job not just for PMA but for every company in its everyday actions and communications to customers and consumers alike.

One Bullet Dodged

We got lucky. The Dateline program did not cause shoppers to boycott fresh-cuts, sending produce sales plummeting. But it could easily have worked out differently. And, the last chapter hasn’t been written yet, so the seeds planted in the public consciousness with that Dateline broadcast might yet bear fruit. The PMA research gives some tantalizing hint of this.

Individual companies and industry associations need to think carefully about how to address these types of media. Jim Gorny, PhD, United’s vice president of quality assurance & technology, took on the thankless task of an on-camera interview with Dateline. Dr. Gorny really wants to help the industry, but he is the wrong representative in that type of venue. Dateline is not a scholarly, scientific show; it is “gotcha journalism” as entertainment. And the words, like the teachers talking in a Peanuts cartoon, blur into the background as the images come to the forefront.

When Dateline asks for an interview, our institutions should respond positively. But, this is theatre, and the actor selected has to be typecast to present the proper image, because the image presented will be remembered long after the words said are forgotten.

First, the industry representative should be a farmer, because research shows consumers trust farmers. By contrast, rare indeed is the association executive who should be on TV in this type of format, because lobbyists — and that is how they will be portrayed — are not trusted.

Second, since we are talking about food safety, you need to have a mother talking. The words blur but the image remains: “That nice mother wouldn’t put her children, or mine, in any danger.”

Third, avoid scientists. Scientists are vitally important to publish the truth in scientific journals for others to quote. They can even be useful for thoughtful magazine or op-ed pieces. They are useful in those situations in which people actually want to know the truth.

But these shows, by their very nature, can’t pursue the truth. Where would the drama be if, midway through such a documentary, there were an actual thoughtful scientific discussion that persuasively disproved the whole thesis of the show? Who would keep watching? The show would be pointless.

And scientists are easy portrayed as being evasive when they don’t have all the answers. A farmer and a mom can talk about stewardship of the land for the next generation, love for their children and care in raising food for the next generation.

If we must use a scientist, use an outside expert, such as a university professor, not a paid employee of the produce industry whose credibility is immediately suspect.

Now the industry knew all this, and Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California was interviewed for the program. By all accounts she was brilliant, persuasive and highly appealing. She also was left on the cutting room floor. Quite possibly, she was cut because by agreeing to have an association executive appear on camera, we gave the producers an alternative representative.

It is a lesson worth remembering because the industry is likely to confront the question again. Although PMA’s research found no hysterical response to the show, the show did seem to enter the public consciousness. It doesn’t show up in the headline results such as purchase experience or intent but in the open-ended, unaided responses. For example in PMA’s post-Dateline survey:

• Of the 12 percent of the sample who say they have decreased purchasing fresh-cut produce, 4 percent say the reason is germs or bacteria. No respondents cited these reasons in February.

• Of the 8 percent of the sample who say they will decrease fresh-cut purchases next year, 3 percent say the reason is germs or bacteria. Again, no respondents cited this reason in February.

• Of the 28 percent of the sample who say they do not buy certain types of fresh-cut produce, 3 percent say the reason is germs or bacteria. This was not mentioned in February.

Nothing in the numbers indicates more people are concerned about fresh-cut produce safety post-Dateline than pre-Dateline, but the results mentioned above, plus others scattered throughout the survey, indicate that among those who already were uneasy with fresh-cuts, the publicity surrounding the Dateline story has given a name and focus to this generalized unease.

If there are no other outbreaks, this concern may fade and the issue will be moot. But if there are outbreaks and news reports, the public is gradually being conditioned to accept the tying together of produce with words such as germs and bacteria.

There is a subtle irony here. Years ago, after the scare caused by a 60 Minutes show regarding Alar on apples and the more generalized reaction against pesticides and chemicals represented the rise of groups such as Meryl Streep’s Mothers & Others, the produce industry sent out spokespeople who all basically said the concern about pesticides and chemicals was overdone, and the real issue on food safety was bacteria.

Well, that bacteria is baaack! And the truth is that the very nature of a fresh product leaves certain vulnerabilities to food safety outbreaks. The danger is that a repetition of outbreaks or media reports will continue to raise concerns. At some point, those concerns reach a “tipping point” at which they start influencing the population at large.

We were lucky because the product targeted this time was salad, and salad is principally a food of adults. The 60 Minutes show on Alar caused a panic because children can drink their weight in apple juice every day.

It would be a major mistake for the industry to think this issue is over. We dodged a bullet, but the guns are still loaded.