NEW YORK -- The consensus among most supermarket produce executives is that produce sales have not been hurt by a wave of critical news media coverage about produce and foodborne illness, spearheaded by a three-part series in The New York Times published earlier this month.
Retailers contacted by SN said they have seen little evidence of heightened concern among consumers about the safety of the produce supply following the newspaper's in-depth investigation of two produce-related outbreaks of foodborne illness that occurred more than a year ago.
"We haven't had any complaints," said Michael Diedrick, the produce manager at Albany, Calif.-based Andronico's Market store in San Francisco.
"I think they blow things out of proportion," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of farmers are doing the right thing, and one guy goofs up. Overall, there's no reason to be concerned," he said, referring to the newspaper series' tactic of focusing on two suppliers to bring to light what it proposed is a wider food-safety problem.
Jeff Voltz, the general manager for the Puget Consumers Co-op in Seattle, characterized as "water under the bridge" the articles' focus on two specific 1996 outbreaks -- involving the juice producer Odwalla, Half Moon Bay, Calif., and lettuce processor Fancy Cutt Farms, Hollister, Calif.
"It's old news," Voltz said, and "for the public it arouses hysteria to have those issues come back to light based on year-old information."
Still, Voltz said, despite his own concerns about past outbreaks causing undue worries now, "there hasn't been a whole lot of reaction. We have heard a couple [of people's] concerns; they wondered if we carried the product."
Overall, Voltz, said, "It hasn't affected sales."
Jonathan Kranzler, president of the Marketplace at Teaneck, a supermarket operator in Teaneck, N.J., told SN, "I haven't heard a thing from my customers.
"Sales of produce have even gone up slightly the past week," Kranzler noted, a situation he attributed simply to the arrival of what he called a particularly prime shipment of organic product.
Andronico's Diedrick also said that "packaged lettuce sales are going through the ceiling." He said he believed that was partially because the "price of the package is a quality value to the customer."
"Produce sales have been good and we haven't had any questions from the customers," noted Darlene Broadway, an owner of Betty's IGA in Helen, Ga.
Some retailers interviewed by SN said the articles had nonetheless brought some important issues to the fore.
The PCC's Voltz said that The Times' series, despite its lack of effect on his produce sales, "raises the bar on making sure we are prepared on food-crisis issues." And he called the general issue of foodborne illness "real and critical."
"I think there is definitely a reason to be concerned [about maintaining food safety overall]," added Jamey Hewitt, produce staff at the Wedge Community Co-op, a single-unit food retailing cooperative in Minneapolis. "Growers have to be extremely careful. There are serious concerns and it's justifiable."
A few retailers begged to differ with the majority of those interviewed, saying that The Times' series had indeed had a negative effect on sales of some products.
"The biggest reaction has definitely been to cider," Hewitt noted, referring to the first article, which focused on Odwalla. "Looking at cider sales they could be down by 25% to 30%. I expect them to stay down, which is related to these articles and to the fact that it's getting to be the end of the season."
Sales of lettuce -- the product focused on in the second part of the Times series -- are also down by 10%, said the Wedge's Hewitt, but he attributed that situation solely to price increases.
Some suggested that the negative effect of the articles may not yet have been fully felt. "I'm sure as word gets around people are going to be more hesitant in buying lettuce,"said Julio Prestol, the Marketplace's produce manager.
At least one produce association earlier this month [see SN Jan. 19, 1998] told SN that The Times' series had prompted calls from some of its retail members to report concerns about the safety of their produce supply. In some cases, those queries were the result of consumer concerns.
A produce manager at a major Pennsylvania retail operation, concurred, saying that "Whenever anything happens like that, you have lots of questions."
"We have had people ask, 'Do they wash the lettuce in the package?' " said Andronico's Diedrick. He added, however, that such questions comes from consumers all the time, and "the biggest thing is we always tell them to wash it."
Hewitt from the Wedge co-op said that most of his customers' concerns focused on cider. "People are just asking if it has been pasteurized and if we can guarantee that there is no E. coli [in it]. We usually say that the grower takes every step possible to insure that it's not contaminated.
"I don't hear too much about lettuce. People just express concern that it's prewashed, which is standard," continued Hewitt.
Beyond responding to questions from shoppers, most retailers interviewed said they weren't going out of their way to educate or reassure customers about foodborne illness because they didn't believe it was necessary.
"We haven't been doing anything," said the Pennsylvania produce manager.
"With this one we haven't done signage, because it's been a blip. It hasn't been of great concern," said PCC's Voltz.
The Wedge's Hewitt also said that his operation wasn't doing anything special as a result of the articles, adding that "We have signs around, that have always been up."
The Marketplace's Prestol said, on the other hand, that the articles had caused him to take extra precautions. "I am letting people know to be careful. I am telling them to take extra precautions in washing [lettuce]."
He said he even planned to take further measures. "I intend to put signs up letting the customer know what happened in California and that they are trying to solve the problem. There's nothing else I can do."