ORLANDO, Fla. -- Produce consumption appears to be down, and the sweeping popularity of high-protein, weight-control programs such as the Atkins diet has produce managers in some markets wondering if there's a connection, according to retail veterans at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit Convention & Exposition here.
The topic of diets came up during a wide-ranging discussion that offered industry players an inside perspective on what produce department managers need from their suppliers. Members of the panel were Dave Corsi, vice president of produce and floral, Wegmans Markets, Rochester, N.Y.; Bruce Peterson, senior vice president of perishables for Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark.; and James Parker, national retail produce coordinator, Whole Foods, Austin, Texas.
An international perspective was supplied by Peter Hostens, chief purchaser of fresh products, Carrefour, Belgium; and Leonardo Miyao, commercial director, Grupo Pao De Acucar, Brazil. Bryan Silbermann, PMA's president, served as moderator.
When asked about produce buying trends, panelists gave mixed opinions.
Wal-Mart Stores is selling more produce, and seeing growth in certain categories, including bagged salads. However, Peterson said he believes the boost is an indication that the chain is taking business away from other retailers, not a sign of increased consumption. The popularity of high-protein diets, including the Atkins plan, is having a negative effect on the quantity of fruits and vegetables Americans are eating, Peterson said. People who follow high-protein diets are encouraged to stay away from fruits that are high in sugar.
"A couple of years ago, the attitude was eat more fruits and vegetables," Peterson said. "Now, it's eat more bacon."
Indeed, at Wegmans, the meat department is outperforming produce, and, though produce sales are up significantly, produce consumption in general appears "stagnant," Corsi said. As for the Atkins diet, consumer perceptions of the diet's rules on carbohydrates, whether accurate or not, probably have had an effect on decreasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, he said.
Diets aren't the only factor. To reverse decreasing produce consumption, marketers need to do more than stress the importance of having a certain number of servings of produce per day, Corsi said. The message to consumers should be broader, focusing on other aspects like how to prepare fruits and vegetables.
Whole Foods' shoppers are buying more produce, and Parker attributed the trend to the growing population of aging baby boomers who are eating more fruits and vegetables for their health.
Grupo Pao De Acucar's Miyao, who works for Brazil's largest supermarket chain, said consumption is up. In Europe, however, consumption varies from country to country, but for the most part, is down, Hostens of Carrefour said.
The retailers offered encouragement to mom-and-pop produce companies in response to a question about the role of small regional suppliers in an industry that's undergone significant consolidation. Small produce growers fill niches and benefit from consumers' appreciation for homegrown products, the panelists noted.
In today's environment, it's difficult for small growers to compete with big companies on supplying retailers with high-demand commodity items like iceberg lettuce, Corsi said. Nevertheless, Wegmans, a 65-store regional chain, is receptive to working with local suppliers who can meet the retailer's quality standards. The chain distributes produce standards guides to the individual stores, but gives managers leeway in deciding which items to purchase for their stores, Corsi said.
Produce managers make sure locally grown product is highlighted for consumers, who seem to like the idea of buying fruits and vegetables from local farmers.
"We're involved in embracing produce, whether it's from around the corner or around the world," he said. "Local produce is very important to us. It's the right thing to do for our community. It's the right thing to do for our customers.
"Our customers know these growers," he said. "We tout that in our stores as well."
Small growers should try to capitalize on one of the primary advantages they have over big companies -- proximity to potential customers, said Parker, whose chain of natural-food stores takes a decentralized approach to buying produce.
"Find commodities that are detrimentally impacted by shipping, and focus on those," he suggested.
The homegrown connection should be played up when marketing fruits and vegetables, said Peterson, whose company works with 1,100 produce suppliers.