May, 2007

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Moving The Public Opinion Mountain

Their patience exhausted, the Greek gods punished Sisyphus for his abuses by making him roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down each time. For his perceived hubris, he lost his lofty position and was doomed to an eternity of frustration.

Our industry’s “gods” — consumers, buyers and regulators — are concerned about produce safety after a recent series of deadly foodborne illness outbreaks involving leafy greens in particular. The latest Produce Marketing Association research indicates consumers lay the blame squarely on processing facilities and growers — and look primarily to us for solutions and reassurance.

Consumer confidence has started to tick upward since the outbreaks began with spinach last September, but the situation is not rosy. About one-third of consumers surveyed for PMA by Opinion Dynamics Corporation in March 2007 reported they have the highest confidence in the overall safety of fresh produce, compared to 25 percent in February 2007; two-thirds report less than highest confidence, 17 percent no confidence.

While a majority’s produce purchases held steady compared to last year, 41 percent are avoiding some fresh fruits and vegetables, predominantly leafy greens and specifically spinach. Perishables Group pegs the drop in retail spinach sales at 54 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times. Other bagged produce including lettuce is suffering by association, with sales down an estimated 6 to 8 percent.

Recognizing what’s at stake in both consumer confidence and sales, industry has responded quickly. Produce Business readers will know a group of major retailers and foodservice distributors called for new produce safety standards last October. Western Growers Association launched an initiative that created a Marketing Agreement to cover handlers of lettuce and leafy greens through enhanced Good Agricultural Practices and a system of state verification. United Fresh Produce Association has determined mandatory federal regulation should be a goal. Clearly change isn’t coming — change is here.

The way public officials view us has also changed. State and federal regulators and elected officials have cast votes of no confidence in our industry’s ability to self-manage. It is no longer a question of whether produce safety will be regulated, but rather by whom and how soon.

Status quo is not an option. It doesn’t matter that our industry doesn’t intend to cause harm. Whereas Sisyphus’ acts were intentional, the perception and outcome are the same. How we respond will determine whether we can direct our own future or will face a Sisyphean destiny of never-ending oversight.

PMA, with our association and government partners, is working hard to help the industry direct its destiny. The PMA Board has committed $2.75 million through 2008 to a multi-faceted approach, combining research, supply chain training and education, industry verification and public communications to help rebuild confidence in produce.

The largest component is a $2 million commitment to jump-start a research program to identify science-based produce safety solutions. The Center for Produce Safety will bring together industry, government and academia to focus worldwide attention on finding the causes and solutions to microbiological contamination of produce items most at risk.

To reach tomorrow’s produce purchasers, PMA has funded a $500,000, 4-year campaign through Produce for Better Health Foundation and Scholastic Inc. to reach out to 70,000 teachers and more than 2 million third- and fourth-graders and their parents with healthful eating and food safety messages.

Our industry simply must take on this responsibility, because the public expects it of us and looks to us for guidance.

The consumers surveyed in March look to farmers and regulators first and foremost to enhance produce safety in the future. The path PMA and our allies is forging mirrors those expectations: we have to create new partnerships willing to take proactive steps to improve consumer confidence.

When asked in their own words what the food chain needed to do to ensure produce safety, 41 percent of consumers said higher safety standards and 22 percent said better quality control, testing and inspections. They think farmers are the most credible spokespersons on food safety issues — more than their own physicians — and that, after themselves, they look to farmers before any others for food safety information.

This is why we are committing $500,000 to fund improved communications outreach — to help industry find its voice. We have to get rid of the bunker mentality that has so often marked our past. We must be proud to tell the story of produce farmers’ commitment to safety, nutrition and health in every bite of our products. To paraphrase Churchill, it’s far better to make the news than receive it, far better to be an author than a critic.

It’s now up to us to decide how to restore and safeguard the trust consumers put in us, and to earn their business again. We can either work proactively to identify and implement meaningful solutions that we can live with and that work with consumers, or we can have others force their opinions upon us and face the risk of never being able to restore consumer confidence.

I don’t think any of us want to join Sisyphus in his never-ending labor. We have to keep the boulder we’re pushing up the hill at the summit — by our real commitment to research, communication and training.

Tools At Our Disposal

Zeus gave Sisyphus a task that could never be completed. The outbreaks have been so relentless that our task sometimes feels Sisyphean, but it is not. Rebuilding consumer and regulatory confidence in fresh produce is a doable task, if we use the tools at our disposal.

Our biggest tool is the point in which we interact with consumers. Consumer research tells the industry many things about what consumers think, but it is a common mistake to believe the industry somehow operates separately from consumer perception.

If consumers look at the produce displays in their stores and see a fraction of the spinach items they remember once seeing, they are likely to doubt that all is “back to normal” and thus harbor doubts about the safety of certain items.

We need to be very careful about deducing from declining sales figures for certain items or categories. Small retail decisions, such as what to put on ad, can easily account for dramatic swings at the cash registers.

Despite reports of lagging sales of spinach and other bagged salads, it is interesting that not one publicly held supermarket has mentioned a decline in overall produce sales as impacting earnings for 2006. This leads to the reasonable implication that other produce items have picked up the slack. Perhaps supermarkets and other produce retailers are just promoting other items.

Which points us to something that we forget at our peril: Supermarkets in general and retail produce executives in particular are in a completely different position than the producers of a particular commodity or category.

To a spinach company, the decline in spinach sales can be a catastrophe. To a bagged salad company, the decline in the category may be a major hardship, but to a supermarket, it is just a problem if consumers start eating less overall. If consumers buy more arugula and less spinach, it doesn’t really present a problem. If consumers buy more prepared salads in the deli and less bagged salad in produce, it will trouble the produce executives but not really the top executives at the retail chain.

Although a few retailers, very loyal to their suppliers, have tried to carry a full line of spinach products and promote as extensively as before, most retailers play a chicken-and-egg game with a reintroduction, trying to moderate the number of facings, SKUs and ads in line with demand – but, of course, demand is very sensitive to these things.

PMA’s substantial investment in launching the Center for Produce Safety is laudable as it sends a clear message to regulators and consumers that the industry is dedicated to wiping produce-carried foodborne illness from the face of the earth. But to build regulatory and consumer confidence, it is not necessary to eliminate all foodborne illness any more than the aviation industry has had to stop plane crashes to get people to fly. What is necessary is to be able to quickly isolate outbreaks to individual shippers, plants, fields, process and harvest dates, etc.

We need excellent traceback systems so that we can take a bag of product and instantly reassure regulators and consumers that we have isolated the problem. We need excellent traceforward capabilities so that we can quickly recall and isolate all product shipped from implicated sources.

Obviously we hope to eliminate all foodborne outbreaks on fresh produce items, but it is this traceability that will provide the short term reassurance needed that any problems identified are isolated and so consumers can feel confident to consume and regulators can feel confident to recommend the consumption of any produce still out on the shelves after any outbreak is identified.

Many studies have shown that farmers are trusted by the consuming public. But we should probably take with a grain of salt consumer explanations of the specific things that the industry should do to create produce safety. Whether we need more testing or larger buffer zones is not something consumers can be expected to tell us.

Now with the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in place and many other commodities developing their own guidelines, PMA wisely recognizes the need to move the industry to implementation, through training, and to marketing, through communications.

In this column focused on research, we should probably add a research caveat. Many efforts can benefit by the addition of a research component to check the efficacy of different messages and spokespeople. Even expenditures on training often become more valuable if a research component confirms that trained workers produce something better or more safely than those that haven’t gone through the training.

And finally, in the midst of this publication filled with words, a word should be said in favor of silence. More and more companies are adding food safety titles to their rosters and are mentioning their food safety programs in consumer media interviews. During the crisis this was all understandable, but now every repetition of the words before consumers is likely to raise more unease than it settles.

Quality, safety, flavor — these are the kind of things that come about by doing the right things and following good agricultural practices and good manufacturing practices. They should be an integral part of what all of us do every day. Emphasizing the positive, doing the right thing, limiting the scope of any problem and continuing to work for long term benefits — These are the solutions to our food safety problems, and there is nothing Sisyphean about doing any of this.