SAN DIEGO -- Retailers will soon have support from the produce industry for their efforts to teach consumers to keep their tomatoes out of the refrigerator -- the No. 1 cause of inferior quality and flavor.
In its first meeting, which was held at the annual convention here of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, the North American Tomato Task Force laid the groundwork for a national retail point-of-purchase campaign to educate shoppers on the taste and flavor benefits of nonrefrigeration. The program is slated to be rolled out in September.
"There is significant consumer mishandling of tomatoes," said Jon Esformes, vice president of marketing at Triple E Produce/ Pacific Tomato Growers, Palmetto, Fla., chairman of the new task force. "Refrigeration kills the fresh flavor of tomatoes." Although the industry has been successful in educating retailers on the adverse taste, flavor and quality resulting from refrigeration, Esformes said, more than half of all consumers continue to refrigerate tomatoes once they get them into their homes.
Major growers have pledged to participate in the task force's activities, and retailers are being encouraged to participate and provide guidance on the development of the campaign and the point-of-purchase materials they believe will work best at store level.
The United Retail Division, which also met during the convention, voted to endorse the campaign and help the task force in its development.
The campaign will focus primarily on the refrigeration issue,
but will go a step further to help promote tomato consumption. Esformes said the goal is to communicate three key messages to the consumer: one, don't refrigerate tomatoes; two, tomatoes are nutritious, and three, tomatoes are a perfect fit for every salad.
The third message will become increasingly important, Esformes said, with the rising popularity of prepackaged salads, which typically do not include tomatoes because of their inability to hold up in the packaging process.
"We're very concerned about the exclusion of this traditional salad ingredient in prepacks," said Esformes, whose company is a major grower of tomatoes in California and Florida. "They're being marketed as complete salads. To us a salad without a tomato is just lettuce." He pointed out that the advent of prepacks has created new cross-merchandising opportunities for salad mixes and tomatoes, which could in fact be part of the campaign created by the task force. But how these messages are communicated to the consumer will be determined using the retailer input during the planning process for the campaign. "We really need support from retailers to develop a successful program that speaks to their consumers," said Esformes, who added that retailers are currently being sought out for their input.
Made up of U.S. and Mexican tomato growers, the task force was formed last year to develop partnerships with different industry segments to address stagnant consumption levels of tomatoes.
A Midwestern retailer contacted by SN said the education campaign is a good idea.
"A campaign like this makes very good sense for a very good reason. Consumers do refrigerate tomatoes and that does destroy the flavor and texture," he said, adding that he has to remind his own family not to put tomatoes in the refrigerator.
"A campaign with some nice high-quality point-of-sale cards that point out this message would be a good idea," he said. "I'm in favor of anything that results in produce tasting better, which therefore raises consumption."
The retailer added that the message should perhaps include in fine print that tomatoes must be refrigerated once they are sliced.