December, 2006

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Spinach-Crisis Tipping Point

Given the severity of government action, extensive media coverage and nearly universal public knowledge that “something was amiss with spinach,” I have argued elsewhere that the September spinach crisis represents a tipping point for our industry. When PMA’s research — along with others’ — showed in late September that nine out of 10 Americans knew about the government’s call not to eat spinach, we knew we had achieved a level of awareness reached by very few news stories.

Before looking at what consumers told us in the weeks after the crisis, here’s what I said about our industry’s state of mind at PMA’s Fresh Summit in San Diego in October:

“What makes this kind of outbreak so difficult…to swallow is our…very accurate perceptions of WHO we are and WHAT we do. We are in business to grow and ship the most nutritious, diverse and tasty fruits and vegetables ever assembled for the public.

“Many of us have generations of family blood and history as backdrop for what we do today. We see ourselves as the guys and gals with the white hats, the heroes fighting an epidemic of obesity, broadening taste horizons and adding color to the food palette.

“The fertile valleys of the central California coast are a key contributor to the safest food supply in the world…serving tens of millions of consumers safely each and every day with the most nutritious produce ever known.

“So how, suddenly, did we get to be seen as the ones with the black hats, the villains in a movie we want no part of? Whatever the reason, few will dispute this outbreak, this crisis, was unlike any we have faced before.

“…I learned…that this crisis was based on not one, but two realities — the reality of the facts, and the reality of the perception.”

Two PMA studies measured consumer awareness, attitudes, confidence levels and likelihood of purchasing fresh spinach. Opinion Dynamics Corp. conducted these Sept. 18-19, after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory, and again Oct. 10-12. The studies consisted of 1,000 telephone interviews with a national sample of household primary food shoppers. Also in October, PMA commissioned a survey of 100 opinion leaders in its membership in the grower/shipper, processor, retailer and foodservice sectors.

Some of the key findings were:

• After FDA removed the health advisory on spinach, the perceived safety of bagged spinach rebounded strongly among previous purchasers of spinach. The mean score for “very safe” on a scale of 1-7 had improved from 2.7 in September to 4.7 in October.

• Spinach purchasers positively rated the industry’s handling of the incident; 64 percent rated the response as excellent or good. Industry opinion leaders rated it higher, with 81 percent saying it was excellent or good.

• The October follow-up with consumers showed a good proportion of spinach purchasers were ready to return to the product either immediately or within a few weeks; almost half said they had already purchased spinach again or would do so within weeks.

• Consumer confidence in the overall safety of the nation’s fresh produce supply showed a slight decline from a mean of 4.87 in September to 4.69 in October (where 7 is “extremely confident”). PMA will continue to track and report on this important measure because it gives insight into consumer perceptions across the entire produce category.

• Consumers and industry perceive FDA’s handling of the spinach crisis differently. Two-thirds of consumers gain confidence in knowing FDA monitors the safety of the food supply and advises consumers quickly about potential health risks. When asked to rank FDA’s effort, 61 percent of industry respondents gave the agency only a “fair” or “poor” rating for its handling of the crisis.

• The October follow-up allowed us to question consumers about a major California shipper’s voluntary green leaf lettuce recall in late September. Almost three-quarters of shoppers knew of this precautionary recall. It gave more than three-quarters of them greater confidence in the safety of the produce supply because it had been done voluntarily. The lesson from this measure and the ongoing precautionary recalls taken in recent months is that the public expects and approves of a company’s vigilance and commitment to withdraw product from the supply chain when a potential for contamination is identified.

Our industry and its leaders are taking steps to bolster customer confidence in our industry and our foods and, in the process, minimize potential marketplace and regulatory impacts on our businesses. How well we succeed will depend upon our industry’s fortitude for making the hard, but right, choices for public health and our future.

Leadership is needed — and PMA and its allies have already moved to provide that leadership. On Oct. 20, PMA’s Board of Directors approved at least $1 million in new funding through 2007 to support a multi-pronged effort to reinforce the existing — and determine additional — industry standards needed for food safety that extends from field to fork.

Those funds are being used in such areas as development of enhanced Good Agricultural Practices and a communications campaign to rebuild consumer confidence. Research and industry education and training will feature strongly throughout the supply chain. These activities will also help our proactive communications with state and federal government regulators as they consider their response.

I believe our industry is at a tipping point. Our customers and government will judge us by how much we do to strengthen our supply chain in the future. We must rise to the challenge; our future depends upon it.

Eternal Vigilance Required

Morton Grodzins, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, coined the phrase “tipping point.” Grodzins was studying the dynamics of residential integration in the early 1960s. He noted a formerly all-white neighborhood would continue much as it was as black families gradually began moving into the neighborhood. However, the instant a neighborhood reached a certain percentage of black families, the character of the neighborhood would dramatically change. The neighborhood would change in a matter of months from overwhelmingly white to almost exclusively black.

The threat to the produce industry, which Bryan Silbermann correctly identifies, is persistent, prominent publicity about produce being implicated in the spread of foodborne illness could cause the industry to reach a “tipping point” in which consumer perception of our products moves from the current sense that these are healthful and good to eat to a more ominous perception, that these are dangerous and must be consumed with caution.

Though it is distressing that the industry should find itself in this state of affairs, there is some irony in it, too. Our trade’s efforts have paid off, and there is little doubt produce has been getting safer, not more dangerous. Unfortunately, this fact, though true, won’t save us by itself.

While our core product has been getting safer, other trends are dictating we will have more foodborne illness outbreaks, not less, unless something is done. What are these trends? First, we are now putting a lot of produce, mostly processed but not exclusively, in modified-atmosphere packaging. Bacteria have always grown on produce, and we have never had a “kill step,” such as cooking, that would neutralize most dangerous pathogens. What we did have, however, was the “rotting step” — by which produce became unappetizing before it became dangerous.

With our ability to keep produce good looking for extended periods of time, we have lost that protection. We also have gone heavily into the production of fresh-cut blends, often the highest margin fresh-cut items. These blends serve to multiply the percentage of bags of product that have a problem. If one item in the bag is contaminated and that item is 5 percent of a blend, you just took one contaminated bag and multiplied it by 20.

Finally, new technology has made it certain many outbreaks that would have never been identified are now noticed. Fortunately, most foodborne illness has no long-term consequence for most healthy adults. People get sick, then they get better. A certain percentage of the population — the elderly, young children and those with compromised immune systems — can get very sick or die. The way this dynamic functions is that a foodborne illness outbreak in mainstream supermarkets or restaurants has to sicken many, many people before enough people are sick enough to go to the doctor and get tested; only then can an outbreak be determined.

For a nationally distributed product, you might wind up with people sick in a scattered pattern across the country and, not too long ago, there was no mechanism by which these scattered sicknesses were likely to be linked together. That has all changed. We now have sophisticated technology by which we can identify the exact strain of what is making people sick. We can test both product and people, as was done in the spinach/E. coli situation and tie them together. So we can tie together sick people in Anchorage, AK, Portland, ME, Key West, FL, and Hilo, HI, as all suffering from the same foodborne illness found on a specific produce item.

The nature of a “tipping point” is such that consumer perceptions make a dramatic change. In the classic example, they change from perceiving a neighborhood as “white” to perceiving a neighborhood as “black” — and it happens in the blink of an eye.

This means all consumer research must be judged delicately and analyzed in a spirit of awareness that consumer answers are influenced not just by the question asked but by their understanding of the nature of the situation and the motivations of the players. Take a scenario and explain Mother Teresa did action A and you will get a much friendlier interpretation than if you give consumers the exact same scenario but place a villain in Mother Teresa’s place.

It is very good that the produce industry has gotten generally good marks from the public on its handling of the crisis. It is also good that there are outside parties, especially the Food and Drug Administration, whose actions and statements consumers give credence to when it comes to food safety.

None of this is likely to make a difference, however, if we keep having outbreaks in which people get sick or worse.

Although, as Bryan points out, the recall of green leaf lettuce may have given consumers “greater confidence in the safety of the produce supply because it had been done voluntarily,” we should add one caveat: It built confidence in the system because it was done voluntarily — before anyone got hurt.

A laser-like focus on the need to make sure people stop getting seriously ill from our products is required.

PMA’s Board and its membership deserve industry commendation for coming to the table with $1 million in new funding to help support this focus.

In the end, associations don’t grow, process or sell produce. PMA and other associations can help, but produce safety is in the hands of those who handle produce, and only eternal vigilance in this goal will be availing.