ORLANDO, Fla. — U.S. consumers may understand that fruits and vegetables are good for them, but the produce industry is allowing several misconceptions to fester in the media and in the public consciousness, and it's holding back industry growth.
This argument was one of the key themes of Produce Marketing Association President and Chief Executive Officer Bryan Silbermann's state of the industry presentation here at the annual PMA Fresh Summit convention and expo.
“In spite of all the social trends going our way, overall consumption of produce shows few signs of growth,” Silbermann said. “To be sure, some categories within our sector have seen big gains, but overall we have a long way to go. Consumers are still not eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables, and many give safety and cost as main concerns.”
Safety concerns, he noted, are not limited to concerns about foodborne illness outbreaks. Concerns about pesticide use are growing as well. Consumer Reports' “dirty dozen” list, which warned shoppers to avoid conventionally grown peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes due to possible pesticide residues, recently resurfaced on an episode of the popular daytime talk show “Dr. Oz.” Silbermann showed his audience a clip from the September episode, and then argued that the produce industry was not doing enough to tell its own side of the story.
“I do not mean to attack the media, or Dr. Oz. They are not the enemy here,” he said. “This happened because we have been largely silent on who we are and why we do what we do … The reality is that the misinformation and half truths in the clip you just saw have been around so long, they've become accepted by mainstream media, even by well-meaning medical experts who have a profound influence [on consumers].”
Indeed, PMA recently commissioned a study from the Hartman Group to get a better sense of how concerns about pesticides were impacting produce consumption. It revealed that 29% of consumers say that they do not buy fresh fruits and vegetables because they are worried about pesticide residues.
“That is up an astonishing 11 points since the spring of 2009,” Silbermann said. “This Dirty Dozen list, which has never been scientifically validated — despite our requests — is impacting produce consumption.”
The other nagging misconception about fresh produce is its cost. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, many shoppers continue to think that fresh produce is expensive, Silbermann said.
“It is a myth that has been circulating for years, reported in the media as a fact,” he said. “It's even cited as a problem by government and elected officials, including another produce advocate, First Lady Michele Obama. Even the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] lists costs as one of the key barriers to increasing produce consumption.”
As part of its effort to debunk these claims, PMA commissioned the Perishables Group to analyze the actual retail cost of fruits and vegetables using data from 13,000 stores collected over 52 weeks. The West Dundee, Ill.-based research consultancy found that the average retail price for nine servings of fruits and vegetables was $2.18. And, shoppers looking for the best deals possible without regard to item could actually purchase the least expensive nine servings of fruits and vegetables in a store for 88 cents.
Growers, packers and retailers should all be making an effort to dispel these misconceptions, Silbermann said. And, rather than being content with the industry's otherwise wholesome image as healthy food, producers must be more aggressive in their efforts to market and promote produce and make it more convenient and fun for shoppers to consume.
To illustrate a few of the ways that produce companies could achieve these goals, Silbermann separated primary household shoppers into three broad categories: Value Moms, Convenience Moms, and Socially Conscious Moms.
For Value Moms especially, retailers and suppliers need to emphasize that fresh produce is a good bargain. PMA has created a new report based on the Perishables Group study that Silbermann encouraged retailers to use in their stores.
“Think of the educational, marketing and [public relations] value of this information,” he said. “Think of the partnerships suppliers can build with retailers, retailers with their customers and the community to get the word out that produce is a great value on any budget.”
Convenience Moms are often price conscious as well, but these consumers are pressed for time, and are looking for ways to put healthy food on their families' tables quickly.
“Convenience Mom is one reason we saw higher sales of prepared fresh veggies and fruits, as well as herbs in 2009,” he said. “A good portion of these cooks are from the frozen food generation, raised on TV dinners and convenience foods. Cooking was not part of their daily routine … their ‘scratch cooking’ is more like meal assembly. Are you helping them? … Convenience Moms need help, and why should convenience cooking be owned by the guys selling ‘just add chicken to frozen pasta?’”
Produce growers and retailers should also be making more of an effort to help these shoppers with recipe ideas that showcase fresh produce as the center-of-the-plate option, and reach out with these ideas on the Internet with online cooking demonstrations and Facebook pages, for example.
And, finally, Silbermann described Socially Conscious Moms. This group is concerned with transparency and authenticity, they look for a lot of information regarding businesses on the Internet, and they are more likely to opt for locally grown foods and to distrust larger businesses.
“Trust is her currency as she searches for an emotional connection with the people who grow and sell the food she buys for her family,” Silbermann said.
He emphasized that these shoppers are not out of reach for larger growers. These shoppers are primarily interested in understanding more about how their food is grown, and what sort of company is behind it. They want to hear a grower's story.
“For this consumer, it is not about what you grow, it is about the ‘how and why’ you grow it,” Silbermann said. “And how can she trust us when she does not know who we are? Wait a minute — you know what I am going to say. We must tell our story, and we must tell it in new and appealing ways.”