Consumer behavior can be a very fragile thing, and this is especially true in today’s marketplace.
With the advent of social media, a soundbite can have a dramatic effect on what a person may or may not purchase.
Up until the mid-1990s, fresh fruits and vegetables enjoyed a generally positive mindset with most consumers. Produce was regarded as a heathy choice and there were numerous marketing messages supporting increased consumption.
Then came the spinach crisis—almost overnight, produce was seen in a different light. Spinach sales tanked—fresh, canned, frozen, and foodservice. And while spinach was the focus, a shadow was cast over other leafy greens.
Following this were recalls in green onions, strawberries, cantaloupe, and romaine. Many states classified bagged salads as a hazardous food—a classic example how a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.
That’s why when the “Dirty Dozen” comes up, I cringe.
Here’s my issue: I completely understand and appreciate good science and good information. But if there’s no foundational understanding of good agricultural practices, and how fresh fruits and vegetables come to the marketplace, this ‘science’ can be taken fully out of context.
In the Dirty Dozen report, the general foundation is true, some items have a greater risk of contamination. Consumers then consider such and such is ‘bad’ and take this as a recommendation to completely avoid these items. And this is simply wrong.
Consider this: there is no single item in the produce department a consumer absolutely needs.
Take spinach: anyone can go through the rest of their life, never eat spinach, and live a healthy, productive life. But that would be a shame because spinach is a fantastic complement to health and wellness.
And here’s the real crime: in the case of spinach, it was a very isolated circumstance that caused the problem. The vast majority of spinach was fine, but all spinach was painted with the same broad brush, taking months for sales to even begin recovering. This example has been repeated over and over again with different commodities.
Why do I bring this up?
I’ve always felt that anything that causes consumers to have a negative view of fruits and vegetables should be addressed loudly and promptly.
We must remember that most consumers won’t take the time to understand the fresh produce supply chain, from production to store shelf. They often make decisions on what they hear, see, or read without further research.
That’s not to say we ignore a potential food safety issue. Strong traceability protocols have never been more important. The key to effective traceability comes down to three things: identify and isolate the product in question, and communicate accurately and fully where there is potential risk and where there is not. All of this should be done quickly, preferably within 24 to 48 hours.
I fully appreciate the challenges involved. In 2007 an industry task force was assembled to accomplish this very thing, but sadly, the industry didn’t do what it was supposed to—so we continue to let media soundbites have a negative impact of produce consumption and that’s really a shame.
It’s true there will always be the potential for risk, contamination, or a food safety recall. And it makes no difference what form of growing is used, provided good agricultural practices are in place.
Marketing efforts that pit one form of agriculture against another in areas of food safety or environmental sustainability are frustrating.
Pesticides and fungicides are not a bad thing, whether synthetic or organic. It’s the abuse of these products that becomes a problem. The produce industry has come a long way in establishing good agricultural practices and sanitary processing methodologies.
The simple truth is this: fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy, delicious, and good for you. They taste great, have tremendous health benefits, are generally convenient to eat, and are a good value for the money.
It’s unfortunate when anything tries to erode these basic facts.
This is the Retail Reflections column from the May/June 2022 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue.