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Perishable Pundit
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Got Produce? Schnuck’s
Mike O’Brien Tries To Add “Balance”

We owe a great debt to the following retailer and industry leader for writing this letter, as it is gives us a perfect opportunity to reflect on the current state of the industry as related to the generic promotion program.

As a fan of the Perishable Pundit and a proponent of the proposed National Fruit and Vegetable Research and Promotion Board, I was hoping that your column could be used as a “Fair and Balanced” forum for both sides of this issue.This however has not happened. In light of your recent column questioning PBH’s ability to move the needle, I feel I need to weigh in.

1) My assumption is that your reasoning behind questioning PBH’s effectiveness is that you question their qualifications for managing a promotion board. You know that promotion boards such as this are directed by board members and the committees they create… those members are selected by the companies writing the checks. They will be the ones determining budgets, approving marketing strategies, media and creative. They will decide the direction for promotion. They will plan and evaluate research activities. Not PBH. We don’t know that PBH will even have a role.

Your argument that PBH has failed to make a difference (which I don’t believe) actually makes the case for a well-funded national effort. If we expect people to be accountable for results, they have to have the tools necessary to perform. I’d say it is a fair statement that the produce industry has not supported a strong consumer marketing effort through PBH or any other organization.

I don’t know for a fact whether PBH has impacted produce consumption because I don’t know what the results would have been had they not been around. But I do know that they have provided a uniform platform in Fruits & Veggies — More Matters (and 5 A Day before that) for the industry to rally around. I know they have actively supported it with the best marketing tools and PR activities their budget would allow.

Your column indicated that current per capita consumption stands at 2.7 cups a day. The Food Pyramid tells me that the average adult needs to eat about 5 cups a day. That leads me to believe that there’s an opportunity for an additional 2.3 cups a day to be sold — nearly double what we’re producing and selling today. And that’s an opportunity that every one of us in this business would be foolish to overlook.

If it takes a national board to help us go after that, the cost will pale in comparison to the potential gain.

— Mike O’Brien
Vice President of Produce & Floral
Schnuck Markets
St Louis, Missouri

We should start out by saying that Mike O’Brien is an honest and good man who has long toiled to advance the industry. He has devoted countless hours to activities such as the PMA Board of Directors and the Chairmanship of the Produce for Better Health foundation. He deserves the trade’s gratitude as do his bosses at Schnuck Markets, who have enabled his involvement in the broader trade. His family, especially his wife Theresa, has made many sacrifices to make Mike available for industry work. We are all in Mike’s debt.

Further, we would say that Mike’s particular position and experience as head of produce for a respected, though relatively small, regional chain would have been ideal for helping PBH organize this effort. As a retailer, Mike has to deal with a diverse group of suppliers, yet as a smaller guy, he can’t simply issue diktats. He has to actually find win-win situations and engage in honest dialog and discussion. He has to be “fair and balanced.”

And we consider this our obligation here at the Pundit as well. We work hard to provide a forum for all sides of any industry debate. Thus it pains us that Mike would have found the Pundit coverage of this issue to not be “fair and balanced.” Yet, the very allegation points to a weakness in the case for a generic promotion program for the produce industry — virtually nobody, especially nobody who has to pay the assessment, seems to be a passionate advocate for it. In fact, the typical produce executive seems completely disinterested.

We are thrilled to publish Mike’s thoughtful letter stating his position as a proponent of the National Fruit and Vegetable Research and Promotion Board. We would publish any such letter we might receive. In fact, our efforts to be fair and balanced here at the Pundit on all issues are so great that virtually the only way one can be assured of getting a letter published in the Pundit is by writing to us with a substantive letter disagreeing with something we’ve published or a position we’ve taken.

Yet, on this supposedly important issue, virtually nobody in the whole industry has cared enough to advocate for it. In other words, Mike can rest assured… if what we have presented is not balanced, it is not because we are suppressing one side. It is because nobody cares enough about that side to speak up. Or, to put it another way, the industry may not be balanced in its opinions on this matter.

In fact, it goes beyond that. The whole initiative seems “top down” rather than rising from the grass roots of the industry. We get so much feedback here at the Pundit on every subject, and it is striking how many more people are reacting to, say, the Nolan victory over Ocean Spray than to this commodity promotion plan.

Of course this may change. Whatever the future may bring, all Pundit readers can be assured that our pages are open to all points of view and that we take pride in publishing many ideas that have yet to persuade us.

Mike also makes several specific points in his letter and we think it appropriate to address those points:

1) My assumption is that your reasoning behind questioning PBH’s effectiveness is that you question their qualifications for managing a promotion board. You know that promotion boards such as this are directed by board members and the committees they create… those members are selected by the companies writing the checks. They will be the ones determining budgets, approving marketing strategies, media and creative. They will decide the direction for promotion. They will plan and evaluate research activities. Not PBH. We don’t know that PBH will even have a role.

We are in complete agreement with Mike on this point. In fact, one of the more annoying elements of the presentation is that large segments of it are devoted to matters not within the purview of the vote. For example, there is a whole section on “social marketing,” which may or may not be a good idea but shouldn’t be in there because there is no assurance that this board, if ever constituted, will engage in “social marketing.” As Mike points out, it is some board yet to be constituted that will make this decision.

There is also a reference to the fact that the committee felt strongly that the board should not engage in any activities relevant to food safety. Yet, once again, this is interesting, but the relevance is unclear since the ultimate board is in no way bound by the thoughts of this committee. All these references create opportunities for misunderstandings when, one day, some future board decides not to use social marketing or decides to emphasize food safety in its communications. It would have been clearer for the industry if the proposal restricted itself to the facts of the matter and things that could actually be voted for or against.

Our reasoning in bringing up the PBH’s effectiveness or lack thereof was not in any way to disparage the job that has been done in running PBH. Long before this generic marketing program was under consideration, we talked about the PBH’s effectiveness in our piece titled, More Matters And The Need For Supporting Research:

In some ways Elizabeth Pivonka has the most thankless job in produce. The President and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, which ran the 5-a-Day program and now runs the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters effort, has the amorphous task of increasing produce consumption in the service of good health with a budget any marketer at Coke or Pepsi would laugh at…

In ways not widely known, Elizabeth is an industry hero. We here at the Pundit have gotten notes from people upset with Elizabeth because PBH isn’t doing some kind of promotion that the writers think would be helpful. In almost every case, Elizabeth has held back because the science isn’t secure enough on that point. On issues ranging from the usefulness of produce consumption in extending lifespan to the efficacy of a vegetarian diet in curing cancer, she has stood solid, an industry firewall against claims unsupported by good research.

In so doing, she has sustained the alliance with governmental authorities, maintained the credibility of PBH and served well consumers who weren’t misled or given false hope…

Elizabeth Pivonka is a tireless warrior on behalf of produce and her program. The board members and executive committee are equally dedicated to boosting consumption and improving public health, and rest of the staff is enthusiastic and motivated.

We also sung Elizabeth’s praises in our piece, Lousy Fruit Undermines Consumption:

We think we should nominate Elizabeth Pivonka, President of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, as the holder of the most thankless job in the industry. Here she is charged with boosting consumption through marketing and education, and we so often don’t do the job with product and at retail that is required to build consumption.

We have nothing but good things to say about Elizabeth’s management of PBH. If this board goes through, we hope she gets to head it and gets a good raise for running the much larger enterprise.

The one area where we have disagreed with Elizabeth is in goal-setting. It has been obvious to many, including us, that PBH just does not have a budget adequate to increase consumption in the United States. It also has been obvious to us that the Foundation has no evaluative metric. As we put it back in 2007:

…obtaining every goal has a cost. So if we want to bring in a big ad agency and tell them our goal is to move the needle on consumption nationally, we could prepare a budget sufficient to achieve that goal. If we do not have enough money to achieve that goal, spending what we do have just because we happen to have that much may just be a waste.

There are lots of options. We could geographically shrink the program to a pilot status with the goal of demonstrating effectiveness that would allow us to raise the needed budget. Alternatively we could change the nature of the program. For example, we could decide to build a database for each industry product so we could apply to get approved health claims for each produce item. The idea is that developing this “library” of approved health claims is within our budget to accomplish; it increases the intrinsic appeal of the product and can easily be promoted via public relations efforts.

Elizabeth Pivonka is a tireless warrior on behalf of produce and her program. The board members and executive committee are equally dedicated to boosting consumption and improving public health, and rest of the staff is enthusiastic and motivated.

Yet every program needs a metric of evaluation. Let us forget the past and just look at the future. It is 2007… how will we know in 2012, five years from now, whether we have been a success or not?

And what would we do if we failed?

The issue of industry-wide generic promotion is one on which many in the industry are ambivalent. But all are united on an attempt to avoid waste. Our concern with the advocates for this program is not that they are unable to manage a program. It is that they are desirous of “doing something” rather than bluntly saying how much it would cost to achieve a particular goal and then asking the industry if it was willing to pay the price.

For many, support for the program became highly questionable when Mark Munger, Vice President Marketing for Andrew & Williamson and the immediate past chairman of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, was quoted as saying that the proposed assessment was set at a level thought “to not be overly burdensome.” Although we praise Mark for his frankness and for his genuine concern with the economic viability of first handlers, the fact is that this is one calculation that requires steely truth if the industry is to make a wise decision.

Rather than picking one number that they think is politically palatable, we wish they would present research that substantiates a series of choices. If the industry spends X, then Y happens. If the industry spends XX then YYY happens. Then let the industry decide what level it wants to fund or if it wants to fund a level at all.

Our concern is that PBH executives have not been willing to do that in the past and we are not convinced that they are ready to start doing that now.

2) They should be applauded for raising the questions that someone needed to raise. If they didn’t do it, who would?

We have no objection to PBH raising the issue of a generic promotion board. We will note, however, that the Pundit, who is certainly not the oldest guy in the industry, attended a meeting on the subject around 1984 at the old United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association headquarters where the issue was how its FRESH APPROACH voluntary generic promotion board could be transitioned into a much larger mandatory program. California gave birth to 5–a-Day and PMA fanned the ember and made it national. So we suspect any number of people or organizations could have raised the issue.

Our issue with PBH’s involvement are three-fold:

First, for good order’s sake, PBH should have set up a dedicated fund for this purpose and solicited donations. Ethics and issues of donor intent aside, being in favor of mandatory assessments is a constitutional controversy, and there is simply no reason to scare off from association with PBH industry members who support the PBH message but happen to think mandatory assessments are unconstitutional. Besides, as a practical matter, the ability to raise a couple of hundred thousand dollars to fund a lobbying effort is a useful go/no-go test.

Second, PBH needed to decide if it preferred to moderate an industry discussion or if it wanted to advocate a plan. This is just very prudential advice. Advocates lose credibility. If an independent fund made up of respected producers hired recognized academic experts, such as Ed McLaughlin at Cornell and Roberta Cook at UC Davis, and let them organize an industry dialog on this matter and allowed them to conduct at least literature reviews to provide answers to questions, it would have more credibility. The program would be much more likely to pass if these academics issued an opinion that Consumption in 2020 will be X without a program and XX with a program funded at such and such a level and the return to producers will be X% with a program but only halfX% without a program. Now, with PBH trying to be both District Attorney and Judge, nobody can tell if the assessment rate is set because that is politically expedient or because that is really the optimal expenditure to increase grower returns.

Third, as we mentioned above we like Elizabeth but, speaking of what will make a program succeed, she is not the one who should be out front. Neither are Mark Munger, nor Paul Klutes, fine folks all but not the ones to make it happen. When the industry has a food safety problem, we don’t send out a Gucci loafer-wearing lobbyist from K Street… we find a farmer, preferably a female farmer who is a mother. Equally, if you want to sell a program like this, you don’t send out an association executive or even corporate executives — you send out folks who are going to pay the assessment out of their own pocket. If you can’t get lots of these people to stand-up for the program that is another useful go/no-go point.

3) Your argument that PBH has failed to make a difference (which I don’t believe) actually makes the case for a well-funded national effort. If we expect people to be accountable for results, they have to have the tools necessary to perform. I’d say it is a fair statement that the produce industry has not supported a strong consumer marketing effort through PBH or any other organization.

To be clear, we never said PBH has failed to make a difference — we said there is no reason to think it has boosted consumption. There are other things important in the world than increased produce consumption.

We agree with Mike that “…the produce industry has not supported a strong consumer marketing effort through PBH or any other organization.” As we discussed in our piece, Got Produce? Is $30 Million Sufficient?, we are not certain that it is prepared to do so now. A big cloud would surely be lifted over this proposal with acceptable independent evidence that a $30-million budget will allow for enough media purchases to boost national consumption.

4) I don’t know for a fact whether PBH has impacted produce consumption because I don’t know what the results would have been had they not been around. But I do know that they have provided a uniform platform in Fruits & Veggies — More Matters (and 5 A Day before that) for the industry to rally around. I know they have actively supported it with the best marketing tools and PR activities their budget would allow.

We agree. There was no control group, no test markets, so there is no way to know definitively. For voluntary donations, that may be an adequate standard. People are free to donate without any evidence of efficacy. It seems likely, however, that proof of any increased consumption is probably too sparse to win an industry vote to compel payments against people’s will.

That it has provided a point for the industry to “rally around” is without a doubt. There is certainly a question as to whether the industry wants to mandate an expense to pay for such a rallying point. There also is the question of clarity. Will this new program provide a rallying point or will it increase consumption?

5) Your column indicated that current per capita consumption stands at 2.7 cups a day. The Food Pyramid tells me that the average adult needs to eat about 5 cups a day. That leads me to believe that there’s an opportunity for an additional 2.3 cups a day to be sold — nearly double what we’re producing and selling today. And that’s an opportunity that every one of us in this business would be foolish to overlook.

If it takes a national board to help us go after that, the cost will pale in comparison to the potential gain.

Most produce executives at retail level would probably be in favor of the proposed generic promotion program — although retail CEOs don’t typically care as they can sell meat or dairy as well as produce. Most produce executives at retail also have decided to keep their advocacy quiet because they suspect that their endorsement of growers and shippers paying additional assessments will do the cause more harm than good.

They are probably right. After all, we know of no retailer who has announced that should the plan be adopted, all vendors should add the assessment, over and above the negotiated price, to their invoice.

The problem is that Mike is 100% correct, but as the Pundit Poppa is fond of quoting, “’tis many a slip ‘tween the cup and the lip.”

First, we have to know that we are proposing an expenditure that is sufficient to raise consumption to the levels Mike refers to. We don’t know this yet.

Second, we have to actually spend the money effectively. This is theoretical at this point.

Third, we have to make sure the supply response does not overwhelm demand, as we discussed in our piece, Got Produce? The Rent-Dissipation Hypothesis And The Issue of Cui Bono. We have no real idea how to do this.

Fourth, even if en toto it is good for the industry, we have to look at how individual segments such as row crops and family farms will fare under the proposal.

Fifth, we have to look at alternative uses for the funds. Maybe the same investment in, say, lobbying, would produce higher returns.

We thank Mike O’Brien and Schnuck Markets for speaking out. Many retailers are afraid to do so, and speaking out is a real contribution to industry dialog.

We pledge to Mike to do our very best to maintain an open venue for industry discussion and to think hard about these important issues. Just today, in addition to this rather extensive piece, we have a letter from Eric Schwartz, which you can read here, and an interview with Sharon Sass, the Nutrition Education Advisor in Arizona, which you can read here.

Eric says generic promotion is not likely to do the job for mature produce categories, and Sharon sings the praises of Fruits & Veggies — More Matters! There is also much information in the pieces we have already published, which you can review here.

It is said that there is no force as powerful as an idea whose time has come. Whether it is time for this idea, we shall know soon.

With Fresh & Easy Stores Empty, Suppliers Left In The Lurch

Just the other day, we ran a piece titled, Pundit’s Mailbag — Hope For Tesco Vendor Community ‘Is Gone’, based on a letter sent to us from Steve Spears. Now he sends a short, but graphic, follow-up:

Here is a picture, it is self explanatory.

It is a Fresh & Easy store that sits empty, built directly behind a Rite-Aid Store here in Fresno.

— Steve Spears
P-R Farms, Inc./Bella Frutta
Clovis, California

A hat tip to Steve for sending along the photo.

It is, of course, sad, to see such resources wasted. And for other retailers in centers with these “ghost stores,” it must be most frustrating.

The only chuckle we get from it is that every once in a while a reporter from a consumer publication calls after having spoken to Tesco and getting the “party line”. The reporters always ask the “Pundit” the same question: “Do you agree with Tesco that it is a clever strategy to rent stores, build them out and then let them sit empty?”

We always try to avoid laughing as we patiently explain that it is not a “strategy” at all. Obviously Tesco would prefer to open the stores and make money on each one. Not knowing how to do that, they sit closed while they try to figure out a way.

Tesco is run by big boys, and if they have so much “American Envy” that they want to lose a billion or two to get a little footprint in the US market, more power to them.

We worry about the supplier base. With the operation having opened only about 20% of the stores that suppliers had been advised they should have been ready to serve at this time, the supplier overcapacity could bankrupt companies.

The produce end is a tricky wicket. On the one hand, produce has outperformed the rest of the store — so whereas plenty of vendors in non-produce areas are selling Fresh & Easy only 5% or 10% of what they had been told to prepare to sell Fresh & Easy at this time, most produce is tracking the number of stores. With only 20% of the stores expected to be open actually operating at this time, their volume in produce is also about 20% of what was expected for this time.

On the other hand, Tesco and Wild Rocket Foods moved from a Category Captain model to a Market Buy situation, basically leaving many of these vendors in the lurch. These vendors spent big money to meet the standards that were articulated and now are mostly out of time to get the money back. It has caused big losses in the industry.

The “Pundit” is out in California to give a talk at a luncheon for the Fresh Produce and Floral Council. Interestingly enough, one of the sponsors of the lunch is Wild Rocket Foods. With Tesco not using the capacity it expected, Wild Rocket is looking to sell to other companies.

We wish them success. Their investment — and losses — to date have been substantial. We would suggest they focus on foodservice simply because few in the retail game in Southern California will want to support a company that they will see as part of the Tesco “infrastructure” in America. These retailers will prefer to see Tesco burdened with bailing out its British imports.

It is wonderful, though, to see Wild Rocket supporting the Fresh Produce & Floral Council. We hope they will talk to Tesco about supporting US trade associations such as FPFC, PMA and United Fresh, as most American retailers do. Tesco may not know it, but being open to the kind of interchange and learning these associations provide would be a big help to it in its efforts to revamp its concept in America.

Wash Water Sanitation
Not Just An Issue For Sprouts

Our continuing coverage of the outbreaks related to sprouts seems to bring no end of ideas for improving the situation. Here is one from a vendor who mentions that one need not necessarily buy his product:

Thanks for the good words that come in your column; I appreciate the viewpoint and frank opinion you bring to these discussions.

Instead of hypochlorite, why don’t sprout growers use chlorine dioxide? It has no organoleptic impact, is organic approved and is many times more effective than hypo. We (Pureline Treatment Systems) manufacture a ClO2 generator that produces 99.5% pure ClO2 at pH 7; it’s kind of pricey, but there is also a product out there that just received EPA approval last week that is 99% pure with a moderate pH that simply requires the mixing of two powders and generates ClO2 in 1 hour with no capital equipment at all.

I keep waiting for the FDA to get serious about having processors test produce wash water for micros; the use of hypochlorite for wash water sanitation will cease after the first batch of results.

Many processors are simply running their product through a “stew” of bacteria, thinking that chlorine is doing the job. One look at the scum line at the top of the wash tank says otherwise.

Wash water should be relatively clear, with decent turbidity; if it is more than cloudy, it’s dirty. Customers deserve better.

That’s my two bits; thanks again,

— Steve Eberhard
Pureline Treatment Systems
Irvine, California

The issue of wash water goes well beyond sprouts. We often hear government officials complaining that the produce industry uses chlorine as if it has been approved to remove pathogens from produce when it has actually only been approved to help keep the water clean.

The traditional concern with chlorine dioxide in the sprouting community was the expense, but Steve is pointing to new options that may alleviate that concern. If so, this may become a new option for many.

Many thanks to Steve Eberhard and Pureline Treatment Systems for helping to keep the industry up to date in this matter.

Another Juror Weighs In On
Nolan Victory Over Ocean Spray

As part of our coverage of the lawsuit between the Nolans, their company, The Nolan Network, and Ocean Spray, we’ve run many pieces. Most recently, these three have dealt with the results of the trial and feedback after the trial:

SPECIAL ALERT: Nolans Victorious In Lawsuit vs. Ocean Spray: This One’s For You, Jim

Nolan Triumph Example Of ‘Standing Up For What’s Right In Face Of Overwhelming Might’

Sharing The Joy Of The Nolan Victory… Plus A Note From One Of The Jurors!

In the final of those pieces, we had received a little note from one of the jurors, whose name we withheld:

I was a juror on the Nolan Network v Ocean Spray trial and I was crying as I read your story. I am so happy I was part of this victory for Mrs. Nolan and her late husband Jim. God Bless.

Now, another juror also sent a note:

I also was a juror on the Nolan vs Ocean Spray trial. I was happy to read your coverage after the trial was over. I’m proud to have served as a juror and even more delighted by the outcome. Hats off to Mrs. Nolan for not giving up and for standing up to the big guys. Please pass along my best wishes to her.

We’ve withheld the names of these jurors, but we think it is interesting that in the world we live in now, we expect jurors to be “Googling” the cases they were on and, sometimes, participating in the public discussion of the case and the issues it represents.

It is also interesting that, Robinson-Patman aside, the jurors seem to have immediately seen this case as a big company bullying its small employees and contractors.

To us this is where the Ocean Spray case made no sense. We would have thought that Ocean Spray, whatever prices it wanted to charge, whatever conduct it wanted to engage in, would have done all in its power to make the Nolans feel good. If that meant talking them up to others in the industry to get them jobs, paying them generous severance and transition payments, even finding them work for Ocean Spray doing merchandising or other non-sales activities, we would have thought that prudent.

It has always seemed to us that Ocean Spray’s decision to wage this battle was an emotional decision more than a rational business assessment. We suspect there is a lesson in this matter for many companies.

A Historic Sustainability Decision Allows Industry To Snatch Victory From The Jaws Of Defeat

Our extensive efforts and those of many others, all linked to sustainability, have done some good. We received a letter from the most prominent attorney monitoring these issues that, considering where we started, reports a minor miracle:

As you may have heard, the Leonardo-SCS draft standard has been voted on — at the Second Meeting of the Standards Committee on May 27-28 — to be “science-based” and “performance-oriented” and allow for the use of “any” technology that increases the sustainability of agriculture.

They will also be taking a second look at the composition of the Committee for balance issues.

The report of the meeting can be found here.

Since we excluded livestock and processors from the scope of this “crop production” standard despite opposition from SCS, and the composition of the Standards Committee is now under review at the leadership committee, I would suggest that there was not, as stated in the report, any consensus on a “clear intention of expanding the focus to ultimately incorporate post-farm gate considerations”. No such “intent” was evident from our corner of the Committee room, where token seed, meat, and farmer members were seated.

But I also find the science-based, performance-oriented outcome lining up with Keystone and The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops; it is harmony and/or integration with all these parallel processes which is what leaders at United Fresh and Bayer Crop Science discussed in your last post on this topic, United Fresh/Bayer Crop Science Launch Global Sustainability Center.

This technology-neutral, science-based, performance-oriented basis for going forward, SCS-001 should incorporate and respect good work going on elsewhere.

I sometimes think that I must be dreaming — and a high five via email for any person who helped make this historic decision happen, including everyone’s favorite food-blogger, the Perishable Pundit.

— Thomas Parker Redick
Global Environmental Ethics Counsel
Clayton, Missouri

Since the initial proposal basically ruled that non-organic farming cannot be sustainable — thus instantly disqualifying from the standard 95% plus of the industry — this is substantial progress.

It also speaks to a broader sustainability including how we sustain civil discourse. SCS didn’t really want a dialog; it wanted to impose its vision on a hostile industry. The defeat of the SCS vision of sustainability is a reminder to all who wish to create change: Men are not meat; the more you pound them, the tougher they get.

Many thanks to Thomas Parker Redick for his diligence and to all those who made a righteous cause their own.

Pundit’s Mailbag — More Targeted Approach Needed For Generic Promotion

As part of our continuing coverage of the proposal for a generic promotion board for the produce industry, we ran two pieces on one day. Our piece, Got Produce? Unvetted Generic Promotion Research Biased From The Start, dealt with the problematic way that the Produce for Better Health Foundation was conducting industry research. Another piece, titled Pundit’s Mailbag — Generic Promotion Plan Does Not Allow For Differentiation, dealt with a letter from an industry executive who felt that the industry product offering was more the problem than a lack of promotion.

The two pieces led Eric Schwartz to send us a note. Now working as part of an organization assigned by the court to run Salyer American, where he formerly served as President, Eric first started engaging with the Pundit during the Spinach Crisis of 2006.

He is the first person to have had letters and interviews published in the Pundit while working for three different organizations. You can see some of his pieces and interviews right here:

Pundit’s Mailbag — How About Subsidy Money For GTIN Conversion?

Pundit’s Mailbag — PMA’s Opportunity To Learn From Friends And Foes

Pundit’s Mailbag — More Questions About Leafy Greens Board

Pundit’s Mailbag — Dole’s Schwartz Comments On Silent Buyers

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Deadline Approaches

Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Dole Vegetables’ Eric Schwartz

Pundit’s Mailbag — Lesson From Avocadogate: You Get What You Tolerate

Dole Hit With Another Recall

Dole’s Schwartz Sheds More Light On Recent Recall

Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Industry’s ‘Situational’ Standard

Arizona Marketing Agreement One Step Closer To National Leafy Green Standard

Why The Secrecy On Inspection Agency Lab Results?

Now he weighs in on what is surely a great challenge of generic promotion:

If American consumers really ate the five daily servings of fruits and vegetables (I believe the recommendation is now up to seven) that the USDA recommends, we would not have an obesity epidemic in the USA and the vegetable industry would be in a perpetual supply shortage.

The problem with focus groups and surveys is that even if the questions are not leading, people are well intended but rarely do they do what they say when it comes to diet.

Generic promotions certainly can’t hurt, but once a commodity line has reached a maturity level in terms of market saturation and growth, generic promotions by themselves do not move the needle of consumption. A more targeted and individual approach is usually needed.

— Eric Schwartz
Principal — Operations Management Solutions
Steve Franson and Company
Fresno, California

We appreciate Eric’s letter. His note that consumers don’t always report accurately on their consumption is well taken. This is why the claims of groups to have had success because consumers “report” higher consumption in surveys must always be viewed cautiously and compared to other databases such as retail sales, food disappearance data, etc.

We are a little less skeptical than Eric about the possible effectiveness of generic promotion on mature categories. We do think it very difficult, but have not closed out the possibility of effectiveness. What has made this particular proposal so difficult to analyze is that the proponents have not bothered to list any criteria that would allow the industry to assess the reasonableness of the aims of the proposal nor, after the fact, to assess whether the program was successful.

As we mentioned here, we feared the industry would be played for a sucker. After the money was appropriated and paid, one of three things would happen: Either consumption would go up or it would stay the same or it would go down.

And the response of those promoting this proposal is highly predictable. In three years or five years, whenever the program comes up for renewal, if consumption has gone up, they will claim the credit — though, of course, it might have nothing to do with the program. If consumption stays the same or goes down, the program advocates will simply say it would have been much worse without the program.

This is why we have urged a step back. We need some research to establish what are reasonable consumption expectations in the absence of a program and reasonable expectations of efficacy in increasing consumption with the existence of the proposed program.

Eric also raises the point that if consumption of produce reached the recommended level, it would both have enormous public health benefits and would be good for the produce business. This is almost certainly true, but probably not meaningful.

The advocates have a PowerPoint presentation they present, and it includes a list of what different organizations spend. It is a slide easily misunderstood by a casual observer because it juxtaposes two totally unrelated data sets in one slide. Part of the data is a list of what organizations such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola spend on advertising, and injected into the slide is the total budget of commodity promotion groups.

The numbers listed for McDonald’s etc., are what are called “measured media;” this is basically things such as network television where data points are easily tracked. The numbers listed for the commodity groups — including the $30 million projected for the produce effort — are total organizational budgets.

The advocates provide no pro forma budget but our experience is that we would be surprised if a $30 million total budget translated into even $15 million in measured media.

The significance of all this is that when McDonald’s alone is spending each year — almost two billion… that is no typo, billion — on measured media, and the produce industry proposes to spend $15 million, we doubt that is putting Big Macs in any danger of extinction.

Or, put another way, no serious person can believe that the proposed level of spending is going to raise consumption to recommended levels. So we come back to our first piece on the subject of the proposed generic promotion board. In that piece we excerpted from an interview we conducted about 20 years ago in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, with Ray Cole, then Director of Marketing Services at Sunkist, who critiqued the idea of a California Orange Board with this point:

PB: How does Ray Cole feel about it?

COLE: I am opposed to the generic program on a totally different basis. I don’t see the industry taxing itself sufficiently to really do an effective job. I’m not even sure that Sunkist is doing the best possible job at the moment, because we’re not spending as much money as I think we should, but that’s a separate issue.

PB: Well, exactly how much money do you think Sunkist or the proposed commission should spend?

COLE: Let’s talk about what it takes to increase the consumption of California oranges, because I’m not sure we can promote navels without Valencias either. We did a lot of work in 1970-72 and repeated it in 1981 to see what the effect of more advertising on the American consumer would do in terms of consumption of California-Arizona oranges, particularly Sunkist oranges. We found a level of advertising that worked. We experimented with higher levels and lower levels and we did a test marketing program.

It was scrutinized beyond belief, because it was highly questionable here at Sunkist. The first effort was done when I was back at the agency, and we were trying to recommend this to Sunkist. I know from that experience that there is a level of advertising that it takes to change consumption habits, and I know that consumption habits, can be plused, at least I think they can. I’ve not yet heard any discussion in this talk of generic advertising that would come close to generating the dollars to spend at the rate necessary to increase consumption.

PB: You’re talking about a very big increase of how much?

COLE: I’m talking about spending probably $20 million a year. If you only spend $10 million and you don’t change per-capital consumption, what do you accomplish? You’ve taken $10 million out of the growers’ pockets for no end result. It’s kind of like trying to put a satellite into orbit and not putting enough fuel in the rocket. You blew a lot of money, for nothing.

PB: Some people would say something is better than nothing, when it comes to promoting citrus or any other commodity.

COLE: I think if you really want to do this you have to do it at a proper level, with a thought-out plan, and a comprehensive recommendation based on the size of the task, not what the grower can afford, necessarily. And let the grower decide if he wants to undertake that task. But don’t just assess him 7-cents or 10-cents a carton because that’s all he can afford. If it doesn’t give you enough money to do the job, don’t do it. That’s where my concern is about the generic program

Our assessment is that the industry has a nagging feeling that the assessment rate in the proposal was selected because it was “doable” rather than because there is much data that indicates it is sufficient to achieve a specified goal. Further, it is this notion that the proposal is “fudged” that leads to great opposition. It would have been far wiser to indicate what can be accomplished at various levels of expenditure and then allow the industry to decide if it was willing to pay the price to accomplish those goals.

Eric also raises another point: That the choice is not national generic promotion or nothing. The “targeted and individual” approach to marketing, whether by commodity-specific promotion organizations or through corporate branded efforts may be more effective, especially in an industry like produce where a mango has little to do with a potato.

At very least, this would seem to speak in favor of a brand credit and a credit for commodity-specific assessments. More broadly it raises the question of whether industry-wide generic promotion is the most effective way to spend industry funds.

Many thanks to Eric Schwartz for helping the industry to wrestle with this important issue.

Pundit’s Mailbag — PBH’s Effectiveness May Best Be Seen At State Levels

As part of our extensive coverage of the efforts by top executives at PBH to establish a Generic Promotion Board for the produce industry, we ran a piece titled, Got Produce? Has PBH Been Effective At Boosting Produce Consumption? The piece questioned if all the talent and money invested in PBH had actually helped achieve its professed aim of increasing consumption of produce.

Because the piece questioned an industry and public health “sacred cow,” it brought a number of responses, including this thoughtful letter from a public health official with the title of Nutrition Education Advisor for the state of Arizona:

I think you’re missing some important information about how PBH has contributed to changes in fruit and vegetable consumption over the years. They have been very strategic in using their limited dollars to reach audiences in creative ways. First with 5 a Day and now with Fruits and Veggies — More Matters, PBH has positioned information on fruits and vegetables to be used in a variety of settings that have a much more extensive reach than they could expect to accomplish with the funding they have available.

For a fair assessment, you need to look at the populations and settings where the PBH messages have had the most extensive reach in order to see a change in consumption.

Here in Arizona, PBH’s messages and materials have been used primarily with low income individuals reached through USDA programs such as WIC, Food Stamp Nutrition Education, and Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. We know that since the early 1990s, while the overall number of people reporting that they eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables has remained about the same, the numbers for low income individuals (where the PBH messages have been used) has steadily increased and now equals that of people with higher incomes.

When the new WIC food package is implemented in October, we think this trend will accelerate and intake of fruits and vegetables among low income individuals will surpass that of people with higher incomes. In Arizona, the new WIC food package will provide for the purchase of $750,000 of fresh fruits and vegetables each month. Fruits and Veggies — More Matters is an important part of the promotion and education we are doing about the fruits and vegetables that will soon be available to WIC clients.

The PBH website for moms that provides information on how to pick, store, and cook fruits and vegetables is something state health departments couldn’t provide on their own. I think you are underestimating the value and the impact of the tools that PBH provides for consumers.

I would love to talk more with you about the successes we’ve seen in using the PBH common messages here in Arizona, and I’m sure many other states have similar success stories.

Take a look at some of the creative ways the Arizona Nutrition Network has used the PBH messages and information by visiting www.eatwellbewell.org. Be sure to take time to view the videos!

— Sharon Sass, R.D.
Nutrition Education Advisor
Arizona Department of Health Services
Phoenix, Arizona

We greatly appreciate the letter from Sharon Sass. Both 5-a-Day and, now, Fruits & Veggies — More Matters are unusual programs because much of the messaging gets carried out through a myriad of state and federal efforts, often focused on the poor.

What Ms. Sass is basically arguing is that the correct evaluation metric is not general consumption in the US, but, rather, the consumption of certain subgroups that have been more substantially exposed to the messaging that the Produce for Better Health Foundation promulgates.

This is a brilliant notion and corresponds perfectly with what we have been suggesting for years. We felt that Fruits & Veggies — More Matters needed to be test marketed… that we would have seen more value in doing the program in one small city with proper evaluation mechanisms established. If by spending $10 a person per year (by comparison the proposed generic promotion program proposes to spend less than 10 cents per person per year), we could actually get people to consume a produce-rich diet resulting in fewer diseases of obesity, this data would allow us to go to The Department of Health and Human Services and Congress with a budget proposal that would dramatically improve public health while reducing federal expenditures on medical care. That is exciting.

Ms. Sass is suggesting, though, that instead of doing the evaluation on a city, we could do it on a specific demographic that has had more intensive exposure to the Fruit & Veggies — More Matters messaging. The proposal is not without its difficulties; there is no assurance, for example, that a program that is effective with a particular demographic combination, say, poor, Hispanic ethnicity, young, Catholic, females will be equally effective with, say, middle class, German ethnicity, middle-aged, Protestant, males.

Still, if there is evidence that Fruits & Veggies — More Matters is increasing consumption among various subgroups, this would indeed be very exciting and point the way to a possible massive expansion of the program.

We are still cautious. Ms. Sass wrote a great letter but we immediately saw two possible challenges:

First, she seems to include a lot of programs, such as giving vouchers to people to buy fruits and vegetables through the WIC program along with the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters messaging. This strikes us as analytically problematic. Although some may question whether the WIC vouchers are sufficient in size to raise produce consumption — as recipients may just use the small vouchers to replace other money they were already spending on produce — all agree that at some level, giving away free produce will encourage more consumption. Yet giving away the product doesn’t actually have much to do with the effectiveness of generic promotion.

Second, although we were glad to read it, this line from Ms. Sass’ letter gives us pause: “We know that since the early 1990s, while the overall number of people reporting that they eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables has remained about the same, the numbers for low income individuals (where the PBH messages have been used) has steadily increased and now equals that of people with higher incomes.”Survey data is notoriously unreliable when it comes to measuring produce consumption. The other day, we ran an interview with Rhonda Reed, Marketing Director at Dole Fresh Vegetables; you can read the interview here. In the interview, Ms. Reed stated the matter clearly in reference to a category she knows more than a little about:

“Consumers say they are eating more packaged salads by far — 55 percent of consumers think they are eating more bagged salads, 37 percent about the same, and 7 percent less often. That is coming from our September 2008 consumer attitudes and usage study, focusing on added-value products. It was conducted by a specialized independent research company.

Consumers only fantasize that they’re eating a lot more salads in line with the trends toward nutrition and health. However, if you look at IRI trends, excluding Wal-Mart and the Clubs, the bagged salad category was down 4 percent in 2006, flat in 2007, down 3 percent in 2008, and down 3 percent year-to-date.”

It is exceedingly possible that highly effective nutrition education and communication has taught the consumers enough that they now feel shame at not eating the right number of servings and so now lie about it. Whether that has anything to do with consumption is hypothetical..

Still Ms. Sass was gracious enough to say she would let us in on what Arizona is doing to utilize the Fruit & Veggies — More Matters program, and we certainly wanted to take her up on that.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:

Sharon Sass, R.D.
Nutrition Education Advisor
Arizona Department of Health Services
Office of Chronic Disease Prevention and Nutrition Services
Phoenix, Arizona

Q: Thank you for your feedback on efforts to increase produce consumption. Could you tell us more about the targeted work you do at the state level to help low-income Arizonians address health and nutrition issues and stave off the obesity epidemic? How are the programs funded and resourced? What are the goals, and how do you measure success?

A: One of the things I want to acknowledge upfront is that the fruit and vegetable programs we have in Arizona only existing because of Sue Foerster [MPH, RD, Chief, California Department of Public Health] and Elizabeth Pivonka [President and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH)]. Sue Foerster instigated and led the 5-a-Day movement. We watch what California does and we follow a year or two after.[Editor’s note: See Pundit’s Pulse of the Industry with Sue Foerster here.]

Q: Could you clarify the distinctions and interplay between government-run programs and those of the PBH?

A: Our efforts are really built on the foundation of the original 5-a-Day project. Back in 1991, we met with the California Department of Health Services, Arizona Department of Agriculture and Western Growers Association to start a 5-a-Day program in Arizona. We ended up not going ahead with the plan because we didn’t have the money for implementation.

Instead, we focused on childcare centers, developing educational activity books that emphasized the importance of eating fruits and vegetables for better health. We distributed 150,000 copies over the years, but the first one didn’t have the 5-a-Day logo on it. In 1993, we were one of the first states licensed by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) [as the 5-a-Day State Health Authority for Arizona].[Editor’s note: Sharon Sass was appointed Arizona 5-a-Day Coordinator).

Q: How did you capitalize on the 5-a-Day license? What programs did you institute, and where did you get the resources?

A: PBH is one of the constants in our efforts, providing the messages and materials, the scientific basis for the work we do, and all kinds of support for coordinators in the state.

Other resources have come from the fruit and vegetable industry. Arizona Iceberg Lettuce Promotion Council funded us the first few years, and we partnered with grocery stores, media and community to facilitate the 5-a-Day message.

PBH was giving us the information and tools we needed and the public relations. The two entities, Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) and then the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), jointly ran the Arizona Grown/ 5-a-Day for Better Health Program. But in 1999, it was discontinued when the Arizona Grown promotion took a different strategic direction. We continued to work on special projects and events, such as national tours. PBH got involved and we received lots of support from industry and retailers, as well as from ADA and ADHS.

Q: PBH and the industry propagate a broad, general mandate to increase produce consumption. Isn’t the primary work you do concentrated on low-income groups with specific projects, which generate the bulk of your funding via government-assisted programs? Doesn’t the continued stream of government funding require that focus?

A: Incorporating the food stamp programs into PBH work allowed us to extend funding. It really expanded opportunity for different efforts to increase produce consumption, especially at the community level and in schools, among other things. Food stamp nutrition education is funded through USDA. Last year, Food Stamps changed its name to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. SNAP-Ed represents the nutrition education programs provided to SNAP participants.

Q: Could you provide a time line of how programs for low-income individuals unfolded, and highlight some examples?

A: In 1996, we formed the Arizona Nutrition Network and partners selected 5-a-Day as a common message for nutrition education efforts targeting low-income Hispanic women and their children. Other projects included developing a 5-a-Day component for the Arizona WISE-Woman project, a screening program for older women, funded by CDC. We implemented standardized 5-a-Day classes for low-income third-grade students in 12 rural counties through the Community Nutrition Program. [This program was discontinued last year due to budget cuts].

In 1999, we aggressively moved forward on our 5-a-Day interventions for Hispanic low-income mothers and their children, using social marketing and community education. In 2002, we expanded the Arizona Nutrition Network target audience to a general low-income audience and we broadened common messages to include 5-a-Day but also incorporate new messages for low-fat milk and physical activity. Paid media expanded to English and Spanish stations statewide.

Even today we continue social marketing approaches in our three campaigns: one for fruits and vegetables, now with the new message, Fruits and Veggies — More Matters; a second campaign promoting low-fat milk, and a third called Grow a Healthy Child, integrating obesity-prevention messages tied to family meals and appropriate beverages.

Q: In the California program, Champions for Change, there is an emphasis on a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to address health and nutrition issues and battle the childhood obesity epidemic. Sue Foerster emphasizes the need to combine fruit and vegetable consumption with physical activity and to stimulate an environment of self-empowerment for change.

A: Physical activity is a component in every campaign and is woven into all we do. We have an animated spokesperson, Bobby B. Well, who promotes a healthy lifestyle and teaches kids that nutrition and exercise are cool and fun.

The most exciting thing about our fruit and vegetable promotion is implementing Champions for Change, not just in SNAP-Ed and food stamps, but in all programs. The one percent/fat-free milk program is the first one to incorporate the concept. Champions for Change is a different approach, and we didn’t just take the phrase and retag it. We are customizing the concept to fit with our specific programs.

Representing Hispanic mothers, we have put together really powerful ads. Here mothers are talking about how good their children are and how physical activity and eating well has made them healthier and happier. Whether it’s SNAP or WIC, or the Farmers Nutrition Program, we are implementing the same common messages in all these programs. We reach nearly a million participants through our efforts.

In the WIC programs, it is often one-to-one consultations, and it might include a demo.

SNAP-Ed is much more community-based. We might have a public nutritionist going into classrooms or offer cooking demos at a senior center. The SNAP-Ed programs vary from state to state. The state pays half the expenses for that program, so it is often tailored to particular needs. USDA has done a lot of work on messaging and good formative research around fruits and vegetables.

Funding at this time is all for low income individuals, up to 130 percent of poverty level.

For SNAP-Ed, it is dollar-for-dollar and the state has to provide half the funding.

WIC is 100 percent federally funded up to 185 percent of the poverty level.

Q: Is there any government funding available for other income levels?

A: To have some state and federal money for other income levels, CDC had provided funds, but those funds have gone away. [Editors Note: see information on budget cuts later in the interview]

The USDA funding does have a tremendous reach. In March, 791,244 people were receiving benefits in Arizona, averaging $112 per person. Food stamps provide $9 million to grocery stores for food, and people are buying more fruits and vegetables and low-fat milk.

Q: How do you accurately measure results of your program? In studies based on surveys, what people say they are doing doesn’t necessarily mean much. It is often difficult to accurately measure whether people’s intentions or memories parallel reality.

A: For changes in fruits and vegetable consumption, we rely, like every other state, on a behavioral risk factor survey conducted by CDC, the largest health risk appraisal done in world. Usually questions are collected every other year, but here in Arizona, we have conducted them every year. A new Arizona Nutrition Status Report was just published in 2008, looking at fruit and vegetable consumption. Link to the Arizona Nutrition Status Report 2008 (Fruit and vegetable info begins on page 18).

The report covers 2001 to 2007, and if you go back to 1993 it appears overall trends are the same: Still, only 11 percent of people are reporting they are eating more fruits and vegetables. What is different is that lower income people are reporting increases in consumption reaching the levels of higher income people. We are expecting that trend to accelerate with the implementation of the new WIC food package, and intake of produce among low income individuals to exceed that of adults not in poverty.

For the first time in 30 years, WIC has significantly changed the package to include fruits and vegetables. [See New WIC Food Package for Arizona.] There was juice before, and carrots for mothers who are breast feeding, but now people are receiving WIC benefits for fruits and vegetables and also canned fruits and vegetables for infants. We’re going to provide cash value vouchers for fruits and vegetables, and depending on whether for a child, pregnant mother, etc., the amount will vary between $6 and $10. This might not sound like much, but for perspective, we serve 185,000 WIC clients a month, amounting to $750,000 a month for fruits and vegetables.

I also think this will lead to big changes in grocery stores. A lot of Arizona is rural, and a good selection of fresh produce is not always readily available. We think many retailers will be able to offer more fruits and vegetables to WIC customers and see opportunity to expand produce offerings. We will be using the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters materials.

One thing we know from our research is that WIC mothers understand the importance of eating fruits and vegetables but don’t always know how to pick and cook them. PBH provides the educational tools, including 97 videos on food items. We could never afford to offer these kinds of programs. PBH provides tremendous support, coupled with the education we do in clinics. We just finished training 400 WIC employees, including a WIC chef who conducts food demos. Retail partners also do sampling in stores to assist people with cash-value vouchers.

We find the benefits come from eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and if people just take the three they’re used to, they may not get all the nutritional value. We really want to be sure to maximize the benefits. Mothers have told us in focus groups they watch food dollars so carefully. If they are not sure their child will eat the item, they won’t risk buying it. If the child has sampled the item in the SNAP-Ed program or at a WIC clinic, we think they’ll be more likely to eat it.

Q: How do you know the food stamp recipients will actually increase their produce purchases and not just move their allotted food money around, using the produce cash-value voucher to buy the same amount of produce they did before?

A: WIC is very specific for food items. There are defined vouchers for cereals high in iron. Those foods come in a list; they can buy so many dozen eggs, so much milk; all very specific down to the ounces of cereal. For the first time in 30 years, the new WIC package also will be receiving whole grains, and soy products are being added.

The dollar impact is three quarters of a million dollars every month, and this is just in Arizona.

Industry support of this program is vital. You can’t sell produce without dedicated suppliers and committed retail grocers. Retailers are bringing in dietitians. A dietitian for a grocery store in Arizona is featured on PBH’s Fruit & Veggies — More Matters website.

Q: What you describe here could be intended for a much broader audience than the one WIC serves…

A: This program won’t just impact low-income people. It will lead to a greater reach. Our funding has increased specifically for the SNAP-Ed and WIC programs. With SNAP-Ed, we’ve worked with partners in local communities resulting in more money and resources coming to the table. It may be a teacher devoting more of her time to promoting messages of healthy eating. WIC is different because it is specific on who it serves, but with tough economic times, those eligible for the program are increasing.

In Arizona, SNAP-Ed reaches one in five preschoolers, 30 percent of school-age children and teenagers, and 40 percent of their mothers. Less than 10 percent are adults or elderly people. We have a lot more people unemployed, so we may see a shift on who is receiving SNAP. In Arizona, those eligible for food stamps increased 30 percent in the last year.

Q: What connection, if any, does SNAP have with USDA’s fresh fruit and vegetable snack program (FFVP) at schools?

A: In the early stages, that program was piloted at eight schools on Indian reservations, and nutrition education was provided by the Arizona Nutrition Network. Last year it expanded to an additional 25 schools, and nutrition education messages coordinated with Arizona Nutrition Network and Farmers Market Nutrition Program, with schools encouraged to buy locally grown produce.

When we look at problems of obesity and the role fruit and vegetable consumption plays in counteracting that, we know access is critical. We‘ve seen that evidenced in the free fresh fruit and vegetable snack program, as Lorelei DiSogra can attest to based on its successes. [See interview with Lorelei DiSogra in the Pundit here]. That free snack program doesn’t include money for nutrition education.

We’ve linked our SNAP-Ed programs with that program, and we can bring the nutrition education piece. Unfortunately, if the grocery store is not close by, if the family lives in a food desert and can’t get to a store that has affordable fruits and vegetables, all the education in the world doesn’t matter.

There is a lot of coordination going on, and I’ve been remiss on not emphasizing the role of CDC. They license Fruit and Veggies — More Matters and conduct the effort in all states. Previously it was done at the National Cancer Institute. There is collaboration for the PBH to license Fruit and Veggies — More Matters, but no funding. Use of the license will be different in different states and may go through the chronic disease program. CDC doesn’t fund all programs.

Q: With so many variables impacting the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, have there been any studies to monitor the impact of generic produce campaigns? Has there been an assessment comparing 5-a-Day to Fruits and Veggies — More Matters?

A: CDC published a report “5 a Day Works” in 2005. [Read the report here. Arizona Info begins on page 42):

NCI in 2001 put out a study highlighting examples of 5-a-Day’s effectiveness. It discussed the affect of our Bobby B. Well character. It also underscored our program launched in 1998 through the Community Nutrition Program, appropriating state money for rural services we provided for third graders, although cuts in funding forced us to shutter the program last year. Lorelei DiSogra was right when she said if you make produce available to children they’ll eat it.

Fruits and Veggies — More Matters comes to states through PBH and CDC with no funding, but with a scientific base and reliable tools, and collaborations we would not be able to do on our own. PBH was instrumental in linking us with retailers. They have licenses with retailers nationwide — 27,000 stores use Fruits and Veggies — More Matters.

When NCI handled licensing, it arranged individual consultations with public relations/marketing/promotions firms. One of the most important things they told us is to know when moving from a small program to a larger one, look to the successes and good partnerships. For 5-a-Day, we had been focusing on people already at two or three servings of vegetables a day.

When selecting our strategy, we need to be practical on what we could do based on our budget. For the first three years, we only focused on Hispanic children, getting our message out on Spanish television stations, and in print in two languages. For our WIC county health and school programs, we focused where we already had success. Then we moved to broader advertising at a later time. When you have limited funds, don’t start with a new population or unproven concept.

Q: In other words, if you have limited funds, spreading them out too thin could result in a watered-down approach, where no one individual project gets enough resources for success.

A: Because our funding comes from USDA and SNAP, we have to show exact percentage of low-income mothers reached by that advertising, and it has to be approved by USDA. If you look at overall data, it probably won’t show a big change, but when you examine the impact to the specific group targeted, it can make a significant difference. If you look at the Arizona numbers for fruit and vegetable consumption, they haven’t changed for the whole population. When you pull out the numbers for the low-income groups we devoted our funding and resources to, the change is strong.

Support from industry over the years has been tremendous. Look at produce sections at grocery stores… it’s been doubled from the early 90s… and you see industry making fruits and vegetables more accessible. In convenience stores you see a bowl of fresh fruit. Ten years ago that was unheard of. We don’t have a way to measure our contribution exactly because there are so many pieces to the puzzle.

The two constants are PBH and the industry, as well as CDC and previously NCI. PBH came to the table when the reigns were changed to CDC. PBH stepped up to the plate and issued to each state licenses for Fruits and Veggies — More Matters. At a time when there could have been a lapse in promotion without 5-a-Day, we were able to continue our promotion without a break. In 2007, we incorporated it into all Arizona Nutrition Network and Arizona WIC materials.

Q: But can you demonstrate that this flow of messaging actually leads to increased consumption?

A: In 2006 part of our evaluation involved sending trained interviewers to our food stamp offices, WIC clinics, and places where people should be reached with our messages. We conducted an in-depth survey. One question showed recognition of the 5-a-Day logo or perhaps our network logo that included 5-a-Day of over 50 percent, which is tremendous.

Recognition of the Arizona Grown logo in conjunction with 5-a-Day went from 0 to 40 percent recognition in a year and a half. We’ve been using Fruits and Veggies — More Matters since 2007. People see it in grocery stores, on WIC materials, and it’s a reminder to eat more fruits and vegetables; it is a reinforcement of the message.

Q: Earlier you discussed the necessity of concentrating funds on targeted projects to get the most bang for the buck. Some industry executives wonder whether generic produce promotions are the best use of limited funds. Basically, unless you can afford to blast your message and saturate the market, the message will get lost in the sea of junk food marketers and it’s a waste of money. Could you share more thoughts here?

A: Back to generic promotion, we talked a lot about this with Arizona Grown/5-a-Day. Arizona had to put up matching funds with the Department of Agriculture. I came out of the experience with the belief that the best ways to promote fruits and vegetables is through a team approach. It is not helpful to pit one fruit or vegetable against another.

Q: Sue Foerster said she went through somewhat of a grievance period when 5-a-Day was retired in favor of Fruits and Veggies — More Matters. What feelings did you go through?

A: I’m an experienced public health nutritionist. Fruits & Veggies — More Matters came out of the revised 2005 USDA nutrition guidelines. I don’t’ think people recognized the significance of those changes in the guidelines. Getting my mind around them at first was difficult. I want one recommendation for everyone; 5-a-Day was one size fits all.

Those guidelines made a fundamental shift in that philosophy. It was an important change but as a nutritionist hard for me to embrace. We no longer say 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables. Now recommendations to individuals are based on gender, age and physical activity. We serve over 1 million people a year; how can we make individual recommendations?

USDA developed tools for consumers. On the mypyramid.gov website, consumers can develop their own personal plans; who gets two cups and who gets three. Consumers can enter their daily intake and physical activity and track progress over time.

Q: The concept of More Matters as a health message to consume more produce doesn’t address the need for overweight and obese people to reduce overall calorie intake and eat smaller portions of food. Do you think it may create a mixed message?

A: Families that include more fruits and vegetables will have less incidents of overweight. If you look at nutrition education, we spent many years telling people to eat this and cut out this. The beauty of the Fruits and Veggies — More Matters message is that consumers won’t overeat fruits and vegetables, and now with the WIC package of whole grains, it balances out.

Parents who restrict eating find the children tend to become overweight. [Encouraging people to eat] more fruits and vegetables is part of an overall healthy message. Higher calorie foods with empty calories need to be replaced with low-fat milk and appropriate quantities of 100 percent fruit. We’re following national recommendations.

I think the change to Fruits and Veggies — More Matters came from science. If we’re going to impact the obesity epidemic, this is one positive strategy. I think we’re seeing a leveling off of obesity. We’re certainly seeing much more interest in addressing obesity from state and city governments, and many efforts in the schools. Again, there is no one answer. PBH, along with support from industry and CDC, is helping to alleviate the problems.

Q: What are the most important developments going forward?

A: I think I’m most excited about implementing Champions for Change throughout all our nutritional programs. And taking the new WIC package and really assisting mothers in serving a variety of fruits and vegetables to their families.

Q: How will the uncertain economic environment come into play?

A: We lost significant funding and support from CDC as well as state government funding. Our former coordinator was supported by state funds that went away in January. We transferred the duties to Laura Astbury, M.S., R.D., State Fruit and Vegetable Nutrition Coordinator.

Our former coordinator had flexibility to work with other income levels, so we lost those.

This is a challenge, I’ll be honest. We’ve looked at consolidating. We’ve looked internally at what funds we have to address the obesity epidemic. I can assure you Fruits & Veggies — More Matters will be used to address this. These are difficult times and with those limited resources, maybe it’s good to use common messages like we’ve done across government programs. The effects of the stimulus money remain to be seen.

CDC funded a nutrition and physical activity program for five years, and did provide at least four employees in that effort, including a physical activity coordinator and epidemiologist. That was a five-year agreement, and in a round of competition with Arizona and other states, the program was approved but not funded. We had that program doing a lot of work, including promotion of fruits and vegetables with partners around the state. Funding stopped in September. And later we lost program employees.[Editor’s note: See most recent list from Association of State & Territorial Public Health Nutrition Directors on contracted state directors, and administrative coordinators.]

We’re going to work to reach as many people as we can with the limitations confronting us. We have a $3 to $4 billion deficit in Arizona, and we are working to preserve programs. The way we deal with these difficult times is by building on existing efforts with the resources we have. We are talking about targeting, which goes back to the Hispanic program. As our budget grew, we were able to expand reach.

Q: So are you reassessing plans to fit your reduced budget?

A: We have clear plans going forward. We submitted our WIC plan for next year, and our SNAP plan is about to go in. We are talking about public health prevention services within the department. Our finding from USDA is very specific; the budget reassessment is part of the department’s efforts. Are there other programs where we can take a common message like we did for 5-a-Day and build on that message?

The license to use Fruits and Veggies — More Matters comes without designated funding, and in some ways that’s the beauty because we are not tied to a cookie-cutter approach. Given my druthers, obviously I would like money for Fruits & Veggies — More Matters because we could take successes with our low-income program and move to other population groups or work on policy to get more grocery stores in underserved areas.

There are projects underway to help grocery stores get started in food deserts. There have been a number of new stores that have become successful when offering fruits and vegetables with state money. We can do the most innovative program to increase consumption, but if people don’t have access to the produce, it’s pointless.

Editor’s note: Sharon provides the following links on food deserts and policy change to promote access to healthy foods:

Bringing Healthy Foods Home: Examining Inequalities in Access to Food Stores

USDA ERS — Food Deserts

Food Deserts — Nonmetropolitan South

The Food Trust (Philadelphia)

The Food Trust (Other States)

Rural Food Deserts

The new Leadership for Healthy Communities: Advancing Policies to Support Healthy Eating and Active Living Toolkit indicates that research shows that policy change to increase local sources of food will provide consumers with healthier choices, farmers with marketing opportunities, and communities with powerful economic development opportunities. Policy options to accomplish this include development of farmers’ markets, expanding of community gardens, and the procurement of locally grown food. To see a summary of the toolkit, look here.

How inspiring! As industry members but, more importantly, as Americans, how fortunate are we to have people like Sharon Sass out there fighting the good fight and trying to help people be healthy and live better lives. We hear her story and we want to give her an award or a garland of roses. How does one say thank you enough to public servants who approach their work with such passion?

Yet when we review the copious materials Ms. Sass offers, we see her efforts as only marginally related to increased fruit and vegetable consumption. More exercise, increased consumption of low-fat as opposed to full-fat dairy products, a focus on the poor plus many other initiatives — Ms. Sass, quite appropriately, is looking to enhance the health and well being of the citizenry, and increasing produce consumption is just one facet of that effort.

We note that Ms. Sass seems very concerned with access to produce: “Unfortunately, if the grocery store is not close by, if the family lives in a food desert and can’t get to a store that has affordable fruits and vegetables, all the education in the world doesn’t matter.”

We wish there was more quantification of this problem. Knowing the industry and the availability of canned, frozen and fresh, it is hard to imagine that this is really a major obstacle to consumption. Still, if access is the problem, then it is doubtful that generic promotion is the answer.

Mostly, though, we are frustrated that so many good people work so hard and we just have no hard data to indicate we are accomplishing the professed goal of increasing produce consumption. Sometimes we get survey data that shows people saying they are consuming more, but sales and disappearance data don’t support the survey responses. To us, this exchange from the discussion is both telling and typical:

Q: But can you demonstrate that this flow of messaging actually leads to increased consumption?

A: In 2006 part of our evaluation involved sending trained interviewers to our food stamp offices, WIC clinics, and places where people should be reached with our messages. We conducted an in-depth survey. One question showed recognition of the 5-a-Day logo or perhaps our network logo that included 5-a-Day of over 50 percent, which is tremendous.

Recognition of the Arizona Grown logo in conjunction with 5-a-Day went from 0 to 40 percent recognition in a year and a half. We’ve been using Fruits and Veggies — More Matters since 2007. People see it in grocery stores, on WIC materials and it’s a reminder to eat more fruits and vegetables. It is a reinforcement of the message.

This is what we find time and time again. We ask for evidence that a program has been successful at boosting consumption and we are given evidence that a program boosted awareness of a logo. These are just not the same things.

To us, people like Sharon Sass are heroes, delving in with limited budgets and limited information about what will work and they try to solve serious public health problems. It’s the type of thing one would like to make a donation to support or urge public officials to better fund.

But this all has little to do with the produce industry assessing itself to fund a generic marketing program. In the end, that is a business decision. It requires estimates of what consumption would be in the absence of a program, estimates of how the promotional effort would increase demand, assessments of how supply will respond to increased demand, calculations of the return to various commodity growers and industry segments from the intersection of the demand and supply response and an evaluation of returns available from alternative investment opportunities. Our coverage has been, and continues to be, an attempt to explore all these matters.

Many thanks to Sharon Sass and the Arizona Department of Health Services for helping the industry to better understand the important work they, and their peers in other states, are doing to help people live healthier, happier and more productive lives.

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