There’s a whole bunch of media reports in the news today with headlines like this AP story: Study: Food in McDonald’s Wrapper Tastes Better To Kids:
Anything made by McDonald’s tastes better, preschoolers said in a study that powerfully demonstrates how advertising can trick the taste buds of young children.
Even carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids when they were wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.
The study had youngsters sample identical McDonald’s foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test.
“You see a McDonald’s label and kids start salivating,” said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to kids. She had no role in the research.
Levin said it was “the first study I know of that has shown so simply and clearly what’s going on with (marketing to) young children.”
Study author Dr. Tom Robinson said the kids’ perception of taste was “physically altered by the branding.” The Stanford University researcher said it was remarkable how children so young were already so influenced by advertising.
The study involved 63 low-income children ages 3 to 5 from Head Start centers in San Mateo County, Calif. Robinson believes the results would be similar for children from wealthier families.
The research, appearing in August’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, was funded by Stanford and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The study is likely to stir more debate over the movement to restrict ads to kids. It comes less than a month after 11 major food and drink companies, including McDonald’s, announced new curbs on marketing to children under 12.
McDonald’s says the only Happy Meals it will promote to young children will contain fruit and have fewer calories and less fat.
“This is an important subject and McDonald’s has been actively addressing it for quite some time,” said company spokesman Walt Riker. “We’ve always wanted to be part of the solution and we are providing solutions.”
But Dr. Victor Strasburger, an author of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy urging limits on marketing to children, said the study shows too little is being done.
“It’s an amazing study and it’s very sad,” Strasburger said.
“Advertisers have tried to do exactly what this study is talking about — to brand younger and younger children, to instill in them an almost obsessional desire for a particular brand-name product,” he said.
Just two of the 63 children studied said they’d never eaten at McDonald’s, and about one-third ate there at least weekly. Most recognized the McDonald’s logo but it was mentioned to those who didn’t.
The study included three McDonald’s menu items — hamburgers, chicken nuggets and french fries — and store-bought milk or juice and carrots. Children got two identical samples of each food on a tray, one in McDonald’s wrappers or cups and the other in plain, unmarked packaging. The kids were asked whether they tasted the same or whether one was better. (Some children didn’t taste all the foods.)
McDonald’s-labeled samples were the clear favorites. French fries were the biggest winner; almost 77 percent said the labeled fries tasted best while only 13 percent preferred the others.
Fifty-four percent preferred McDonald’s-wrapped carrots versus 23 percent who liked the plain-wrapped sample.
The only results not statistically clear-cut involved the hamburgers, with 29 kids choosing McDonald’s-wrapped burgers and 22 choosing the unmarked ones.
Fewer than one-fourth of the children said both samples of all foods tasted the same.
Pradeep Chintagunta, a University of Chicago marketing professor, said a fairer comparison might have gauged kids’ preferences for the McDonald’s label versus another familiar brand, such as Mickey Mouse.
“I don’t think you can necessarily hold this against” McDonald’s, he said, since the goal of marketing is to build familiarity and sell products.
He noted that parents play a strong role in controlling food choices for children so young.
But Robinson argued that because young children are unaware of the persuasive intent of marketing, “it is an unfair playing field.
The researcher is quick to see the effect of advertising, but it is not clear that this is what the study shows.
We happen to agree that children are highly susceptible to advertising. They lack the judgment to distinguish between a documentary and an advertising message. This is why they think Mickey Mouse is real and why they might get in the car with a stranger who offers candy.
When told it was too late to eat, the Pundit’s oldest nephew once reported to the family that “You know, you can eat great, even late at Wendy’s,” completely lacking any distinction between the ad he heard and a news report.
Of course, the actual impact of advertising on children, be what it may, is mitigated because children don’t have money, cars, etc., and rely on parents to do the purchasing. The Pundit nephew’s recitation of a commercial was cute, but he was still put to bed without a late night run to Wendy’s.
This study seems to have been conducted in such a way that it was biased.
First, the McDonald’s packaging was contrasted with blank packaging. So it would be as true to say that the study “proves” that things wrapped in red and gold paper taste better to children than things in plain paper.
We have frequently noted in fresh produce studies a preference for branding without an actual brand preference. In other words, the very fact that someone puts their name on an item can make consumers think better of it. Perhaps it reassures them on food safety or quality, we don’t know. But many respondents over the years have reported a preference for branded product but no preference for one brand over another.
Perhaps the children have a similar reaction, preferring a brand to a blank wrapper. The researchers should have done a control with another printed attractive label and seen if that other label did better than the blank.
Second, it would not be surprising if a meal served on pretty china tasted better than a meal served on a paper plate. We know that visuals and scents affect taste. By actually serving the wrapped items and letting people eat off them, it created a non-comparable situation. They should have unwrapped the food and put it on the same plates.
Third, it is odd that the researchers would point out the McDonald’s wrapping to the children. This attention to one item and not to the other could easily influence a child.
Fourth, the fact that the people conducting the research knew to point out the McDonald’s logo makes one think that they knew too much about the point of the survey. The researchers should ideally have no idea if the point of the study is to prove that advertising influences children or that children enjoy plain paper wraps as much as printed ones. Children are very easily influenced by a desire to win approval, and the slightest hint that there was a preferred answer would distort the results.
In another sense the study was not so much biased as meaningless. The vast majority of these children had personal experience in eating at McDonald’s — so they may not have been influenced by advertising as much as by their own life experiences.
The Pundit Poppa grew up in Brooklyn and, to this day, enjoys a visit to the original Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island. The wrapping of Nathan’s hot dog brings to mind countless tasty dining experiences, dates with Momma Pundit when she was his girlfriend, good times with his brothers and family. He may have never seen an ad for Nathan’s, yet this Pundit has no doubt that he would say the Nathan’s hot dog tastes better than any generic one presented.
Who is to say that a little child presented with the Golden Arches doesn’t equally remember playing in the McDonald’s play area, opening Happy Meals and finding toys, his birthday party in the party room and that special time Dad and he went through the drive-through after the child broke his arm and had just gotten a cast.
In other words, this study is not a test of the influence of advertising on children. To do that you would need to show them ads for a place that they have never been to or have no life experience with. All this tells us is that kids are influenced by their lives — no shocker there.
Our experience with children also makes us hesitate on their use of language, including their ability to confine their comments to whether one or the other “tastes better.” Just the other day at Sesame Street Place, the Junior Pundits were asked if the food was better at a Sesame Street Character Meal restaurant or at a restaurant we frequent back home.
Sesame Street Place won out clearly and, when questioned why, the Junior Pundits explained that it was because Big Bird and Elmo and other characters were there. In other words, it is hard for small children to distinguish between the taste of the food and the overall experience.
This study seems to be testing so many variables at once that it is hard to discern anything useful from its results. It certainly tells us little definitively about advertising’s effect on children.
Although government relations is often thought of in terms of policy, an awful lot of effort can go into educating government officials about the realities of the situation. United Fresh sent along this release pointing out its efforts to educate the recently appointed Working Group on Import Safety:
Federal Officials Visit Produce Port
As Part of Nationwide Food Safety Tour
Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, FDA Commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach, and Associate FDA Commissioner Margaret Glavin toured the Del Monte Fresh port facility in Camden, NJ Monday as part of a two-week tour of imported food facilities around the country.
With a banana vessel unloading Costa Rican fruit as a backdrop, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt and FDA Commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach speak with the media following a tour of Del Monte Fresh’s Camden port facility. (From left) Del Monte’s Ernie Casper, head of the Camden port facility; Ross McKenney, vice president of quality assurance; and Dennis Christou, vice president of North American Marketing, spoke with the federal officials about the company’s quality control systems from farm to the retail store.
“We were pleased to be able to show these top federal officials how fresh produce from around the world moves into the United States under rigorous security safeguards, with quality control an essential part of the total supply chain from farm to consumer,” said United Fresh President Tom Stenzel. HHS has been working with the association to identify potential produce facilities to visit in addition to their tours of meat, seafood and processed foods.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt speaks to the media following a tour of Del Monte Fresh’s Camden port facility. Joining the Secretary were FDA Commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach and Associate FDA Commissioner Margaret Glavin. The federal team is conducting a nationwide tour focused on the safety of imported foods, and will make recommendations to President Bush for ways to enhance food safety.
Some 30 federal, state and local officials participated in the Camden event, as well as members of the national and local media. The group observed crews unloading a banana vessel from Costa Rica, toured warehousing and security of fruit after arrival, and joined in quality control testing with Customs and Border Protection officials who inspect product at the port.
In July, President Bush appointed Secretary Leavitt to chair a new Working Group on Import Safety bringing together expertise across multiple federal agencies. The Secretary and colleagues are touring numerous facilities across the country to better understand imported food safety and develop recommendations to the President on enhancement of safety and efficiency in the process. In late July, the federal team also visited a Taylor Farms processing facility in Dallas, learning more about the safety of processed vegetables and salads.
“One of the major themes we’re seeing around the country is that quality control must begin at the farm and follow products through the distribution chain,” said FDA Commissioner Von Eschenbach. “We can’t test our way to safety; it has to be built in before products come to our ports of entry,” he said. Earlier this year, Commissioner Von Eschenbach spoke to a large group of produce industry members at the United FreshTech conference in Palm Springs, sharing his views on food safety and seeking also to learn more about the fresh produce industry.
“It’s important that produce companies such as Del Monte and Taylor Farms open up their facilities to regulators, health officials and even the media to share our industry’s story about the rigorous food safety controls in place,” Stenzel said. “It was gratifying to talk with Secretary Leavitt and Commissioner Von Eschenbach yesterday, and be able to put in perspective their experience at a fresh processing plant in Dallas and a fruit receiving port in New Jersey as part of the industry’s widespread commitment to food safety and food security,” he said.
“I especially want to thank the Del Monte team of Ernie Casper, director of the Camden port facility; Ross McKenney, vice president of quality assurance; and Dennis Christou, vice president of North American marketing, for making yesterday’s port tour a success.”
Like the old Kremlin photos, where “Kremlinologists” in the west would try to figure out who was ascending and who was descending in power by where they stood to review May Day parades and similar events, perhaps the most notable thing for the produce industry is that the Secretary of Health and Human Services was made Chairman of the task force, not the Secretary of Agriculture.
That may be telling in terms of where food safety is going to wind up on all food items.
It really is important that companies open up their facilities and that the United Fresh folks are working to make it all happen. This is the best way to avoid nasty surprises by government people who don’t understand the realities of the situation.
Kudos to United Fresh, Taylor Farms and Del Monte Fresh for their efforts on this important matter.
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.
She is battered from all sides. Some want her to be more scientific; others more promotional. She certainly is very busy, so we very much appreciate her taking the time to help enrich our industry conversation by responding to not one, not two, not three…but to five separate Pundit articles:
I can empathize with your Let’s Get Fat Together comment: “Here at the Pundit, we are having trouble keeping up with the volume of ridiculous research we are sent every day. Actually the research is not ridiculous, but the over-the-top claims made by the researchers often are ridiculous.”
Research certainly has to be taken in context. Unfortunately it’s the “study of the day” mentality consumers read about that creates confusion about what to eat! While each individual study may be interesting, it is the cumulative body of evidence that is most important; otherwise we’d be changing course every two seconds.
That said, PBH and Fruits & Veggies — More Matters and our core messages are in sync with scientific evidence today, and the strength of the science is such that Fruits & Veggies — More Matters will still be relevant tomorrow. Neither the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, our lead federal partner in Fruits & Veggies — More Matters, nor PBH follow the latest fad… we watch the accumulation of scientific evidence, which evolves over years, not days.
That scientific evidence supports eating more fruits and vegetables for a variety of reasons. Fruits & Veggies — More Matters was not developed specifically as an anti-obesity message, as might be implied from your More Matters — Not When Counting Calories comments. Fruits and vegetables play an important role in preventing many diseases, of which obesity is only one. These diseases include coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. (By the way, over the past decade the research between fruits and vegetables and cardiovascular disease is getting stronger and the cancer research a bit less so, Breast Cancer Study Shows No Improvement With Increased Produce Consumption. For example, the role of fruits and vegetables and reduced risk of breast cancer — let alone breast cancer reoccurrence in this most recent study — isn’t as strong as the link between fruits/vegetables and other cancers, including esophageal, lung, and stomach.)
Current science suggests that 100% juice is protective to health too, although certainly we wouldn’t want all servings of fruits and vegetables to be in liquid form. A brand can’t, all by itself, contain a two-page long disclaimer about all possible misuses of its product. Toyota doesn’t say “improper operation may cause death” as part of its brand identity or, more to the point, “Got Milk” doesn’t say that you can “drown in a bathtub full of the stuff.”
Likewise, we’re not going to say, “Fruits & Veggies — More Matters” but “limit intake of juice, limit high fat dressing on your salads, don’t fry your veggies.” We’ll address these specifics as appropriate on our www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org web site, in our materials, or in “ask the expert” questions under the auspices of “education.”
Speaking of education, in your earlier Nutrition Education Doesn’t Work Says Associated Press Review of Literature comments, it’s important to point out that this review of the literature was not peer reviewed, published, or otherwise made available for our own assessment. I wonder, for example, if they looked at research supporting the successful nutrition education component of the WIC program.
Even how “nutrition education” is defined makes a difference. (It’s difficult to eat a mango, a kiwi, or even an orange if you don’t know how to cut it up… that’s all part of nutrition education.) Regardless, most don’t believe that nutrition education alone is going to change behavior, but it’s an important step. Case in point, social support, as you mentioned in Let’s Get Fat Together, is also important in changing behavior, along with availability, taste, price, promotions, convenience, and more.
Finally, in response to your cry for program evaluation in Evaluating Effectiveness in Childhood Eating Studies, evaluation is a very important part of what we do. In fact, NCI spent $16 million testing the impact of interventions in schools, WIC, farmers’ markets, and worksites. Frankly the end result from all of this research is that if you promote fruits and vegetables, consumption goes up.
It’s not rocket science. Would more research be helpful? Sure. Should we continue to build the case for greater government support? Absolutely. Are we doing more research? Constantly. Meanwhile, we are going to continue to do what we know is effective (education and encouraging industry promotions) specifically targeting “Gen X moms” and measuring success with her (and her family.)
Ok, so PBH doesn’t have the advertising dollars that we need. That’s why we rely on the collective industry (retailers, growers, processors), public relations, educators, our consumer website, and our public health partners to help get our Fruits & Veggies — More Matters message to consumers — a message that nearly 2/3 of the 1,000 consumers surveyed said would increase their interest in eating more fruits and vegetables either extremely well or very well just by seeing the brand logo itself.
For every $1 million we spend at PBH, we can leverage about $30 million from the industry and our public health partners combined. That’s more than $150 million each year, focused on a single message! And these are efforts that, in many cases, don’t cost a lot of additional money. Placing the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters brand logo on packaging, on supermarket role bags, or on tray liners that are already being printed provides this collective advertising in support of increased fruit and vegetable consumption with very little financial pain! By leveraging the industry’s investment we can have a significant impact.
Most definitely, More Matters Can Be a Rallying Cry for the Industry, and we encourage everybody to join us!
— Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D.
President & CEO
Produce for Better Health Foundation
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. So we know Elizabeth and the Pundit share the frustration that comes not so much from a study every day purporting to prove, typically based on very little, that one or another produce item can cure this or that, but we share the frustration caused by an unholy alliance of researchers seeking fame, fortune and funding with journalists seeking much the same.
This transforms academic research, which might usefully lead to further research, into a public health problem as consumers are given preliminary and often contradictory information.
So perceiving Elizabeth as very much the bulwark of credibility for the produce industry on this kind of science, we confess it startles us a bit to read her making comparisons with Toyota or the “Got Milk” campaign.
We understand branding well enough, but Toyota and the dairy industry can say whatever they want — those are advertising messages. This would be comparable to the California Strawberry Commission promoting chocolate-dipped strawberries or strawberry short cake. There is no problem, no issue, because it is an ad, and in advertising, a vendor can promote whatever legal attribute of its product it wishes to promote.
However, Fruits & Veggies — More Matters is not solely an ad message… it is a public health message sponsored by a tax-exempt charitable foundation and thus will be held to a higher standard.
We bow to Elizabeth’s scientific expertise and are not so foolish as to start parsing research studies with her. We take, at her word, that the science behind Fruit and Veggies — More Matters is strong.
We will say that the message is unclear, however. We read all the PBH materials and strongly suspect we do so with more interest and motivation than any consumer can be expected to muster. We suspect that the number of consumer media editors who pay more attention is relatively few.
Yet we would like to gain clarification on the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters message:
The logical consequence of saying that it would be desirable to consume “more” fruits and veggies regardless of one’s current level of consumption is that vegetarianism, from a health perspective, is the ideal diet. Is this the position of PBH? What about its government partner, CDC?
The advisory that eating “more” produce is always good seems to imply that a person whose weight is maintained at 2,000 calories a day and whose consumption is currently 2,000 calories a day would benefit by forcing himself, though not hungry, to eat a few produce items before bed. To the Pundit, this sounds like a recipe for obesity. Is this the position of PBH?
Elizabeth makes a point of saying that “…evidence supports eating more fruits and vegetables for a variety of reasons…” and that “Fruits & Veggies — More Matters was not developed specifically as an anti-obesity message.” These are extremely powerful points and have been communicated in a very minimal way. We understand Elizabeth to be saying that, even in studies in which people have not lost weight or changed their body mass index, there is strong science to support that merely eating more fruits and vegetables produces statistically significant health advantages. We wonder what, precisely, these health advantages are? Do the high produce consumers live longer? Live more vibrantly? Get disabled later in life?
We have come across many studies that will find advantages to some particular element contained within certain produce items, such as folate — which has been found to be important for women who intend to have children, as it may reduce the incidence of spina bifida and anencephaly. But in many cases the advantages can be obtained elsewhere with more certainty, for example, with pre-natal vitamins or fortified grains. In fact the Federal government, effective January 1998, began requiring most grain products to be fortified with folic acid for exactly this reason.
We are sure that Elizabeth is correct, and every survey we have seen shows that consumers, in some vague way, accept that produce is “healthy,” but we confess that if we were doing a consumer call-in show at the Pundit and a consumer said he consumed 2,000 calories a day of which 800 calories came from produce and said he was thinking of upping that to 1,000 from produce but wanted to see some good science regarding the health benefits he would receive by doing so, we would be hard pressed to know what to send him.
If the case is as good as Elizabeth explains it is, that should not be the case.
If everyone listened to the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters message, what is the expected public health benefit? An XX% decrease in colon cancer, an XX% decrease in the population with high blood pressure? An XX% increase in life expectancy? We know produce producers and vendors would like to see an increase of produce consumption, but how significant are the benefits for public health?
On broader points we agree with Elizabeth that the Associated Press article on the review of the literature on nutrition education was less rigorous than would be desirable. We have tried to compensate some by publishing much of the author’s source materials as part of our interview with Lorelei DiSogra, Vice President, Nutrition and Health for United Fresh.
Yet we must confess that the interesting thing we find is how often our requests for data are answered with anecdotes. We do appreciate Elizabeth’s suggestions for areas to look for successful outcomes of nutrition education and we promise to pursue each one — so keep one’s eyes peeled for future Pundits.
Although we accept Elizabeth’s explanation that Fruits and Veggies — More Matters is not an anti-obesity program, we wonder if the industry health effort shouldn’t be reconfigured in this vein. After all, obesity, especially childhood obesity, has been clearly identified as the Number One public health problem — with an enormous public cost due to diabetes, heart disease and other consequences.
Surely the most likely path to enhanced funding for a produce public health initiative is if we can tie it in to fighting obesity.
We also confess that to our ear, the whole More Matters slogan rings uncomfortably in an era when caloric restriction is the order of the day.
We sense that the public health authorities are thinking the same way. Virtually every state had a 5-a-Day coordinator and, typically, that was their title. In other words, there was a state public health authority in whose very title the tie-in with the national program of PBH was intrinsic.
Yet we do not see the states running to replace those 5 a Day coordinators with More Matters Coordinators. Now we see them adopting generic titles such as Fruit and Vegetable Nutrition Coordinators — moving clearly away from a tie-in with the national program. It is hard to see that as a big win for PBH.
We do not think PBH serves its cause well by utilizing those multiplier numbers that Elizabeth refers to in her letter. First, if it really was true that PBH spending $5 million a year is the same thing as spending $150 million a year, the industry would be completely in line at demanding a far better explanation for what has been achieved for the billions that were spent over the last 20 years. Second, although Elizabeth’s numbers are surely accurate, they are not revelatory of the situation. For example, a lot of that multiplier is Federal money going to the states to be spent on the program. But the states rarely get money just to “increase produce consumption.” More typically, they get money that is highly restricted — for example, it might have to be spent on very low consuming groups such as the impoverished.
It is marketing 101 that it is easier to sell one’s existing customers a little more than to convert non-users. That is not to say that these efforts on the state level aren’t important — only that the money is very ineffectively spent if the goal was simply to boost produce consumption.
When it comes to program evaluation, the very first letter this Pundit wrote to 5-a-Day was before Elizabeth was even there. The organization was trying to promote a retail signage program that “proved” that promoting 5-a-Day would allow a retailer to increase sales. We asked 5-a-Day for the control studies under which the same signage, aprons and promotions were done — just without the mention of 5-a-Day. In other words, we wanted to see how much, if any, of the boost in sales was caused by the use of the “5-a-Day” slogan as opposed to general promotion.
Well, there had been no control studies of an alternative slogan — the comparison was between a massive 5-a-Day promotion and doing nothing. We are reminded of all this by Elizabeth’s explanation that a lot of research wound up proving nothing more than the expected: “…the end result from all of this research is that if you promote fruits and vegetables, consumption goes up.”
Which brings us to the crux of the issue for the produce industry and its support of 5-a-Day and now, Fruits and Veggies — More Matters: We haven’t been able to noticeably move the needle on consumption.
Now this is always a difficult matter to evaluate. Perhaps consumption would have collapsed without 5-a-Day. It was a national program, and there was no control group, so there is just no way to know. But it is fair to say that we don’t have much evidence that all these years of 5-a-Day increased produce consumption — much less that the program has reduced obesity or decreased cancer or increased public health in some other way.
Still, if Elizabeth is correct and we have good research showing increased promotion results in increased consumption, then the question is, logically, how do we get to that point?
And this really is the crux of where we stand today: On one side is the argument that we have built this organization and national infrastructure and if it is underfunded, we just have to do the best we can with what we’ve got. And the hope, without having much evidence, is that we can do some incremental good. Perhaps one day, something will happen and we will be able to really do what needs to be done with the program.
The other view is that 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?
These are difficult industry issues. Nobody wants to be seen as an enemy of efforts to increase consumption. Nobody wants to speak poorly of board members or staff trying their best to make this effort work.
However, as the funders of this effort, we have a responsibility to not allow precious industry resources to be poured into an effort that is not producing results. We need performance metrics so we will know when the program needs to be reformed.
Right now we are in a kind self-perpetuating cycle. If consumption were to increase that would “prove” the program to be working and would justify more funding, but if consumption does not increase that would “prove” we didn’t have enough money and would thus justify more funding. It is not a business-like way to operate.
We certainly hope for the best and thank Elizabeth. Her willingness to participate in this industry dialogue is the mark of a confident and gifted leader.
In our piece, Unhealthy Restaurant Salads, we mentioned that the Pundit family was on a tour of theme parks in Pennsylvania, including Hersheypark, Dutch Wonderland and Sesame Street Place. That letter brought a note from a reader we have never had the pleasure to meet:
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Pundit and Junior Pundits:
We welcome you to our beautiful state of Pennsylvania and are so happy you chose to bring your family to Central PA!
We receive your Perishable Pundit, and your excellent articles have enhanced our potato business in many ways.
If you and your Junior Pundits have a few moments to spare, we would like to invite you to tour our potato farm and packing shed. We are only 35 miles from Hershey, just off of Interstate 81. You can take a quick peek at our farm on www.tallmanpotatoes.com.
We know your schedule is busy; but the Tallman family would love to share our Pennsylvania farm with your family. We might even suggest an extremely interesting tour of the Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland, PA, if you would like to take the Junior pundits inside a true anthracite coal mine and give them a “Lokey” ride with a view of a true “environmental disaster” in Centralia, PA (the underground mine fire) that Pennsylvania has been fighting for many years.
Please give us a call or send an e-mail and we would be thrilled to give you a tour!
— Nathan W. Tallman
Tallman Family Farms, LLC
Tower City, Pennsylvania
Well we took the Tallman’s up on their kind invitation and went to visit and show the Jr. Pundits a farm.
Unfortunately, Nathan was out of town by the time we got there, but we were greeted by an assortment of family members, including Virginia “Ginny” Morton, Nathan’s Aunt.
We toured the packing house, saw an impressive new irrigation system, the boys dug for potatoes, fed a horse an apple, the boys each went for a ride in an 18-wheeler, and Ginny’s husband, Larry, took each boy on a four-wheeler through the forest. The boys even got to do an early picking on some pumpkins.
Bill, George, Joe and Sue Tallman each led our tour and took the boys on different activities. All together the Tallman family shared with us a country lunch of hamburgers, hot dogs, bratwurst, all served with fresh grown sweet corn and, of course, the house specialty: French fries prepared with the Tallman’s trademarked: Tallman’s Special Frying Potatoes.
It is hard to say what we enjoyed more, the generous hospitality or the wonderfully fresh and delicious food. We certainly appreciated the opportunity to show the Junior Pundits what life on a farm is really like.
The Tallman Farm was first established in 1860 and has been specializing in potatoes since 1939. Today, the farm covers about 1,000 acres. Plus the family markets for other potato growers. It is a very impressive operation.
Sometimes the large-scale western producers so overwhelm other producers they can be forgotten, but whatever the Tallman operation may lack in size or yield compared to the big producers out west, they make up for in proximity to market. With every retailer searching for locally grown product, the future seems bright.
It is a drought year and that is not good, but the Tallman’s have irrigation so they can apply water where it will be most effective. They are obviously not applying water to minor crops, such as pumpkins, to save it for the potatoes.
We played “Produce Geography” for five minutes and came up with many mutual friends, such as Harris Cutler of Race-West Corporation, who has frequently contributed to the Pundit, and Joe Pellicone of D’Arrigo Bros. Company of New York, who worked with the Pundit Poppa for many years.
The time came for us to move on, and we felt like we had made some new friends and the Junior Pundits had a memory that would last a lifetime. It reminded us of why we so enjoy this industry.
Much of the progressive force of the company is Nathan, who at 29 is leading the next generation. He just bought a farm in the William’s Valley where the rest of the operation is located. We missed him this trip but look forward to seeing him at PMA.
His Aunt Ginny tells us he is smart, hard working and good looking — she also was wondering if we knew any nice women interested in dating such a catch. If you know someone who likes the rural life but within easy range of the big city and is looking for a good guy… send us a note here. The first dinner is on the Pundit.
Many thanks to the Tallman family for their “produce” hospitality.
Our piece More Food Safety Lessons From Chinese Ginger Recall brought an important letter from a person with much experience in the industry:
I read with interest the news reports and Punditry regarding the recent Chinese fresh ginger recall, and subsequent comments from Jim Provost of I Love Produce.
I spent about 10 years of my career in the garlic and ginger businesses, with product from China playing a greater role as each year rolled on. It became clear that travel to China was appropriate, so I made the trips and learned much about the production and processing of both garlic and ginger. I offer the following observations:
While shippers in China routinely tout their growing operations as large-scale farms, the majority of export product is produced on small, uninspected, independent family plots. Farm implements consist of livestock, small, 1940’s era single cylinder diesel-powered walk-behind machines, and, of course, human hands and backs.
I visited numerous packing sheds, and observed on many occasions women in their 70’s crouching on the dirt floor, sometimes with sneezing children on their laps, grading, sizing, and hand trimming garlic or ginger using a small knife with a curved blade. I saw many fingers bandaged with what appeared to be masking tape, frequently stained red from a bloody wound.
Many garlic packing sheds inventoried numerous pallets of empty cartons. Some of these cartons were labeled “Product of Uzbekistan” or “Product of Thailand”. These cartons are intended for export to the USA. Mislabeling the product is done in an effort to circumvent the US Dept. of Commerce anti-dumping duty assessed on garlic produced in China.
When I asked through my interpreter if a shipper could provide organically produced product, the packinghouse manager went to his desk to retrieve a rubber stamp. The stamp simply said “ORGANIC”. I was quoted the same price for “organic” garlic as for the conventional product.
At a peeled garlic processing facility (actually an open-air, fly-infested shed adjacent to a malodorous drainage ditch), I observed workers dumping peeled garlic cloves into a large tub filled with a cloudy, viscous liquid. Upon inquiry about this step in processing, I was told that the tub was filled with a sulfite solution, which ensures that the cloves retain a bright white hue in shipping and handling. The packaging for this product was for the Japanese market, arguably the world’s most demanding market.
Wheat and other grain crops are cut by hand and sickle. Separating the grain from the chaff is accomplished by laying the stalks on the nearest road, where the passing truck tires pass over the stalks at high speed, with the vehicle’s wind leaving only the grain on the road surface. I observed this all over Shandong Province, with many laborers standing on the roadside with big 100-lb burlap sacks labeled “Cargill”. Once a suitable pause in traffic occurred, the laborers used handmade straw brooms to whisk the grain from the pavement into the sacks. Did Cargill’s office in China authorize this?
Finger Cutter Fingers
These observations, along with many others, have led me to the conclusion that food safety is only a pleasant thought in the parts of Shandong Province I visited. Claims that US marketers of Chinese produce can control, or even monitor, production are laughable.
China is not a place where you can rent a car at the airport and drive out to the field to check up on a grower. China is not a place where a US company can open an office and take charge of anything. China is an unregulated place where the shippers understand capitalism very well and will tell buyers exactly what they want to hear. Remember, outsiders don’t control anything in China — only the Chinese do.
Perhaps, someday, China might be able to ship acceptably safe product produced to Western standards. But not yet.
See recent article in Business Week online at: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07
As China continues to zero in the US market, as it has already done with manufactured goods, the US food industry, especially the fresh produce industry, needs to determine if a low price is really the most important feature of a food product.
— Roger Niebolt
Thousand Oaks, California
We would like to express great appreciation to Roger for sending along this letter as well as photographs he took on his last visit to Shandong province which do, to an extent, speak for themselves.
Roger did not have to send this letter; he no longer has any skin in this game.
He left Christopher Ranch in Pompano Beach in 2003 to accept a new position, “Garlic Division Manager” for the Giumarra Companies in Los Angeles. As Roger explains it, Giumarra saw an opportunity to break into the garlic deal with what they thought was a great deal.
Roger was brought in as a “Garlic Guy” to work that deal. After two years, Don Corsaro, President of The Giumarra Companies, and Roger, together determined there was absolutely no way a new Chinese Garlic deal could be managed by Giumarra in a legal, legitimate, safe, and profitable manner.
Don Corsaro is well respected in the trade as a man of both solid integrity and good business sense.
After working at Giumarra, Roger spent a short tenure at Albert’s Organics in Vernon, California… where he got to know frequent Pundit correspondent, Frank McCarthy, among others. Roger also worked an avocado deal for Interfresh, Inc. in Fullerton, California.
In January of this year, however, Roger made the decision to leave the fresh produce industry, as he was not able to find an opportunity in the industry which met his quality of life criteria. He now works in business development and sales with a non-food firm.
As such, his comments regarding produce from China come from a position of no bias, and no vested interest.
It is interesting because Roger’s take, as an ex-Christopher Ranch employee, is diametrically opposed to the perception of Jim Provost, another ex-Christopher Ranch employee who now heads up I Love Produce whose focus is importing from China.
Jim would acknowledge the food safety risk in China and would say that buying from someone in the US who simply imports from the cheapest exporter is crazy. But Jim does believe that the risk of food safety conditions in China can be mitigated by a company such as his — focused on China, with an office in China, etc.
Roger is basically saying that such mitigation is impossible or, at least, impractical.
Our own sense is that although Jim’s argument is correct in theory — a motivated US company could ensure food safety on its product out of China. Roger may have the better argument in practice — as really doing the right things can be so expensive that there is no point in doing them.
When the Pundit’s family was involved in growing and packing operations in the Caribbean — a less difficult venue to operate in than China — we didn’t just buy from local growers. We had teams of PhDs from Israel, experts in these matters, who ran the farms. Fortunes were spent on the most modern horticultural practices, such as drip irrigation technology, building modern packing lines and ripening rooms. To ensure proper packing, we brought packing house managers from California down to supervise the packing lines for tomatoes and honeydew melons.
Food safety wasn’t on the radar screen in the way it is today, but if we were doing it today, we would pick up the phone and call Primus or Davis Fresh Technologies or some other reputable firm and ask them to put a man full time down on the farm, maybe more if it was needed. As we sold to the UK, Europe, the US, Canada and Asia, we would certainly have had many different certifications from third-party-audited standards, such as Eurepgap, to proprietary standards, such as Marks & Spencer’s Field to Fork accreditation.
In effect, we didn’t buy locally produced product in the Caribbean; we created, at great expense, an island of western standards within countries that did not have them at the time.
But we see nobody doing anything like this in China on the produce side. Possibly Nestle or Kraft do this — building a western plant and supervising it, but nether Christopher Ranch nor Giumarra, nor I Love Produce, have made that kind of multi-million dollar commitment to controlling product.
Roger wouldn’t deny that one buyer may check things out better than another buyer — after all, he went to China to do exactly that. The problem is that visiting a grower once a week and having an organic certification is not the same thing as controlling the product every minute and being Eurepgap and Farm-to-Fork certified.
So we are left with this situation: If a US buyer is purchasing Chinese product, obviously he needs to look to companies that do more than simply selling anything they can get their hands on.
On the other hand, it is very questionable whether any importers have the kind of control and the kind of third-party certifications that should make a fresh food buyer feel comfortable buying much from China at all.