Hallelulajah! At long last, just what we have been yearning to publish has arrived in the Pundit’s inbox. We have featured many pieces on Tesco and its Fresh & Easy operation, but the overwhelming majority of the input we have received has been negative or, if positive, came from anonymous sources unwilling to identify themselves even to the Pundit — which means we couldn’t publish their letters.
Now the Pundit e-mail inbox has provided a letter filled with thoughtful praise of the Fresh & Easy shopping experience by a vendor not only highly credible but, indeed, venerated in the industry and who is not currently selling Fresh & Easy. We publish it with pleasure:
I recently visited a Long Beach, California, Fresh & Easy store about two weeks after it opened just to see what it was like. I must admit I walked in with a rather negative view after everything I had been reading in our trade press.
I arrived just after opening between 8:30 and 9 in the morning, and I walked in behind a young mother carrying a baby in her arms and holding hands with a child over three. It had been too crowded during their opening the first time she came so she decided to come back.
I have to tell you, I loved the store! I came to look and I ended up shopping.
I have never seen a store with the facings of the products and the easy, eye level arrangements as they were in this store. Although the produce was basic and didn’t really have the variety that a gourmet shopper might want, everything was neatly and clearly displayed.
The personnel were warm and friendly … and immediately directed me to where they had free coffee (for early morning shoppers, the managers said) and they were sampling four items … one of which was watermelon.
The lighting, the VERY EASY-TO-READ GRAPHICS and price signage made selection very easy and the atmosphere was warm and friendly.
It didn’t take me long to walk the entire store, and I was impressed with the selection of items.
My reaction was so positive that I asked some of my friends in our area to visit the store … never indicating how I felt. I wanted their reaction to the store and specifically to the pricing. Mind you, these were all shoppers … not produce professionals … and their reactions were similar to mine.
Positive. And one friend who “lives and dies” at the 99-cent store thought the pricing was very good on produce, meat and basic items.
Just another perspective that I thought the industry needs to see.
Here at the Pundit we receive many letters, e-mails and phone calls every day on a full range of industry issues. Indeed, although we have been writing about Tesco’s journey to America for a long time, our assessment really became controversial when we reported that what we call The Pundit Intelligence Network — basically the industry sending in reports — was indicating that Fresh & Easy was having trouble attracting customers.
Some have seen our coverage on the issue as one-sided, but that is more a consequence of “blaming the messenger” than our message. From the beginning of Tesco’s adventure in America, we have received thoughtful and extensive letters that critiqued Tesco’s operations and the company. Some, such as here, here and here, required we maintain anonymity. Others, most recently here, have signed their names.
What positive letters we did receive, as in this one, often were not really praising the concept but just urging more time to allow Tesco to turn it around.
This new letter is different, clearly filled with genuine enjoyment for the Fresh & Easy concept. We think it instructive to identify a particular customer segment that might find Fresh & Easy very appealing.
It is said that “Living Longer Is the Best Revenge,” and one reason our correspondent is so esteemed is that this correspondent has seen much in a long life. Although we expect to be reading letters from this correspondent for decades to come, age creates a new appreciation for things such as legible signage and good lighting.
If walking is a struggle with advancing years, a smaller footprint store can be a pleasure.
And, of course, warm smiles and free cups of coffee have appeal to everyone.
It is, without a doubt, crucial to the future of Fresh & Easy that it be perceived by consumers as well-priced and so our correspondent’s letter offers much hope for the concept — at least among this market segment.
We think that senior citizens, often living alone, are a market segment that would find the Fresh & Easy concept particularly appealing. Yet we wonder if it couldn’t be made more so. A few ideas:
- Many produce items are sold in multi-packs — say six peaches — and smaller households may not want to buy six peaches.
- So far the staffing has been high in relation to the customer count so that the self-checkout has not been a problem. If this changes, self-checkout might not be popular with an older clientele.
- Generally as people age they become more set in their ways — although our correspondent happens to be the opposite. Still, this is why advertisers of consumer products look to advertise to the young, they want to influence brand preference while it is malleable. We would think that many older shoppers would hesitate to switch to Fresh & Easy brand.
- We wonder if extra services could be provided that would appeal to this segment. Publix, for example, in a retiree-rich market, brings the groceries right to the car, with no tipping required.
Of course, pursuing a particular market segment in a small-footprint store can be problematic. For example, if to accommodate small households, Fresh & Easy markets a two-pack of peaches, a large family may feel ridiculous having to buy several packages to meet its needs. Even the point about the variety not being sufficient for the “gourmet shopper” may have broad implications. In a polyglot community such as Los Angeles, what is “gourmet” to an Anglo can be a necessity to a Latino, and what neither would buy may be crucial for an Asian. In fact it breaks down to smaller components than this, the assortment in a Japanese supermarket is completely different from what the Cambodians enjoy. In today’s world, and certainly in LA, there is no majority culture anymore, so a lack of variety means excluding items important to many shoppers.
And, of course, it is not clear if success in only certain market segments will generate enough volume for the stores to succeed.
Still and all, success at retail begins with pleasing the first customer, and this letter clearly points to some passion developing for Fresh & Easy.
Considering how much money has been spent and how many people have worked hard on the project, we are thrilled to see it.
Much appreciation to our correspondent for sharing this letter with us and the whole industry.
United Fresh is building steam as it prepares to open its convention in Las Vegas. Simultaneously it announced a new volunteer leadership structure and new board leadership.
The new structure is a substantial change:
UNITED FRESH PRODUCE ASSOCIATION
ANNOUNCES NEW VOLUNTEER LEADERSHIP STRUCTURE
The Board of Directors of the United Fresh Produce Association has voted to implement a new organizational structure for its volunteer leadership, to be implemented following this year’s annual convention May 4-7 in Las Vegas. The new structure will consist of four horizontal boards representing different market segments of the produce supply chain, which in turn will roll up into a consolidated overall Board of Directors representing the association’s membership.
“As our Board engaged in strategic planning over the past six months, it was clear that one of our key strengths as an organization is our total produce supply chain representation, and our ability to bring all segments of the supply chain together in balanced partnership for the good of the industry,” said United Fresh Chairman of the Board Emanuel Lazopoulos, Del Monte Fresh Produce. “While our Board clearly sees that strength in our internal deliberations, we also realized that we had the opportunity to be more transparent and inclusive in representing the needs of specific segments of the broad produce industry. This new structure will be both transparent and inclusive, as every company in the industry will know where companies like themselves fit within United’s structure, and every segment of the industry will have a fair voice in proportion to their member representation,” he said.
United Fresh will establish four new supply chain market segment boards, each consisting of from 15-20 representatives predominately representing companies in those business sectors. Associate member suppliers and allied association members that work closely with one market segment or another will also be permitted to serve on each board.
- Grower-Shipper Board
- Wholesale-Distributor Board
- Fresh-Cut Processor Board
- Retail-Foodservice Board
These boards will be empowered to identify, discuss and advance issues of importance within each sector in order to ensure that United Fresh is meeting their business needs, addressing critical issues, and implementing programs that deliver member value to each market segment. The chairman and vice chairman of each Board will fill an automatic seat on the association’s consolidated Board of Directors, ensuring direct representation of each market segment’s needs in all Board considerations. Members of each market segment board will be nominated by the association’s Nominating Committee, and will be formally elected by the membership to serve two-year terms.
In addition, United Fresh will formalize operations of four Advisory Councils, which serve to gather expertise and counsel in specific issue areas from across the entire membership. These include:
- Government Relations Council (currently operating)
- Food Safety & Technology Council (currently operating)
- Global Advisory Council (recently formed in January; second meeting in Las Vegas)
- Transportation & Logistics Council (to be formed)
Advisory councils will be appointed by the Chairman of the Board, and provide service as their expertise and time commitment allows. The chairman of each advisory council will also fill an automatic seat on the consolidated Board of Directors, ensuring that their council’s specific expert judgment is shared with the full Board in each meeting.
Members filling the 12 automatic Board seats outlined above will serve alongside four officers, and 25 at-large members chosen to proportionately represent the association’s total membership.
“In summary, these changes will reinforce for the entire industry United Fresh’s unique role in bringing together the total produce supply chain. We believe that addressing industrywide needs today demands a transparent candid dialogue across industry segments that can only be achieved with balanced and proportional representation of the industry. In addition, the structure of expert advisory councils allows for widespread member expertise in areas such as food safety, government affairs, transportation logistics and global issues to be brought to every Board meeting. United Fresh is committed to this level of transparency and inclusiveness in addressing industry issues,” Lazopoulos said.
Industry leaders nominated to serve as chairmen and vice chairmen of the new boards and councils, as well as nominees for open at-large seats, will be announced separately, and will be introduced at the upcoming annual meeting and convention. Following that event, volunteers will be sought for potential nominees to each market segment board.
“As we begin to implement this new structure, United Fresh also owes a great thank you to members who have served on the Business Development Council the past three years, and particularly its chairman Mike Kemp of Save-A-Lot,” said Lazopoulos. “Work previously done by this council will now be channeled into the new market segment boards to ensure that we’re specifically addressing each business segment’s needs. We thank Mike and the Business Development Council team for their work developing our new Cornell Executive Development Program and the Product Recall/Crisis Management course we now are offering around the country. We look forward to working with many of these leaders as members of the new market segment boards,” he said.
The structure may be new, but the new Board leadership is composed of tested veterans:
UNITED FRESH ANNOUNCES 2008 NEW BOARD LEADERSHIP
Tom Lovelace to Assume Chairmanship;
Jim Lemke Nominated to Serve as Chairman-Elect
Chairman of the Board Development Committee Nick Tompkins, Apio, Inc., has announced the slate of new officers and directors nominated to serve on the United Fresh Produce Association Board of Directors, effective at its May 3, 2008 meeting.
Ascending to Chairman of the Board is Tom Lovelace, Executive Vice President, McEntire Produce, Columbia, SC. Lovelace has over 30 years experience in the fresh-cut produce and quick service restaurant industries, and now serves as Executive Vice President of McEntire Produce, a fresh-cut processor, tomato re-packer and vegetable wholesaler. He previously served as Senior Vice President of Performance Food Group and Chairman/CEO of Fresh Express from 1995 to 2004. During that time of rapid consolidation, PFG acquired Dixon Tom-a-toe, Redi-Cut Foods and Fresh Express. Prior to joining PFG in 1995, Lovelace spent nine years with Coronet Foods involved in both its fresh-cut processing operations and its bulk iceberg growing/shipping business in Salinas. He began his career with McDonald’s Corporation, spending 16 years with the company in an operations and supply chain management capacity.
Nominated as Chairman-Elect is Jim Lemke, Senior Vice President, C. H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., Eden Prairie, MN. Lemke oversees C.H. Robinson’s produce sales and marketing operations, as well as refrigerated transportation services. He previously served as vice president, produce, and as manager of C.H. Robinson’s Corporate Procurement and Distribution Services division. Jim joined the company in 1989 after earning a B.A. degree in International Relations from the University of Minnesota. Jim has experience working in transportation, logistics, produce commodity sales and account management for the company’s retail, wholesale and foodservice customers. He currently serves on the board of the Produce for Better Health Foundation and is heavily involved with industry initiatives such as the Produce Traceability Initiative.
|In addition, Michael Cavallero, President, North America Tropical Fresh Fruit of Dole Food Company is nominated to a two-year term serving as Secretary-Treasurer. Cavallero previously served on the United Fresh Board from 1996-2000.|
|Current Chairman, Emanuel Lazopoulos, Senior Vice President, N.A. Sales & Product Management for Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., in Coral Gables, FL, will move into the office of Immediate Past Chairman, and remain on the Board and the Executive Committee.|
As also announced today, the Board of Directors of the Association has voted to implement a new organizational structure for its volunteer leadership. The new structure will consist of four horizontal boards representing different market segments of the produce supply chain and four expert councils in cross-cutting issue areas. Leaders of these boards and councils will join together with at-large directors chosen proportionally to represent United Fresh’s overall membership in forming a consolidated overall Board of Directors.
The following industry leaders have been nominated to serve as the Chairmen and Vice Chairmen of the new Supply Chain Boards, beginning May 2008:
- Al Vangelos, Chairman
Sun World International, LLC, Bakersfield, CA
- Fred Williamson, Vice Chairman
Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego, CA
Fresh-Cut Processor Board
- Steffanie Smith, Chairman
River Point Farms, LLC, Hermiston, OR
- Ron Midyett, Vice Chairman
Apio, Inc., Guadalupe, CA
- Matthew D’Arrigo, Chairman
D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of New York, Bronx, NY
- Brendan Comito, Vice Chairman
Capital City Fruit Company, Inc., Norwalk, IA
- Reggie Griffin, Chairman
The Kroger Company, Cincinnati, OH
- Mitch Smith, Vice Chairman
McDonald’s Corporation, Nampa, ID
The following industry leaders have been nominated to serve as the Chairmen of the United Fresh Councils, beginning May 2008:
Global Advisory Council
- David Barney, Chairman
Bakkavor, Peterborough, UK
Government Relations Council
- Mike Wootton, Chairman
Sunkist Growers, Sherman Oaks, CA
Transportation & Logistics Council
- David Dever, Chairman
Pandol Bros., Inc., Delano, CA
Food Safety & Technology Council
- Barry Eisenberg Ph.D., Chairman
River Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC, Salinas, CA
The following industry leaders have been nominated to serve as new at-large members of the United Fresh Board for a two-year term beginning May 2008:
- Mike Celani, Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Ready Pac Produce, Irwindale, CA
- Tony DiMare, Vice President, DiMare Company, Ruskin, FL
- Roger Harkrider, Director of Produce, H-E-B, San Antonio, TX
- Brent Harrison, President, Al Harrison Co. Distributors, Nogales, AZ
- Michael Martin, Vice President of Sales, Rio Queen, Inc., Mission, TX
- Phillip Muir, President & CEO, Muir Copper Canyon Farms, Salt Lake City, UT
- Mark Murai, President, California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, CA
- Doug Riley, Assistant Vice President, Produce Operations, Hy-Vee, Inc., West Des Moines, IA
- Geoff White, Vice President, Corporate Produce, Safeway, Inc., Pleasanton, CA
The following current Board Members will continue service on the Board: Nelia Alamo, Gills Onions; Ron Anderson, Spartan Stores, Inc.; Barry Bedwell, California Grape & Tree Fruit League; Matthew Caito, Imagination Farms; Peter John Condakes, Peter Condakes Company, Inc.; Pete Donlon, Earthbound Farm; Charles Hall, Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association; Brian Kocher, Chiquita Brands International; Robin Poynton, One Harvest; Ashley Rawl, Walter P. Rawl & Sons, Inc.; John Shelford, Shelford Consulting; Vic Smith, Fresh Innovations, LLC; Alan Temple, B&W Quality Growers, Inc.; Alessandro Turatti, Turatti Srl,; Rick Urschel, Urschel Laboratories; and Timothy Vaux, Vaux Group, Inc.
“In total, the slate of nominees for our new boards, councils and at-large seats, together with our returning Board members and new officers, makes this a tremendously diverse and skilled set of leaders to represent our entire industry and guide our association in the year ahead,” said Nominating Committee Chairman Tompkins.
Board Members who will complete their terms of service at the May convention include: Rick Antle, Tanimura & Antle; Charles Ciruli, Ciruli Brothers/Amex Distributing Co., Inc.; Alan Heinzen, Heinzen Manufacturing International; Mark Hilton, Harris Teeter Supermarkets; Diane Huntsinger-Carson, Crunch Pak LLC; Bruce Knobeloch, River Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC; Lawrence Kern, Kern Associates; Maureen Marshall, Torrey Farms, Inc.; Mark Miller, Fresh From Texas/Energy Sprouts, Inc.; Walter Strickland, Strickland Produce, Inc.; Jay Taylor, Taylor & Fulton, Inc.; Nick Tompkins, Apio, Inc., Mike Kemp, Save-A-Lot, Chairman of the Business Development Council; and Walter Ram, The Giumarra Companies, Co-Chairman of the Food Safety & Technology Council.
“I’d like to personally thank Nick Tompkins and the Board Development Committee for their work this year in nominating an outstanding individual in Jim Lemke to serve as Chairman-Elect, as well as a slate of great new Board members and Council and Supply Chain Board Chairmen,” said United Fresh President Tom Stenzel.
“We recognize that the strength of our association comes from strong representation of our membership across the total supply chain, bringing together an exceptional group of industry leaders to serve our industry. I’d also like to thank those leaders who are concluding their service at this meeting. We greatly appreciate the time and resources they have given to serve our industry,” he said.
The Pundit once ran a strategic planning process for United, and so we know the stresses and strains that a new structure such as this is trying to contain.
On the one hand, the very essence of United’s name is that it seeks to find common ground in the industry; on the other hand, each industry segment has its own interests and its own agenda.
The positive of separate boards for each sector of the supply chain is that the members really come to feel represented. There is a body that will continuously bring to the surface the concerns of each segment of the supply chain. The risk of separate boards for each part of the supply chain is that having surfaced each segment’s concerns and agendas, it is difficult to put that genie back in the bottle and make sure everyone works together.
PMA has long been driven by two separate boards named after segments of the industry: The Retail Board and The Foodservice Board. What has made these boards powerful tools, though, is that although each is chaired by a member of the respective business class — this year Mikel R. Weber of Golden Corral Corporation is Chairman of PMA’s Foodservice Board, and Michael O’Brien of Schnuck Markets is Chairman of PMA’s Retail Board — the actual membership of the boards contains the complete supply chain. In fact, retailers are not even a majority on the retail board, nor are foodservice operators a majority on the foodservice board.
As such, PMA’s organizational structure tends to quickly define those areas on which industry cooperation and consensus is possible and leads to work on those areas.
United’s efforts are to be admired because PMA tends to be silent on a fair number of issues because there is no industry consensus … and no likelihood of achieving one. So setting up supply chain boards will bring visibility to issues and the whole industry can often benefit from this.
Yet… such clarity can create trouble within an association. Just a little while ago, we ran a piece regarding grape shatter allowances on grapes sold in bags or clamshells and Matthew D’Arrigo of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of New York happened to volunteer to be interviewed for that piece. He expressed his strong belief, which is almost unanimously held among wholesalers, that this plan to increase shatter allowances is a very bad one. We note the fact that Matthew is the new Chairman of United’s new Wholesale-Distributor Board.
We have known Matthew for a very long time. Our respect for him, his family and his father is immense. We have not the slightest doubt he will do all he can to help the industry.
Yet we also notice that the Chairman of the Grower-Shipper Board is Al Vangelos of Sun World International. We wrote about Al accepting this assignment here. Now we have known Al a long time as well. In fact we worked closely with him way back in 1991 when Al was Chairman of United. Now Sun World is a major grower-shipper of grapes and, although we haven’t asked him, it is very possible
Al would go along with the position of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League proposing to increase the shatter allowance on grapes.
Once again, we have nothing but respect for Al Vangelos and have not the slightest doubt that he will do all in his power to help the industry.
Yet, even with two stellar leaders yearning to help the industry, in this example, the Wholesale-Distributor Board may send a recommendation to the main board that United Fresh may oppose.
Forgetting for a moment the substance of the issue, the problem is that the United Fresh main board will have a big challenge in acting without alienating a big part of the membership.
To some extent, this is a little bit of déjà vue all over again. United once had a Terminal Market Division; United once had a Retail Division. United had other industry segmented divisions, and, back then at least, it led to groups such as NAPAR — the National Association of Perishable Agricultural Receivers — going independent because the main United board wouldn’t or couldn’t support the initiatives of the industry segmented boards.
Of course, that was then and this is now, and there is no guarantee that past is prologue. Obviously very smart industry members have worked long and hard to revise United’s structure. We owe them the chance to see how they make it work. We wish all the new board members and leadership of United Fresh God Speed in their endeavors.
We still do not know the comeuppance of the story regarding Agropecuaria Montelibano and the “import alert” the FDA imposed against its cantaloupes grown in Honduras. This is in itself very troubling because citizens in a democracy are entitled to more information on why they are banned from importing from a particular company than the FDA has provided.
We started our coverage with a piece entitled, FDA Fumbles Again On Cantaloupe ‘Alert’. Then we ran a special edition devoted solely to the controversy. This piece was entitled, We Are All Affected By Cantaloupe Issue, and included these individual pieces:
- We Are All Affected By Cantaloupe Issue
- An Abuse Of Power: A Portrait Of The FDA As Bully
- Emergency Task Force Requested
- Letters From Warren And Molina Ask For Support And Patience
- FDA Responds To Cantaloupe ‘Alert’ Questions
- Honduras Cantaloupe Grower: Model Of Transparency
- Central American’s Warren Speaks Out About Cantaloupe ‘Alert’
- FDA’s Strong Arm Tactics
- Why The Delay?
- Media Misinformation And Confusion Over Cantaloupe ‘Alert’
- How Save Mart Was Affected By Cantaloupe ‘Alert’
- Consumer Guide To Cantaloupe Food Safety
- Science Behind Cantaloupe ‘Alert’
- President Of Honduras Stands Up For Grower
We followed this up with Positive Test On Cantaloupe Causes More Confusion, which dealt with an alleged positive test result on a serotype of salmonella that is different from that implicated in the food safety outbreak.
We then dealt with some of the letters we have received on the subject. This included one from Tom Church of Church Brothers in a piece we entitled, FDA Status Quo Cannot Stand. We also ran a piece, Despite Flawed FDA, Cantaloupes Are Challenged, which pointed out that while the question of FDA behavior is a legitimate one, whatever the faults of the FDA, it doesn’t mean the industry can or should ignore the food safety issues related to each product.
We also ran a piece entitled, Fix Suggested For FDA’s Vigilante System Of Banning Product Through Import Alerts, which included an analysis of the questionable nature of FDA’s authority for issuing “Import Alerts” and suggested that a move to a risk-assessment strategy could better safeguard public health and diminish the business difficulties that come from FDA acting in a reactive manner.
When there is a food safety issue such as this one, it reverberates around the world. For example, we received a note that in distant Guam, the Department of Public Health and Social Services learned that cantaloupes from this grower had found their way to Guam and so issued a public health warning, which you can read here.
Back at the end of March, the local news media played it this way:
BREAKING NEWS: 1:05 p.m. — CANTALOUPES TAINTED WITH SALMONELLA ON GUAM
1:05 p.m. — The Department of Public Health is warning consumers that about 15,000 pounds of cantaloupes imported to Guam from Honduras could carry salmonella.
In recent weeks the Food and Drug Administration linked 50 cases of salmonella poisoning in 16 states to cantaloupes from Angropecuaria Montelibano, a Honduran grower and packer. According to a Public Health release, three on-island vendors have distributed 415 cases of the potentially sickening cantaloupes.
Several cases have already been sold to consumers.
Salmonellas can cause nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Infection can be life threatening to individuals with poor health.
Any person or businesses who has bought cantaloupes are encouraged to identify the grower or throw them away. If you have eaten one and experience any symptoms, contact a doctor.
For more questions, contact the division of environmental health.
It seemed intriguing that this matter should reach Guam, an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States and the 32nd largest island in the United States, resting at the very edge of US outposts in the Pacific, so we asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to learn more:
Q: I understand the cantaloupe import alert has made its way to the island of Guam, and that you have been handling the situation. What’s happening?
A: I’m in charge of the Division of Environmental Health, which manages food safety problems of this nature. We have a food, drug and cosmetic program, similar to our federal counterparts, responsible for regulating the importation, distribution and sale of consumer commodities such as food on the island. Our law somewhat mirrors federal law to insure that no misbranded or adulterated food products are imported.
Our political situation is that we are part of U.S. territory and all federal mandates apply to Guam. We also have local statutes governing island activities such as food.
Our federal counterparts are in constant communication with us and we are notified of recalled items that are overseen by FDA, whether by fax or e-mail. Just like everyone else, we were notified of the voluntary recall of Honduran cantaloupes.
We’re given notice from the FDA, or it could be USDA, as to the reason for the recall and the product in question, whether the problem is with canned goods, agricultural products, or anything else.
Q: Did Guam import product from this Honduran grower? If so, have you tracked it all down?
A: We have accounted for all cantaloupes imported to Guam from Honduras; three vendors on the island imported a total of 425 cases of the implicated cantaloupes. Each case weighs 35 to 40 pounds with 8 to 9 cantaloupes in each case, so we’re talking approximately 3,400 cantaloupes from this grower that were imported to Guam.
Q: Did the cantaloupes make there way to the market and to consumers? I haven’t seen any reports of illness coming from Guam.
A: Our understanding is that those distributed to hotels or restaurants may have been sliced and served to their customers. And some were directly sold to retailers whole. I believe some of those melons were converted to fresh-cut product in store. Every single case has been accounted for now. Either the product was quickly taken off the shelf for destruction, or we learned it was purchased or consumed by consumers.
We’re happy to say there have been no reported cases of salmonella infection in Guam. Of course, the bad news is that some of the contaminated product came into Guam. But it shows you the globalization of food commodities; whether on an island in the Western Pacific or in a large city in the U.S., food gets around.
Q: Could you provide more detail on the tracking and withdrawal of product from the market? How do you know all products in question are accounted for? It seems every day another company somewhere in the U.S. is putting out a voluntary recall notice related to this problem.
A: We work pretty closely with our local vendors and they were very responsive and had no hesitation in taking the guidance of the Guam Department of Health and the FDA.
We immediately contacted major importers and distributors on the island. We made phone calls, and sent companies the FDA information by fax or e-mail, if they have such form of communication available to them. Then we did follow-up visits. We’re much smaller, so on-site visits are easier for us. That helps because vendors can be better informed. They appreciate the personal communication and are much more responsive when we are able to be there in person.
Q: How did you alert the public? Did the government issue its own release? Did Guam importers put out their own recall notices?
A: Upon learning that Guam did receive implicated melons, we did a press release and local media covered the news. You’ll note that the number of cases originally reported in the release is less than the final tally of 425 cases. I don’t believe the importers sent out any recall notices of any kind to the public.
Q: Was there ever any question in conducting a recall?
A: We seek and obtain a lot of guidance and information from FDA in making our decisions. We were told this is a voluntary recall. We passed this information to local importers and distributors. Obviously they had the option to refuse, but as I mentioned we have close contact, and the companies chose to take the side of precaution.
Q: Is your island status and relatively small size an advantage in handling recalls and isolating food safety problems?
A: Our relatively small size essentially enabled us to track down all importers to whom the grower sold melons. The three importers knew immediately through their own documentation the melons were from Honduras and quickly isolated the implicated melons. Instead of identifying brand names, it’s easier if a consumer had purchased cantaloupe recently to contact the local retail establishment and find out if the melon was part of the recall. The fact that we didn’t have any salmonella problem on the island lessened the concern. Most of our produce is imported for obvious reasons. We essentially import everything into the island.
The image of Guam is people living in grass huts, but we have a fairly large population, 175,000, like a large U.S. town, and the island is pretty westernized. Our main tourist area is often referred to as a little Waikiki.
Fortunately nobody got sick. If someone had gotten salmonella there is a decent shot it would have ruined someone’s honeymoon, since Guam is a very popular destination for Japanese honeymooners. In all probability, the melons reached Guam as part of mixed load shipments coming out of Los Angeles.
Mr. Nadeua’s comment. “…it shows you the globalization of food commodities; whether on an island in the Western Pacific or in a large city in the U.S., food gets around,” made us curious as to what else we could learn about the industry in Guam.
In order to get close to the consumer, we wanted to speak with a retailer. Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott did some digging and found the largest retail chain on Guam::
Q: When we heard the cantaloupe outbreak recalls reached Guam, we thought it would be fascinating to learn more about the island and retail produce operations.
A: MIKE: Pay-Less is a privately owned, 57-year-old company. We’re the largest retail chain on Guam with six stores spread out through the island evenly. They range in size from 30,000 square feet to as small as 10,000 square feet. Probably 70 to 80 percent of our produce selection comes from off-island, and 20 to 30 percent is grown locally.
Guam used to have a pretty good agriculture industry — coffee, tobacco, fruits and vegetables. Obviously it’s difficult to compete on volume, price, and quality of produce U.S. stateside.
Q: How does your procurement system work?
A: MIKE: We bring in the majority of our produce via surface, via ocean. There are only two carriers; Matson and Horizon lines. We do import some produce from Korea, the Philippines and Japan, but a large percentage is from the U.S.
Q: Do you purchase directly from a few large importers?
A: MIKE: Pay-less has a partner in California, Bruno’s Quality Produce. They handle the process, procure what we need, put product in containers and ship it out to us. They’re like a broker but they have a warehouse and do a lot of business in Guam and Micronesia. We’re a part owner of that company. They sell us the lion’s share of our produce offering.
A: TOM: We also buy direct from New Zealand — onions and apples. Kiwis can’t handle the four-week trip; Philippine mangos are an Ataulfo variety originating out of Mexico, some of the sweetest in the world. They have to have a USDA inspector on site for shipping season. There is so much politics for getting products out, it’s a nightmare because of USDA regulations and restrictions. From Korea we import strawberries, sometimes we bring in grapes, and golden Asian pears are huge. From Japan, we bring in apples and pear apples.
Q: What produce is grown on the Island?
A: TOM: Local produce on Guam is huge; we have so many farmers on this island. Guam is situated on a dormant volcano, 36,000 feet above the ocean floor, with 1,500- to 1,600-foot peaks. It’s mountainous and lush, on an ocean surrounded by reefs, creating rich and fertile land for growing fruits and vegetables. I try to buy local when I can, aiming for 25 to 30 percent of all produce I purchase.
Items grown here include Macau bananas, Tara root, cucumbers that look like the straight Japanese variety, coconuts in abundance, different kinds of local yams, and local cherry tomatoes unlike those you find stateside. You can eat this tomato green, it’s so sweet. The eggplant grown in Guam is very popular. It’s comparable to a baby Italian eggplant variety, but more purple/green in coloration.
Q: Do logistical challenges hinder your imported assortment?
A: MIKE: We definitely face obstacles because of our remote island location. Produce comes in only once a week, after losing 13 days of shelf life on the water before arriving at port. Our produce is immediately many days older than product in other U.S. stores.
Our damage is very high with many pull backs. We have to work our product a lot more. It can also dry up, losing water weight in transit. People are critical of produce prices; they don’t understand what it takes to get it on the shelves.
The type of produce we carry is generally pretty standard, very typical of a mainstream supermarket — a whole gamut of fruits and vegetables. We do have trouble with the more perishable products. Being 5,000 miles away does cause problems. We air freight the vulnerable items like strawberries and mushrooms. And we carry a lot of pre-bagged lettuce to meet customer demand.
A: TOM: Logistically it’s challenging. We only get shipments once a week by surface in containers. Technology has come a long way as far as transportation and maintaining the cold chain, but when it comes in, it’s tough to prolong freshness when we’re already behind the eight ball on shelf life. Refrigerated trucks deliver to stores, and we try to uphold the half-hour-out-and-in rule. We do best practices, trimming, misting, crisping, etc. With the lead time before it gets to the broker or distributor, it’s a good 15 days before product arrives and 16 days till it hits stores.
Fortunately we get two air shipments a week for products like cucumbers, bagged salads, baby lettuce, all berries, mushrooms, and herbs. We really have to maximize these shipments because of the rising cost of freight. Now it’s upwards of $2,100 dollars related to rising fuel costs.
Q: What happens when items don’t arrive as expected? Do you have back-up strategies in place?
A: TOM: In the States, if you don’t like the shipment you reject it and get another delivery. We don’t have that luxury. One time on the island, I got a 42,000-pound container, and the refrigeration failed. Nothing I could do but scramble, scavenging from other companies to make do.
On holidays, I bring in four or five containers and hope and pray there won’t be a problem because there’s no fall back. Bruno’s is highly proficient with cold chain packing to the point where the process is very consistent and manageable. Horizon Lines is a great company, monitoring product in transit, misting the produce and insuring it stays at the proper temperature, so some of the produce we get looks like it was just shipped. It is very rare when I receive a container that’s a problem.
A lot of customers are very savvy; they know the logistics issues and are very forgiving. And I have the best produce supervisors, all have been in business a long time. We have employees with the company 20 or 30 years who know how to handle problems.
Q: How was Pay-Less impacted by the cantaloupe outbreak?
A: MIKE: We weren’t carrying any cantaloupe from the Honduran grower. Our system of being advised of any recalls is very good. Obviously with the Internet, we get information very quickly. We made sure we didn’t have any on the shelves and that none was shipped. We let our customers know immediately our cantaloupe was OK and put up signage.
A: TOM: My distributor and I have a strong relationship. Bruno’s always informs me of what’s going on. Fortunately enough, we were one of the only companies that didn’t have any cantaloupes from the Honduran grower. We had Costa Rican cantaloupes from Del Monte. I went on local a.m. radio station and did a nice public announcement alerting consumers that cantaloupes from Pay-Less were fine to eat. Our boxes of cantaloupes showed Del-Monte labeling. The FDA notice was long, so we just put up a sign that said we didn’t carry cantaloupes from that grower.
Q: Did you interact with the government in any way?
A: MIKE: The Guam Department of Public Health is pretty effective in dealing with food safety alerts; they send us a notice when product is recalled, whether beef, seafood, dry grocery, or produce. When the warning comes in, every manager is advised and we’re very aggressive in taking implicated product off the shelves. We’ve been very blessed not to have had any food safety problems at our stores.
That product did come over to Guam from the Honduran grower. Sometimes our distance is one of our greatest problems, but in this case it was one of our biggest benefits. That product was already in the water 13 days. FDA was already having issues with that product when it was in transit. Suppliers were pre-warned and when implicated product came in, it was segregated and destroyed.
Q: Did your customers express concern or stop buying cantaloupes?
A: MIKE: With our customers, some were cautious and didn’t buy cantaloupes even though our product wasn’t part of the recall. But something else occurred. We had cantaloupes, and probably were the only company that had cantaloupes. Our major industry is tourism; we had hotels and restaurants coming to us for cantaloupes, since we were the last man standing.
TOM: The same rush occurred during the spinach crisis. Even after the spinach outbreak, we had a hotel rush for product. Unfortunately wholesalers and other retailers tended to just stop selling all spinach because of how the FDA generalized the warning. Our supplier was Fresh Express and we got notice that their spinach wasn’t involved. We did start selling spinach again.
What the FDA did was wrong. The FDA can’t do general statements across the board destroying whole industries; they have to isolate the problem before scaring consumers unnecessarily.
During the cantaloupe outbreak, we were able to alleviate concern. It was a matter of educating our supervisors. We did a good job of letting our customers know the facts. We were still sampling cantaloupes when news of the outbreak hit the media, to get sales up. When something like this happens and consumers get scared, that commodity can be destroyed.
If retailers have samples of product out, employees should also eat the samples with their customers to reassure them. It’s important to educate customers best you can. Of course, you want to keep customers safe and take all necessary precautions when alerts come out, but it can be just as bad to over-react and create false alarm.
Q: Could you describe your customer base?
A: MIKE: We provide mainly for the local market. Of course, Guam is like Hawaii — a melting pot, a mix of ethnic cultures. There are a lot of Japanese. We get Japanese honeymooners; many marriages take place in Guam. Obviously, there is a pretty big Asian population on Guam and there are some smaller Asian stores that cater to that market. Pay-Less is more mainstream. We also have a large military contingent, and commissaries are pretty big here too. We do get a lot of military personnel and their families shopping at our stores.
A: TOM: Another political story is happening in Guam. The U.S. is redeploying 8,000 marines over to Guam. It’s a huge military buildup that will involve building all the supporting infrastructure. The majority shop in commissaries, but Pay-Less carries an average 300 to 350 SKUs in the produce department, and we continue to expand and add in new SKUs. We’re also neighborhood stores, strategically located.
Q: Tell us more about the retail landscape. I understand the Guam Kmart is the largest Kmart in the world.
TOM: Kmart is more of a Japanese tourist destination. With a 250-square-foot produce area, they don’t really compete in produce, and are more or less focused on general merchandise variety items. At Kmart, you find the top 10 produce items in bulk. They don’t sell small quantities, or variety. They may bring in a case of oranges at a good deal.
In Pay-Less, we just transitioned to five decks and value-added sections. If you walk into a regular mainstream supermarket stateside and compare to it to Pay-Less, we usually have more variety, cleaner stores, better customer service, and are community-oriented.
Cost-U-Less is definitely a Costco-style concept, with two stores. They do have a produce department but are more club-oriented; customers box stuff when they check out, there are no bags.
There are other stores; California Mart, an Asian market oriented toward Korean clientele and some Japanese, and the island is sprinkled with a lot of mom and pop stores.
A: MIKE: We’re really the only mainstream supermarket like what you see stateside. We have a competitor, Alaska Commercial, which is coming to Guam, so that will present new challenges.
A: TOM: Alaska Commercial, a large retailer in the states, with 180 stores or so, has a format that is kind of similar logistically and in square footage. We go through some of the same issues, so they might be suited to be a competitor of ours on Guam.
The island is very unique in its operation. Mike promotes a good point that competition is keeping us honest and on our toes. Competition is good for the company; it makes us all better. We may not necessarily welcome it, but in a sense we do. I think it will just strengthen Pay-Less and benefit our customers.
Q: What attributes will Pay-Less capitalize on to give it an edge?
A: MIKE: Labor issues are difficult and we have been able to maintain a loyal employee base. Many of our employees have been with us a long time. We’re very community-oriented; it’s one of our big pushes. As part of our community service, Pay-Less employees are helping to build a homeless shelter.
TOM: Pay-Less Community Foundation, our non-profit arm, runs a Feed the People project, which Mike spearheaded. Employees donate a certain amount a month out of their pay checks. We just broke ground on the homeless project.
MIKE: We’re building a new fully concrete structure to replace the rundown location. The generosity of our employees and their desire to volunteer is uplifting; even down to cashiers, baggers and drivers, donations range from $2 a pay period to $50 a month. It’s all voluntary. The Foundation has taken a loan out from the Bank of Guam, no collateral involved. We’re using it to construct the building. We’re funding that debt service payment to get the loan from companies in the community and our employees are the biggest contributors. It was a very nice surprise to see the employees come together for such a worthwhile cause.
Q: Do you promote any health/nutrition initiatives, such as the Fruit & Veggies — More Matters campaign?
A: MIKE: We have an annual Five K race, Kick the Fat, which is in its 11th year now. Some 2,400 people showed up for that race, part of our big health fair. Huge tents are out with medical stations set up for sugar and blood pressure testing, chiropractors, yoga lessons, organic and natural foods, and all the money we make we donate to non-profit charities. We give away a lot of produce, apples and bananas. We also do store promotions building up to the event.
Q: Do you integrate the healthy eating/lifestyle theme in other ways throughout the year?
A: MIKE: We run a lot of demos on how to cook vegetables and healthier dishes. We sample produce constantly. This is a regular thing with us, putting out sample trays, and all our supervisors are trained on proper food safety procedures, washing hands and using clean knives to cut up fruit for passersby.
A: TOM: Pay-Less is very health-conscious. In addition to the Five K run, we advertise that consumers should eat 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day; we put a standards symbol with 9 a day, since some health reports are coming out in that direction. Five is not enough. I’m excited about the produce industry and the direction it’s going. Years ago, the produce department was a contributor but not a focus point.
In our remodels, we moved the produce department to the front of the store, and expanded on dollars we do per square foot, and produce consumption is increasing.
Q: How does the natural/organic food trend play in Guam?
A: MIKE: We rolled out a pretty wide natural and organic section, starting about three years ago. We’re putting more emphasis on that whole category because of rising interest.
A: TOM: Organics is a small trend, but the category is increasing. We’re far off the national average growth percentage-wise, if you look at organic trends in the States. Our organic produce is integrated into the department. We have one store targeted as our destination store, with a large Health Smart department next to the produce department, and in other stores to a lesser extent.
My view is all produce is Health Smart. So many studies show organic is no healthier than conventional produce, and it costs people 22 percent to 25 percent more. Somewhere along the line information about organics has become a fallacy. There may be more chance of getting sick from organic produce than traditional. Think of what growers are not using to kill pests and bacteria.
Q: With food safety concerns reaching a fever pitch in the U.S., more retailers are starting to require stringent standards from their suppliers, including third-party audits. Do you?
A: MIKE: We don’t require third-party audit food safety certifications. We have USDA inspectors and EPA. When produce companies are mass-producing, those certifications are necessary. Suppliers manufacturing and reselling produce require regular inspections from the Department of Public Health, as does Pay-Less. We are regularly inspected by Public Health and rated.
Most produce is relatively safe. With our local produce, a public law recently passed applying to farmers that want to sell to retail establishments. These local growers have to pass a pesticide/fertilizer program and get certified. We’re just beginning to implement the program, but we’re giving these suppliers a little time. Many backyard farmers are not sophisticated like those in the States. By the beginning of next calendar year, we’ll issue a memo. It will inform local farmers that if they don’t pass this class and provide certification, they can’t sell to us.
A: TOM: Guam passed a bill related to pesticide and crop management. The problem is with the EPA here; they’re so shorthanded. The bill has been passed and EPA has given a certain amount of time for growers to get credentials, but the EPA is not able to enforce it now. We’ve been asking the government to do this for a long time. We have a lot of established farmers in Guam, who have been around a long time, and then there are smaller farmers that don’t understand legislation, and some have been caught using pesticides they shouldn’t. The bill requires local growers have to take classes and get certified.
Q: In the mean time, is Pay-Less concerned that all local produce is OK to sell? How do you differentiate?
A: TOM: At Pay-less, we wash all local produce when it comes in. I’m sure there are times when it comes in not being washed, but we strive for it to be thoroughly cleaned.
Anywhere we can, we want to make a difference. This is an added precaution; we have tubs where we soak everything when it comes in. Growers are not doing traditional packing on the island. Every one is going green, using reusable crates. Everything they pick, we transfer from the crates to carts and then we wash the produce.
We have an in-house safety and health guy that goes to the stores and follows all guidelines set by the government organizations. Our supplier Bruno’s buys from larger farms in California. Most of our U.S. imports are from large reputable companies upping their standards.
Q: Supermarkets continue to build on their own private label initiatives. Does Pay-Less have store brand private label products?
A: MIKE: The majority is supplier-branded product. We don’t manufacture anything ourselves. Pay-Less buys from Unified Grocers and we use their private label, which is different from, say, Safeway brand private label. Unified Grocers, based in California, sells to the majority of independents on the West Coast.
Q: How is Pay-Less positioning fresh produce moving forward?
A: MIKE: We’ve done a series of remodels and produce departments are bigger. Every set expanded produce sections because of demand. We are opening up another store around March of next year and produce will play a key role. A couple of stores do prepared foods and one store has a full-blown service deli with two and three course meals. We don’t have salad bars, but carry a variety of grab-and-go items, wrapped sandwiches, sushi sets, and bendo boxes. The convenience-type product segment continues to grow. The company is set up well to adapt to trends.
A: TOM: The Island is a small knit community; everyone knows each other. When customers go into Pay-Less stores, company executives are very accessible, friendly people; they don’t hide in offices, they’re in the stores talking with customers on a first-name basis. This is a very family- and community-oriented company.
Paul Calvo, President/CEO of Pay-Less, owns Calvo Enterprises and Pay-Less is a part of that. Kathy Sgro, his daughter, is Chairwoman and Executive Vice President. Mr. Calvo was the governor of Guam at one time.
A: MIKE: As an aside, Calvo Enterprises is made up of a diverse group of companies. The Market Wholesale and Distributors brings in container bananas green, ripens them here and supplies to different entities on the island. It is a family business. I’m married to Kathy’s sister, Marie, although she doesn’t work at the company.
Q: Did Marie inspire your entrance into the supermarket world?
MIKE: I’ve been in retail a long time, I like to think I’m relatively young, but I’ve worked in the supermarket business since the summer of 8th grade. My family owned one of the biggest supermarkets in Guam before and after World War II. Most of our family members worked there, I started on weekends. Retail is pretty much the only industry I’ve been in, except a stint when I went to school in the States.
When I was a teen in high school, I moved to the States with my family, and stayed for college at San Jose State in California. I headed back to Guam in1989 and started working for Pay-Less, gaining experience at the store level in the meat department and produce department, learning the operations and making my way from assistant manager to where I am now.
Q: And that’s when you fell in love with your wife?
A: MIKE: We were destined to be together even back in junior high and high school. We were dating in 9th grade, and she still likes me!
Q: Tom, how did you find your way to Guam. Sounds like a fantasy to work on a tropical island.
A: TOM: I’m originally from another island — Long Island, New York! Prior to moving to Guam, I worked at HEB for seven years out of Texas. They’re an awesome company. I was cruising the job opportunities on monsterjobs.com out of curiosity one day and saw a retail position for a produce manager in Guam, and couldn’t help but be intrigued.
Pay-Less had great stateside turnout for the position, they narrowed it down to two candidates and flew us out to the island. I took a two-year contract. They were struggling a bit with their produce department and wanted change. I was able to offer my experience, since I had been in the business 25 years. I’m a very hands-on manager but like to give my guys the credit. They are so committed to their jobs and do outstanding work. Mike is such a competent and inspiring general manager and he’s bringing us into the future.
Now I’m at Pay-Less two years and a month, and I’m staying! I’m at a wonderful company on this beautiful island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Guam is 36 miles long, and 8 miles wide, with the most diverse population. There is an amazing mix of cultures, Asian, Micronesian, also a prevalent Spanish influence, originating from the explorer Ferdinand Magellan; my wife is Mexican and the cultures are close in many ways. Things are more laid back here, but it’s a good culture shock. Since the moment my wife and I arrived on the Island, people have treated us like family.
Q: As the market evolves, I imagine the company’s well-established family roots and community ties will serve Pay-Less well.
A: TOM and MIKE: We couldn’t agree more.
Well what do you know? The Pundit is also a Long Island boy; who would have guessed we would travel half way around the world and find out we are chatting with a produce category manager from right where we started?
One wonders if HEB is aware it is providing a management training program to help out our countrymen in Guam! In any case, a good cause.
It is interesting that even so far away, the issues are so often the same: locally grown, food safety, private label, health marketing, and even in Guam, maybe especially in Guam, a boy and girl still fall in love and the guy winds up in the family business building it for the next generation. It is a beautiful thing.
Many thanks to Mike and Tom and to Pay-Less Supermarkets for giving the whole industry a little window into life at a supermarket chain in a little patch of paradise.
Back in May of last year, when we interviewed David Murdock, Chairman and CEO of Dole Food Company, he explained goals and vision for the Dole Nutrition Institute this way:
The Nutrition Institute is the love of my life. I’ve invested $150 million of my own money into what will become one of the most advanced research and scientific labs of its kind ever conceived.
I wanted a facility totally dedicated to the benefit of improving health, to discovering what we need to know to live longer lives. I figure I’ll be living until I’m 125 years old, on the way to 150. I’d like to stop people from smoking and eating big juicy steaks saturated in fat. It’s hard motivating people to change. Part of the Institute’s function will be to educate people through publications on what to eat and drink and the reasoning behind it, with recipes and incentives.
I’ve devoted a great amount of time to create a huge major park with elegant landscaping and beautifully designed buildings in Regency style, and I’m putting 100 bicycles around the campus in the spirit of health for people to enjoy.
Well it looks like that investment is paying off, at least terms of acclaim:
DOLE NUTRITION NEWS WINS WEB MARKETING ASSOCIATION’S OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Dole Food Company, Inc. announced today that the Web Marketing Association (WMA) awarded the Dole Nutrition News (DNN) their International Advertising Competition Award for Outstanding Achievement in Internet Advertising — Best Food Industry On-line Newsletter Award.
For two decades, the WMA has been setting standards for Internet communications and web development. Judges are drawn from the top executive tiers of Internet marketing, on-line advertising, public relations and website design professions. The WMA believes competition and recognition help drive excellence and spur continued creativity in the on-line arena.
“The Dole Nutrition News is really more than an on-line newsletter,” said Ben Sussman, Manager of Marketing and Business Development of the Dole Nutrition Institute. “It’s an in-depth nutrition resource, with a user-friendly database containing nearly 600 articles covering health, diet and fitness. Our 1.3 million subscribers know that our newsletter and website provide one-stop-shopping for the very latest in scientific discoveries on nutrition, weight loss advice, cooking videos, healthy recipes, and much more.”
In addition, subscribers can pose their nutrition questions directly to a registered dietician via the Dole Nutrition Institute’s partnership with the American Institute for Cancer Research. Parents, teachers and kids will find fun games and learning resources targeted to younger tastes at the award winning children’s website, www.dolesuperkids.com. To learn more about the Dole Nutrition Institute and its resources go to dolenutrition.com.
The slogan over at the Dole Nutrition Institute is “Feeding the World with Knowledge” and we pay so much attention to industry initiatives, such as the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters! campaign of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, that it is important to remember that private companies are an important component of the trade’s outreach efforts to consumers.
Congratulations to Dole and many thanks to the Dole Nutrition Institute team for helping to spread the message about the healthful nature of fruits and vegetables.
Our initial piece on the quality of fruit and, more specifically, the consumer-eating experience has led to extensive industry discussion.
We kicked it off with Lousy Fruit Undermines Consumption, which detailed some disappointing eating experiences that the Jr. Pundit, Primo, had experienced. This was followed by Pundit’s Mailbag — More On Lousy Fruit: Where’s The Management? — in which a correspondent from the UK explained his association with a project to improve local presentation of product.
We also ran Pundit’s Mailbag — Expectations Too High On Ripe-And-Ready Fruit? — which raised the question of whether industry efforts shouldn’t be dedicated to bringing consumer expectations better in line with what the industry can deliver. Finally, we ran Ripening Workshop Set for May 20, which featured a letter from Jim Gorney, now Executive Director Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center at UC Davis and formerly Senior Vice President Food Safety and Technology at United Fresh, which highlighted a workshop that could help the industry deliver better tasting fruit to consumers.
That workshop is now sold out — though there is a waitlist you can get on. One of the speakers in that workshop, though, is presenting a workshop on “The Importance of A Retail Ripening Program.” His name is Dennis Kihlstadius and he sent us a letter that is right on topic:
Thank you for being the "bolt of lightning" and "lightning rod" for our "entrenched" produce industry.
I have just returned from Hong Kong, and I can tell you in lands other than ours, if it does not taste good it will not sell.
You have hit on something I have been preaching in the trenches for years.
When I started to work as a consultant to the California Avocado Commission as part of "The Nolan Network" — Theresa Nolan’s brain trust group of merchandisers — I would run into the constant mantra from produce buyers and store workers, "how long is the shelf life?"
I would answer, "don’t you want to sell it? How can you sell this rock-hard avocado? Your repeat sale will be in 10-14 days."
Then the "deer-in-the-headlight" look would follow from them. Our industry has come a long way promoting flavor and ripeness; however, we are still in the "crawl stage" on what we can do.
Dr. Kader at U.C.Davis has often been heard saying that just because you can store a produce item 10 months doesn’t mean you will have flavor for 10 months, maybe 7 months of that storage time will have flavor.
We sell and buy with our eyes (the first time anyway), and we repeat the purchase with a good experience from the first purchase.
Produce consumers have a moving target — if the Clementines are not good, maybe the tangerines will be good? The consumers can always purchase another item for their eating pleasure.
Commodity groups have come and gone during the last 15 years or so, and for the most part when they shut down, they have lost the ability to have that relationship of communicating the story of a given industry.
Most of all, they have lost the feedback to their industry on how things are going out in the marketplace for their commodity.
As an industry, we still put the sale before the customer. That would include grower/shipper to wholesaler/jobber/retailer/food service provider; wholesale/jobber to retail/food service or retailer/food service to customer/dining consumer.
Whatever layer you take, it is all about the sale, the price, the quantity or the "eye appeal" quality, but not the "eating quality".
We have tools that tell us measurements of quality — i.e., refractometers, penetrometers, infra-red, and other computerized gizmos — but in the end, we still need to make sure that the consumer will have a good eating experience…
…Which it seems the Jr. Pundit Primo, aka William, and the rest of your family did not have. I do not have the space here to get into the basics of fruit classifications (climacteric, if picked mature continue to ripen when conditions are favorable, and non-climacteric, once picked, it does not really change and should be consumed soon.)
I am amazed at how many people who consider themselves experts and leaders of our industry who don’t even understand the basics of their produce items or others.
Keep up the battle. Thank you for telling it like it is!
— Dennis Kihlstadius
Produce Technical Services
We thank Dennis for his kind words, and we would like to be hopeful, but this is hardly a new issue.
As a greenhorn, Kevin Moffit, now President and CEO of Pear Bureau Northwest, was an entry-level banana ripener for Dole, so he seized on this issue early and, in fact, retained Dennis Kihlstadius, who was already working with both the tomato and the avocado industry to help the pear industry.
When was this innovation? Well Kevin wrote an article all about it, entitled Conditioned Fruit: Is it What Consumers Are Looking For? The article was published back in 2002!
In his letter, Dennis mentions Professor Adel Kader as a pioneer in this field. Indeed he is! Unfortunately, he has been pioneering for so long that you can attend his retirement dinner on June 21, 2008!
Although it surprises us that retailers would want to put on their shelves items that don’t taste good, some retailers do have an opinion that it is their job to provide consumers a choice, and if consumers don’t like it, they won’t buy it. Unfortunately, this logic breaks down with a commodity, as there is no way for a consumer to know if they will like the item without buying it first. So the effect of selling poor-tasting fruit affects future purchases, not the current purchase.
Some items can benefit from the imposition of standards at shipping point. The Pundit used to export quite a bit of Florida grapefruit to Europe, especially to France, and the state imposed a brix test at the start of the season to prevent immature fruit from shipping.
For fruit that can be shipped hard but conditioned at some point in the process, maybe we have to steal a page from the new-food safety programs. Instead of relying on “inspection” to verify if something is right or wrong, you verify the procedure that the product is undergoing. In other words, the key factor in evaluating safety is if the product was produced in accordance with the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement or as per GlobalGAP or British Retail Consortium requirements.
What if a production area, instead of looking for an approved Brix at shipping point, required that all shipments of a certain nature be enrolled in a verified conditioning or ripening program?
After all, the concern is not eating quality at shipping point. It is eating quality at point of purchase or in the home.
We ran a little piece on Andy Rooney’s quirky 60 Minutes take on fresh produce. Andy is an acquired taste, and you either appreciate his randomness or find him a waste of time. We did think, though, especially as the country may be going into a period in which people are watching budgets more carefully, that he offered a useful commentary:
From the time you’re very young, someone is always telling us to eat more fruit. Well, I think we would eat more fruit if we knew for sure that it was going to be any good when we bought it. So expensive.
There may be a temptation to focus on selling the cheapest product, which might mean avoiding the expense of conditioning or pre-ripening the fruit. Yet surely long-term, consumption — and thus sales — will increase when consumers find produce a consistently good value for their money. They can’t come to that conclusion if they don’t like the taste.
Many thanks to Dennis Kihlstadius for helping us advance the industry discussion on this important issue.