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Perceptions And Misperceptions: Consumer Attitudes On Organic And Local — University Of Connecticut Study To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show and Conference

At the very heart of The New York Produce Show and Conference is the University Interchange Program, in which great centers of learning reach out to the produce industry and not only lend us their brightest professors to present the most cutting-edge research and thus fulfill their missions to disseminate knowledge, but they also send select students who come to the event to engage with the produce marketers and service suppliers first-hand.

This year, we learned that the University of Connecticut had made a new hire and that he was doing most interesting work regarding organic and local. We were thrilled to expand the University Exchange Program and include Professor Benjamin Campbell and students from UConn.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to gain some insight as to what Professor Campbell will be presenting in New York on December 5th:

Benjamin Campbell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor and Extension Economist
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
University of Connecticut
Storrs, Connecticut

Q: It is exciting to learn that the University of Connecticut has joined the University Interchange Program at The New York Produce Show and Conference and that you will be chaperoning students as well as giving a presentation. Could you provide a preview of your talk and tell us a little about yourself and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UConn?

A: I’ve just been here a short time after heading the economics program at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, a horticulture nonprofit research organization in Montréal, Canada. My whole career has involved fruit and vegetable research.

Q: What types of research have you specialized in?

A: My focus has been on analyzing consumer preferences and consumer behavior to better understand the marketplace. Why do people do what they do in regard to purchases, and how can that guide production aspects? It can take 10 years to develop rose horticulture, for instance. If 10 years down the line, people don’t want to buy it, you’ve wasted an enormous amount of resources. How can you increase sales based on different criteria and attributes? 

A research position came open at UConn to conduct these kinds of studies, which is fairly unusual right now. Generally, most people in the program are professors, and research is a small extension component, only about 25 percent. I’m not teaching classes and mostly conducting research. Several projects I’m pursuing center on economic impacts.

The UConn ag program has different groups working in animal science, plant science, agricultural research, consumer behavior, nutrition and obesity, environmental production, and other disciplines across the map. I’m with the plant science horticulture group, and we all have specialties. We’re working together to get funding and provide our expertise in pursuit of innovative research.

Q: What will your talk encompass?

A: I’ll be looking to discuss perceptions and misperceptions of local and organic food with comparisons of U.S. and Canadian consumers.  For background, my interest to delve into this topic originated when having a conversation with a Canadian friend, who was committed to buying organic food and only organic.

I asked him what defines organic and his definition was different than mine. He believed organic meant no pesticide use at all, no synthetics, no nothing, and that organic was fresher, better-tasting, and more environmentally friendly. It struck me: How many people are there like you who believe this?  

I decided to do a study, which involved a nationwide survey funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs New Directions and Growing Forward programs. An article delineating the findings will be forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of Agriculture Economics. The paper is still in the editing stages. However the Canadian Journal of Agriculture Economics has been kind enough to allow us to post a still in progress version of the paper here.

Q: What did you learn?

A: We found misperceptions. People believed that organic food tasted better.  Of our sample, 29% said organic meant no natural pesticide use. Another 17% said organic and local were the same thing. When asked about local, 12% believed local was the same as organic. We had 11% saying local implied no synthetic pesticide use.

Q: Did you break out numbers based on consumer demographics, age, shopping behavior, etc.?

A: We used a national random sampling model. We looked at consumer profiles in analyzing survey results, which opened the door to further study. We wanted to widen our research to the U.S. to see if significant variances occurred. How would American consumers characterize organic and local? Would their knowledge and perceptions coincide or contrast with our initial findings in Canada?  

Q: Did you receive government backing through a USDA grant? Have you teamed up with other university ag extension programs to facilitate the project?

A: The US/Canadian comparison survey, which I will spend most of my time talking about at the New York Produce Show, is part of the USDA Federal, State Marketing Improvement Program. I have posted the working paper on line.  

This was definitely a collaborative project, bringing together numerous universities. The other researchers involved in the project were Bridget Behe at Michigan State University; Jennifer Dennis at Purdue University; Charlie Hall at Texas A&M University; Hayk Khachatryan at the University of Florida; Chengyan Yue at the University of Minnesota, and the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.

Q: In formulating the survey format and questions, did you essentially parallel the approach of the Canadian one? Could you elaborate on the specific questions and how they were phrased?

A: The big question we targeted was set up this way: Survey participants were asked, “Which are the following characteristics of local?” It then gave them a list of 15 different choices, and the consumer could check off as many as they believed apply or none at all. It was not limited to certain products.

The same question was posed for organic, and participants could choose any or all of those 15 characteristics listed. The list included items such as no natural pesticides, non-GMO, longer shelf life, higher price, decreased transport miles, etc.

In our Canadian-only survey, 12% of the sample felt a characteristic of organic was decreased transport miles, apparently mixing it in with local. Canadian organic websites actually raise concerns that consumers are confusing organic and local.

With the U.S. comparison survey, we were interested in two things:  would our numbers validate the Canadian-only survey, and would there be differences between U.S. and Canadian consumers in how they answered the questions?

Q: What was the prognosis?

A: While there were differences, the new study would prove to validate what we had originally found — that consumer misperceptions regarding organic and local are widespread.

Q: What were some of the standouts? Were there any meaningful differences between American and Canadian respondents?

A: In some instances, certain contrasts did emerge. It was a mixed bag in that respect, but in the big picture, the similarities were overwhelming. Canadian consumers tended to be more optimistic about local. For example, a higher percentage of Canadian consumers believed local was more nutritious, tasted better and was more environmentally friendly.

U.S. consumers were more likely to believe local was organic. One in four U.S. participants perceived organic to be a characteristic of local compared to one in five Canadians. As far as pesticide usage, the answers were similar between the U.S. and Canada. Roughly 12 percent checked that no pesticide use was a characteristic for local as well as for organic.

Q: Were the numbers skewed based upon demographic and lifestyle factors? Would a diehard organic consumer have more engrained perceptions than a mainstream shopper, for example? Did you assess buying patterns when analyzing the data?

A: In running the model, we controlled for country variables. We also included questions such as, “How often do you purchase local, how much organic product do you eat, etc.?

Overall, the big thing we found was a correlation between people who purchased organic more and more frequently and the number of positive attributes they linked to organic in the list of 15 characteristics. The more you ate organic, the more entrenched your opinion versus non-organic purchasers.

This goes back to my Canadian friend who had a strong view when defining organic. Organic purchasers were more firm in their beliefs. This was not the same for local purchasers, who had varying perceptions and reasons for buying local.

In general comparisons, we found a lot of swings between Canadian and U.S. consumers with local, but not with organic. Knowledge is subjective. But when we asked participants how knowledgeable they were on characteristics of local and organic, the more they thought they were knowledgeable, the more misperceptions they had between local and organic.

Q: Will the full study be published?

A: The researchers involved with the USDA funded project have a draft they are in the process of finalizing to submit to a peer-reviewed journal. 

Q: Will you be pursuing follow-up studies based on this research?  

A: I’ll be doing other research on organic and local, developing base-line numbers on consumption for local and things of this nature.  

Q: What are the key take-away lessons you’d like to share with attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference?

A: You can’t assume people know what they are buying. Participants in our study often showed naïveté, thinking when they buy local there are no pesticides in the product or that organic is local when it is not. Be aware and understand people have different view points and sometimes they are wrong.

Q: What is the solution?

A: I could say education, which is the obvious answer, but that is difficult to do. People perceive things that are not true and have certain expectations. How do you take someone who truly believes local has no synthetic pesticides and change their mind? This is an issue that has to be addressed. It is certainly a challenge for the produce industry.

Q: Did the survey hone in on fresh fruits and vegetables when examining consumer perceptions of organic and local?

A: Commodities could have been anything. We didn’t narrow it down to produce, betting that it would not have made a difference because most people refer back to fresh produce when thinking about organic and local. By and large, most of these types of purchases are produce. If we did the study again, we might consider questions that focus on produce, especially now with the report that came out of Stanford University.

Q: What is your assessment of the Stanford University study?

A: It concluded that there was no evidence to support that organic produce is healthier or more nutritious than conventional produce. I don’t argue with their conclusions. Yes, the study showed there were different levels of pesticides in those fruits and vegetables that were tested, but the levels all fell within legal safety limits.

Of course there are some who will argue any level of pesticides is unsafe, so will see this study as a way to solidify that fear in their minds. This just reinforces the issues raised in our research regarding consumer misperceptions.

This type of research is crucial for the industry. All too often, we assume that words mean the same things to consumers as they do to the trade — that is often not the case. Is an Idaho potato grown in Idaho or is it any long Russet-type potato? Only actual research can give us a clue.

At the same time, we are shocked at how high a level of consumer literacy on local and organic this research indicates. That only 12% of the sample felt that a characteristic of organic was reduced transit miles or that roughly 12% of respondents thought no pesticide use was a characteristic of local shows very high consumer understanding.

One never gets 100% on anything. We did a project many years ago and got about the same percentage to agree that “Produce for Better Health” was a “Joint US/Russian initiative to use produce to build world peace!”

We look forward to hearing the whole presentation and thus to getting closer to understanding consumer attitudes on these important issues.

If you would like to attend Professor Campbell’s presentation, you can register right here.

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American Academy of Pediatrics Issues Report On Organic Foods for Children. Conclusion: We Don’t know Much About This Subject.

Will children benefit if fed organic foods? Up until today, any honest person would have had to say that we have no idea. After all, there has been no research done to compare outcomes when children are fed diets of organic food and comparable children are fed conventionally grown foods.

Then, all the sudden, a release came out. It explained that something new had happened: American Academy of Pediatrics Weighs In For the First Time on Organic Foods for Children. Since this is an organization of pediatricians and its slogan is “Dedicated to the Health of all Children,” we were thrilled at the idea that such an eminent organization would clear the air.

When we started reading the headlines generated from the report, though, it seemed as if the report generated more smoke than light. Look at how a sampling of media outlets headlined their stories on the report:

CBS News: American Academy of Pediatrics says organic food no better

National Public Radio:Docs Say Choose Organic Food To Reduce Kids’ Exposure To Pesticides

USA Today: Pediatricians: Organic Foods May Not Be Better

The Wall Street Journal: Report Supports Organic Produce, but Not Milk

The Wall Street Journal’s “The Juggle” Blog: Crossing Organic Off the Grocery List

The complete study has many weaknesses. Right in the abstract, it starts out aping the claims of the Organic Trade Association as to the size of the organic market. The authors seem to lack any awareness that OTA might have an interest in hyping the size of the market.  It would have taken only minor research to note that we thoroughly debunked those market-size claims in a piece we titled, Marion Nestle, Organic Facts, And Why The Organic Trade Association's Numbers Don't Make Any Sense.

More broadly, the study doesn’t show much awareness of what the issues actually are when considering organics vs. conventional.

For example, there seems to be no awareness that organic produce is not grown in some purified environment. Although many synthetic items are banned from use in organic agriculture, other items are used in the place of synthetics. So the issue is not merely whether synthetics are bad; the issue is whether they are worse than the substances used by organic growers.

Another issue, important for research attempting to alter public policy, is whether current information about organics is scalable or not. Because so little land is certified organic, the industry has been free to elect the optimal places to make acreage organic. So if Florida is bad for organics and Washington state is good — that is the land that got switched. Whether we are talking yield, nutrient density or any other variable — we can’t assume that if organic production had to expand — say because the American Academy of Pediatrics was to recommend organics — that the widely expanded acreage would produce comparable product to what the highly selected acreage produces.

The key produce-related claims:

No clear nutritional difference between organic and conventional:

At this time … there does not appear to be convincing evidence of a substantial difference in nutritional quality of organic versus conventional produce.

Impact on workers may be more pronounced:

A large prospective birth cohort study that measured pesticide exposure in pregnant farm workers in California and followed their offspring found lower mental development index scores at 24 months of age and attentional problems at 3.5 and 5 years of age.

There has been no real research done that can enable scientists to speak to this question:

Although chronic pesticide exposure and measurable pesticide metabolite concentrations seem undesirable and potentially unhealthy, no studies to date have experimentally examined the causal relationship between exposure to pesticides directly from conventionally grown foods and adverse neurodevelopmental health outcomes.

One of the key points the authors identify from the study:

Organic produce contains fewer pesticide residues than does conventional produce, and consuming a diet of organic produce reduces human exposure to pesticides. It remains unclear whether such a reduction in exposure is clinically relevant.

Alas, we do not know much more than we did before the report came out. We know what we knew then: More research is required if we are to even begin to understand these issues.

Mexican Tomato Growers Propose Increased Minimum Prices To Save Anti-Dumping Agreement

We’ve written several pieces on the contretemps between the Mexican tomato growers and their US importers versus the Florida tomato growers:

After 16 Years Of Compliance, Florida-Mexican Tomato ‘Suspension’ Agreement Gets Challenged By Florida Growers Claiming Dumping Is Occurring: Is This Just Rent-Seeking?

The Florida Tomato Growers Are In The Right Legally, But More Than Tomato Production May Be At Stake In This Battle

Pundit's Mailbag — Florida Versus Mexican Tomatoes: Protectionism Isn’t The Answer

The latest effort to resolve the dispute has come from the Mexicans. The New York Times titled its piece, Mexican Tomato Growers Offer New Trade Deal:

Hoping to stave off a brewing trade war, Mexican tomato growers said on Thursday that they would agree to significant increases in the minimum price at which their products can enter the United States and to establish a system to bolster compliance and enforcement.

Their offers come as the Commerce Department considers whether to end a 16-year-old agreement between the United States and some Mexican growers that American tomato farmers say keeps the price of Mexican tomatoes so low that they can barely compete.

To keep the agreement in place, the Mexican growers have proposed raising the minimum price at which they can sell a pound of tomatoes in the United States by 18 percent to 25 percent, depending on the type of tomato. And they pledged to extend the agreement to all growers in Mexico who export to the United States from the roughly 85 percent who are covered by it now.

Doing that will help increase compliance with the agreement and make enforcement easier, said Martin Ley, a member of the Mexican delegation negotiating with United States trade officials and vice president of Del Campo Supreme, a family business that exported $60 million in tomatoes to the United States and Canada last year.

“This new agreement will keep prices from hitting the floor and will keep the tomatoes that consumers in the U.S. prefer in the marketplace under a framework we can operate in,” Mr. Ley said.

The current agreement sets a floor price of 21.69 cents a pound for winter tomatoes. Under the new terms the Mexicans are offering, the minimum price for winter tomatoes would be 25.68 cents to 27.02 cents a pound, depending on the variety of the tomato.

Mexico has threatened to retaliate if the agreement ends, and more than 370 United States businesses and trade groups have sent letters to the Commerce Department warning of the costs of a trade war. Producers of things as diverse as potatoes and pork remember well the price of the last trade war with Mexico over trucking, when stiff tariffs ate into revenue and profits.

“Last year, the U.S. exported more to Mexico than to Brazil, Russia, India and China combined,” Patrick Kilbride of the United States Chamber of Commerce said at a news conference that businesses held this month to urge the Commerce Department to maintain the agreement.

The Florida tomato growers are not party to the agreement, which is between the Mexican growers and the Commerce Department. Reginald Brown, executive director of the Florida Tomato Exchange, a trade group, said he had not heard anything about the new Mexican proposals beyond what a reporter told him.

“From the grower community, there is no interest at all in sustaining an agreement,” Mr. Brown said on Thursday. “The only people clamoring to sustain it are the people it is supposed to be policing.”

The Mexican growers have long contended that the Obama administration signaled that it was considering ending the agreement to soothe the ruffled feathers of farmers in Florida, a crucial swing state in the presidential election.

The Mexican growers also note that the official presiding over the division of the Commerce Department that is handling the negotiations, Francisco Sanchez, is from Florida. Mr. Sanchez, who is under secretary of commerce for international trade, was one of President Obama’s top fund-raisers in 2008, collecting more than $500,000 from family members and friends.

“We are 100 percent sure that if this proposal is rejected, it cannot be rejected for anything other than political reasons,” Mr. Ley said.

Obviously the Mexicans value stability and guaranteed market access more than holding out for free trade. They may not even mind having higher minimum prices so whatever they can sell in the US is more likely to be profitable.

Whether the Florida growers will go along is questionable. Maybe it is all a negotiating tactic but, also maybe, they know the US laws regarding dumping — which require no proof of government subsidy — are actually in Florida’s favor.

Under US law, Florida would probably win an anti-dumping lawsuit and there are indications that Florida growers would like to go for the “Full Monte” and win a big anti-dumping case against Mexico.

It is difficult to have much to say about any of this. Our inclination would be to say that if a Florida tomato grower wishes to ship his tomatoes to London, Tokyo or Mexico City, he should be able to send them on free open consignment to the agent of his choice.

Consistency demands that we also advocate that a grower of tomatoes in Belgium, Israel or Mexico have the same freedom to sell in New York, Chicago or Seattle.

So this whole battle is simply political.

Inherently, Florida has the edge because they are a domestic industry and we doubt much will happen to disadvantage them before the election.

Long term, though, we have two concerns for our friends in Florida:

First, it is one thing to press what advantages one can get politically. Life is tough, and leveraging such opportunities may well be the smart thing to do. But the path is not sustainable. So if one is going to get the benefit of tariffs or negotiated agreements to restrict competition, one needs to simultaneously use that advantage to prepare for when one loses that political edge.

It is hard to understand why so few — by our count one — Florida tomato growers own physical assets in Mexico. It has been obvious for decades that this is the way the business is going… why would companies not move to keep their customers?

We also wonder why more Florida tomato production has not shifted away from the gas green tomatoes. Indeed, we wrote in these piece — UglyRipe Tomatoes Now Available Year-Round and Pundit’s Mailbag — Ugly Or Ugli? That Is The Question — about how Florida tomato growers turned on Procacci Brothers — one of their own — when they had the gumption to try something innovative with its UglyRipe tomato.

Second, Florida growers should be wary about customer reaction. Customers today are not like they were 20 years ago. Wal-Mart, Ahold, Delhaize — all big customers for Florida tomatoes — also procure globally and probably won’t cotton to the idea that a group of vendors rose up to try to restrict their procurement options.

We wrote a great deal about Jim and Theresa Nolan and their dispute with Ocean Spray. You can read about it all here. To this day, there are many retailers who won’t buy Ocean Spray fresh cranberries because they don’t want to be associated with that kind of behavior.

Perhaps Florida may find it succeeds in blunting competition only at the price of alienating the industry’s very best customers.

You can count on those selling Mexican product to make exactly this argument.

Ten Years, Ten Lessons Learned: A Look At The European Produce Industry Through The Eyes Of Freshfel’s Philippe Binard

As the trade gathers for the PMA Fresh Summit convention in Anaheim, we thought we would look half-way across the world to Belgium, where Freshfel, sort of a PMA and United combined for Europe, is headquartered. It is a young association — just having celebrated its 10th anniversary.  

We reached out across the Atlantic and asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to ask Philippe Binard, Secretary General of Freshfel Europe, to identify ten lessons learned during the last decade. He was kind enough to accept the challenge:

Philippe Binard
Secretary General
Freshfel Europe
Brussels, Belgium

Q: With the announcement of Freshfel’s 10th anniversary, we thought it would be an excellent time to highlight Freshfel’s role in the industry. As the platform for the piece, we’re hoping you could brainstorm 10 key issues that have transpired in the sector, which most impacted and influenced direction for the industry.

As you consider historical context, what has changed, what surprises you, what insight have you gleaned? To this end, what are 10 lessons learned, and what are Freshfel’s goals and projections looking toward the next 10 years?

A: I’ve reviewed the main topics on our agenda the last 10 years and their evolution; and then what I see behind each and the forecast.

Q: Thank you for your dedication in taking on our request. Your tenure at Freshfel since its founding offers a unique vantage point...

A: Actually, Freshfel is the merger of two trade organizations in Brussels that existed for many years. I’ve been doing this 26 years! My role at Freshfel is general delegate or what you might call managing director, and we have a board of directors.

Our current chairman is Philippe Henre of Creno/UNCGFL in France. Luc Clerx, a wholesaler from Zespri International, is vice president, and Jerome Fabre of Compaignie Fruitiere is treasurer, among recently elected officials for the term 2012 to 2014. (Editor’s note: you can read more about the structure, divisions and committees here).

Q: How would you describe Freshfel’s mission?

A: We are the European fresh produce association, which represents various segments of the fresh fruit and vegetable sector from the grower to retailer. It is based in Brussels because its primary objective is to be a voice for the sector in the European arena and try to influence the various legislative and regulatory actions taken in agriculture, trade, food safety, health safety, environmental protection, customs taxation, and represent members in all these areas.

On the other hand, Freshfel is also a platform for networking to meet common concerns not necessarily regulatory in nature. For example, developing strategies to stimulate consumption and taking essential steps to reverse some of the trends.

Q: By representing such a diverse membership and interests, do you find conflict within your organization, for instance, between the grower/supplier side and buyer/retail side when determining what path to take on regulatory actions? In the U.S., PMA and United Fresh have faced challenges trying to merge, weighing the pros and cons. In the European Union, you also are dealing with 27 different countries, government structures, cultures, etc.

A: On the grower/supplier and buyer/retail side, when talking about fruits and vegetables, 90 percent to 95 percent of issues bring consensual opinions. If you look at commercial relationships, there are tensions on prices and requirements, like any business relations. This isn’t our role; we are here to address issues of common concern. In the past 10 years, we’ve had plenty on our plate to tackle with these concerns.

Q: With that in mind, what are the topics you’ve targeted for our discussion?

A: I would first like to list the 10 issues I’ve considered:

1. Evolution of consumption

2. Development of exports

3. Imports into Europe

4. Development of foodservice and convenience and innovation

5. Food scares

6. Evolution between global and local

7. Image

8. Sustainability

9. Communication and promotion, and

10.Children and the consumers of tomorrow, a positive way to conclude.


Q: You’ve hit a broad range of topics. I imagine each could be a novel on its own, yet in many ways these issues tie together. Let’s tackle one at a time, and see where that takes us. How have you assessed the evolution of produce consumption?

A: It’s a worrying trend. I’ve seen consumption not only stagnating but in most cases declining. That doesn’t mean one category isn’t growing, but in the aggregate this is disturbing. In figures, consider the overall decline close to 15 percent in the last 10 years for fresh produce in Europe. For perspective, annual total volume of produce consumption is on the order of 100 million tons, resulting in 15 million tons, which have not been marketed should the consumption go up to where it was 10 years ago. This gap is the main point of concern and a lost opportunity directing the policy in Freshfel.

Q: Do you collect and track data? What research have you conducted?

A: We have a consumption monitor, where we calculate average consumption per capita. Findings from the 2011 ‘Consumption Monitor’ show that in 2010 the total net supply of fruit per capita stands at 235 grams per day, while the vegetable total net supply per capita stands at 223 grams per day. On an aggregate EU-27 basis, this figure is higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) 400 grams per day minimum recommendation, but below that threshold in too many member states.

After a sharp decrease in 2009, the per capita fresh fruit consumption within the EU-27 declined in 2010 again dramatically by 7.8%, which means a decrease of 9.4% in comparison to the average consumption of the previous five years. Fresh vegetable consumption declined also drastically by 7.4% compared to 2009, remaining clearly below the average of the last five years by 10.3%.

Q: How do you arrive at those numbers?

A: Done on a simple basis, we take product plus imports minus exports divided by population per year, which amounts in the aggregate to slightly below 400 grams per day, the minimum recommended. Only a few member states go to that level, but most are much below. Maybe another element also quite important in the U.S. is the issue of waste. We take a waste factor of 20 percent in our calculation, which could be debated.

ISO [International Organization for Standardization] takes a waste factor of some 45 percent for the U.S. and Europe. Twenty percent is what we consider part of the production lost in the chain to consumer. The 45 percent is divided by product not picked in the orchard, waste in storage, retail shops and at the consumer level. When we take the products to calculate, we look at what will go to the fresh market, then take 20 percent off and then do the calculation to determine an aggregate for the European Union as well as for each of the 27 countries. More than half of the member states are below that minimum recommended 400 grams per day level. We must do everything we can to reverse this problem.


Q: The reasons behind the drop in produce consumption as well as the solutions seem to be intertwined within your list of targeted issues…

A: That is certainly the case. We’ve seen that if consumption is declining, it means European producers are looking at new destinations for product. This leads into the issue of exports. If the EU has been a slow export partner, in the last decade things changed by development of neighboring countries such as Russia and Ukraine. Europe exports five million tons, with Russia taking about half the volume.

We remain dependent on Russia and Ukraine, but both have been growing steadily. Europe has been able to take a significant part of growth in this market. In assessing exports, it’s important to look at the shape of Europe, which has changed in 10 years. A decade ago there were only 15 countries in the European Union. Today, there are 27 countries, including Poland, the Baltic States, and Hungary. Also, there are countries that have developed lots of links with fresh produce that have been able to sustain exports.

However, in many instances, sanitary and phytosanitary barriers and trade restrictions exist, which hinder flow. Countries often require a long list of SPS measures and technical barriers that are not only burdensome and costly, but unnecessary.

Q: Could you provide examples?

A: If I want to ship to the U.S., I need to meet APHIS market conditions. Seven EU member states (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal and Spain) are trying to export apples and pears to the U.S. market and there is no progress in this discussion.

Still, there are additional inhibitors to block exports to the U.S., China, India and other countries, which make it extremely difficult and limit export opportunities. We’ve made some progress in efforts to harmonize trade with different countries, but are heavily dependent on exporting to Russia and Ukraine, and all the smaller markets. We’re looking at developing new markets. We need to diversify.


Q: Conversely, what is happening with imports to the EU?

A: The U.S. is always quite open and a leading region in the world. In the past four or five years, we’ve seen Europe is not the primary destination, particularly southern hemisphere countries.

Maybe markets are growing faster or easier in terms of requirements with pesticides in Europe, but it is difficult to convince suppliers. Perhaps the issue is the exchange rate, which is an important consideration. There are some currency values, where it has become more difficult for importers to continue trends they had strongly developed in the 1990’s. Beginning in the year 2000, and then in the last part of the decade, we’ve noted trends going down. It may also be linked to consumption in Europe not being so strong, so demand is going down.


Q: Here is a good segue to your fourth issue on the list: foodservice and convenience and innovation. Does this outlet offer untapped potential to increase produce consumption?

A: The fact consumption is going down in Europe is because consumer lifestyles are changing, just like in the U.S. Fresh vegetables have traditionally been consumed at home. Our industry has failed to take advantage within the foodservice sector. This much diversified sector could include restaurant chains, hospitals, public administration, schools, etc.

We need to be looking at product that is more convenient, and specially directed for this kind of segment through innovation, new ways of packaging, and conservation, products that can be served easily in the kitchen, eaten during public transport, on airlines and trains. It also must rise to a more attractive level.

The main difficulty in the sector is competing with alternatives in foodservice areas that may be cheaper. We need to take into account people are eating 50 percent of meals out of their homes. It is time to drive strategies in the foodservice sector and strengthen distribution systems.


Q: While the U.S. produce industry has confronted devastating food crises, how has Freshfel coped with the enormity of the deadly European E.coli 0104:H4 outbreak? What lessons have you learned?

A: Europe has not experienced as many food scares as you have in the U.S. In the past few years, we have had to cope with food outbreaks. The E. coli 0104:H4 crisis and its magnitude was a new situation for an organization like us. We have had to get prepared with a risk management team and new communication strategies.

In the past, most of these problems were located in a very specific country. Last year, the E. coli crisis in Europe was devastating for the sector, and created a lot of losses for growers, and people in the trade were completely stuck for months. If there is a food outbreak and it is mishandled, it can suddenly become a European crisis fanned by the media, creating havoc and resulting in much more impact.

We have to quickly cooperate with authorities in the analysis and proper steps. Tomatoes and cucumbers were identified as the source of the outbreak, but with our cooperation it was demonstrated our product was not the source and companies were operating properly. This was because of the extensive input we contributed to the European Commission. There are many lessons to be learned from this crisis. We must be aware that the sector is only as strong as its weakest element. We have to supply safer product to consumers and take all necessary steps to minimize the risks of a food outbreak.

Q: Was the source of the E. coli 0104:H4 outbreak ever determined?

A: It was believed to be sprouts; at least that’s the latest finding from the European Food Safety Authority. It’s important to understand that in this crisis around 40 people died, and more then 800 people were on dialysis for kidney failure. This was a very serious issue we had last year. At the moment, there are still critical steps to improve microbiologic control.


Q: In the U.S., locally grown has become a marketing tool. Yet, what defines local, and the benefits of local fuel much debate here. Do issues of local get as much play in Europe?

A: Politics and a number of special interest groups have been at the center of the debate to go local. It sounds strange to me. In Europe, when you look at the data, a very high percentage of product, maybe more vegetables than fruit, grown in the European Union, is grown or processed in that member state.

Roughly speaking, for vegetables, close to 80 percent are grown in the country where the consumer is based; take Belgium where a high percentage of local product is offered to consumers. In fruit, the percentage of local is less than for vegetables, closer to 65 percent. Because of climate, much more fruit is imported. We don’t grow citrus, pineapple, banana, or melons in Belgium.

After having a strong push for globalization looking back 10 years, I think today, there is refocused interest on what is local to support local communities, etc. This debate should not be exaggerated. When you enter any shop, product will remain local. The same debate is going on in Washington, but an important question is, what do you want to achieve? What is the definition of local? Is local directly from the farm, within certain number of miles from the farm; it’s very difficult.

Some say locally grown is in the U.S. or in Europe or grown in France. Does it make sense that Paris is closer to Belgium or Brittany where you grow the tomatoes? Local is used as an instrument of marketing. You see union trucks that say, this is British product. It’s a new debate, contrasting the trends in the late 90’s of globalization.

People trust more in what is coming from next door, but there is confusion. They think it’s organic when it’s not, or cleaner, which is not necessarily the case. Regulatory and non-regulatory requirements must be considered as well.


Q: When you target “image” as an issue for the produce industry, are you referring to consumer perceptions of fresh produce?

A: I choose to talk about image because fresh produce has a positive image in terms of color and diversity with consumers, but we’ve been unable to take advantage of this benefit that it is also healthy and good to eat.

Companies selling yogurt or ice cream use beautiful pictures of fruit on the package, yet when you examine the contents, there is no fruit in the product at all. Our competitors in the processed food sector are using image property and assets of fresh fruits and vegetables to increase their sales. Often they have a lot of marketing capacity compared to our sector, which is very fragmented.

Q: Didn’t Freshfel challenge this practice by trying to change regulations? Whatever happened with this fight?

A: Where is the Fruit is our study looking at packaging and labels of each of these products. Out of the 200 products that we have checked, less then 15 percent had at least 50 percent of fruit. The question of the image is quite important. We are now entering into new legislation, similar as in the U.S. about claims. For example, when drinking orange juice, what health claims can a company make?

The sector needs to be strong and take actions based on the revelations of this study; the competitor’s formula or content could be easy to detail, maybe the manufacturer added more Vitamin C or Vitamin D.

Around the question of image, our sector needs to be aware of what is happening in order to better communicate our asset.

Q: Don’t you find it somewhat ironic that competitors in other food sectors are trying to capitalize on the image of fresh produce in their products because they think consumers will perceive them as better? Isn’t that an encouraging sign for the produce industry that junk food companies want to steal the produce sector’s image? And to that point, what attributes do you think consumers are being drawn to when they see the fresh produce images on those packages?

A: There is a dual responsibility for the produce industry. When looking at the health and nutrition benefits of eating produce, most public health organizations speak to those. I think the role of people in the produce sector is to put more focus on the fun, the convenience, the pleasure to eat produce, and make fresh fruits and vegetables fashionable. We have multiple responsibilities. We are not doctors. It is not up to us to be medical professionals. That is not our primary function. We have to emphasize enjoyment, fun and pleasure.


A: Let’s jump to issue Number 9 since communication is linked to image. We have a deficit of image because our sector is fragmented.

Q: How do handle that?

A: More effort needs to be made in communication with consumers. We are fighting for a greater budget from the European Union, and developing a website, www.enjoyfresh.eu/php/index.php.

We also have another website more specifically targeting children, www.kidsenjoyfresh.eu. We must do everything we can to provide a positive image of fruits and vegetables. Media emphasizes that fruits and vegetables are expensive, full of pesticides, not healthy, and losing nutritional value because of intense farming. NGOs use generic, stereotypical statements when lobbying and misrepresent the facts.

Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions?

A: When you take the question of price, produce is one of the cheaper choices for consumers. You can eat five portions of fresh fruits and vegetables for less then 2 Euros or 2.6 U.S. dollars, so produce is relatively cheap. If you take the cost of fruits and vegetables by the kilo, yogurt is more and chocolate is even more expensive. It’s a misconception.

Campaigns in Europe are coming out comparing the cost of a pack of cigarettes to buying five pineapples, and one small espresso is the same as one liter of soup. We need to put things in perspective and correct false ideas. Pesticide levels are minimal, yet NGOs want zero pesticides. It’s impossible. They also want to eliminate GMOs but don’t use valid reasoning, only irrational fears.

On a nutritional basis, maybe some products lose nutritional value, but others are specifically designed with increased nutritional value. In the debate of climate change, fresh fruits and vegetables are much better positioned. Communicating that is important.


Q: American-based companies across industries have become compelled to prioritize and drive sustainability initiatives. What is happening on this front in Europe?

A: There are many initiatives taken in the sector, from better agricultural practices to improved pest management and safety, which can be very costly. Protection of the environment has been a benefit given to fresh produce. When it comes back to the question of price, there is a guarantee provided by the sector. When you take the price at the retail sector compared to 10 years ago, produce is cheaper.

A lot of improvements in sustainability have brought the grower closer to the consumer. Companies are developing websites so that consumers can have contact with the grower. Sustainability is a philosophy in which produce companies are more advanced compared to other sectors.


Q: It seems fitting to conclude our interview with an issue so critical to the one that that started the interview: produce consumption and children…

A: There’s no better way to end this review than with an emphasis on the importance of reaching children. Children are the consumers of tomorrow, but they need to be convinced to eat fruits and vegetables. Look at United Fresh in the U.S. pushing the European Fruit School Scheme and to facilitate distribution of fruits and some vegetables to children between the ages of five to eight years old, and to make sure they have access.

The European Fruit Scheme is in place three years, and every year the program has doubled the number of children. It started with two million, grew to four million in year two, now it’s up to eight million. A lot of parents and teachers are not aware such a scheme is available. We need to increase visibility of the fruit scheme at the European level, although visibility is not as bad as in the U.S.

The solution for our sector is having children getting used to the taste and texture of fruits and vegetables in the early years. We also must address the problem of availability. Maybe children are not eating produce because they don’t have access to it. It comes back to point Number 4 — foodservice; children and schools are an interesting element.

Q: Isn’t there also a financial element? How important is funding in advancing your objectives, and how do you secure it?

A: As in the U.S., the European Commission has budgeted support through agriculture policy. For the U.S., more ag money is distributed to support farmers. The interesting point with the budget for the school fruit scheme is the incorporation of a health element. The budget could be used to advance health of the youngest by providing healthier choices of consumption. Evolution of policy analyzes the costs of healthcare and the price of not moving forward.

Q: With the epidemic of childhood obesity and associated health risks, the precedent exists. At the same time, outside of anecdotal evidence, isn’t it challenging to scientifically quantify direct health results from programs like the school fruit scheme?

A: One of the elements people who run the program at the national level need is the evaluation and monitoring of the program, not just that money has been spent. It is not so easy to quantify results.

There is a European platform for diet, physical activity, and health, and we’re a part of this. It was set up in 2005 by the European Commission to address obesity, using both regulatory and non-regulatory options. From a regulatory standpoint, to introduce and pass controversial laws takes time. At the same time, the food industry says let’s go forward with non-regulatory actions showing all we can do in terms of reformulating labeling, advertisements, etc.

In this platform, there have been more than 250 commitments taken by all the parties, including ourselves. Parties are monitored by their commitments. You evaluate what you’ve done, but you don’t evaluate the impact of what you’ve done in terms of reducing obesity or improving children’s health.

One commitment is the consumption monitor. It is important to know if there is an increase or decline in consumption. That’s useful. We will take a calculation of trends in consumption for the 27 member states. But it is not measuring if those trends are contributing to reducing obesity.

If children take the apple from the school fruit program and go to the school yard and play and don’t eat the apple, we need to monitor that. The time of day when the child is given the apple, the alternative choices available, whether the child is hungry, all these factors matter. Produce is delivered to that program once per week. If we want change, we need to be there for the children every day. 

Well, the PMA is meeting in Anaheim, home of Disneyland, so it is fitting to note that, if nothing else, this interview proves that it is “a small world after all!”

Issue after issue mirrors what the US has been wrestling with.  The question, of course, is if we write a similar list ten years from now, how will it be different? There is opportunity aplenty for those who can figure that out.

Many thanks to Philippe Binard and Freshfel Europe for helping to educate the industry on what ten years has wrought.

Pundit’s Mailbag — Two Views On Bicycle Helmets, Government Regulation, Organic Produce And Boosting Consumption

Our piece — What Do Bicycle Helmets And Organic Produce Have In Common?— brought many responses from all over the spectrum. To some, the idea of government regulating activities of this nature is manifestly about something other than safety:

Bureaucrats love regulations and the bigger the bureaucracy, the more rules are created (and the less those rules serve common-sense goals). Is not the common-sense approach to encouraging bicycling by relaxing the rules on helmets a microcosm of the anti-big government mood of the U.S. electorate? 

Each new year brings new and more costly regulations to doing business. The benefits of these rules have become secondary to the nobility of the rule-makers’ intentions.

Thanks for this refreshing dose of common sense.

—   Doug StoiberVice President, Produce Transportation Operations
L&M Transportation Services, Inc.
Raleigh, North Carolina

One has to acknowledge that Doug is on to something. There is little evidence that the efficacy of regulations is an important criteria in their establishment or maintenance.

Take something such as COOL — the country of origin labeling requirement. There was little reason to ever think it would change consumer produce purchasing habits but, now, having been implemented, there also seems to be absolutely no interest in determining the impact or effectiveness of the regulation.

It is as if the “good cause” itself justifies the expense and effort. There is no cost/benefit analysis, no need to prove the regulation accomplished anything at all. It is just one more regulation burdening commerce.

In contrast, others see the desirability of helmet regulations as manifest:

What has happened to common sense in America? We have become a nation of Pundits (no offence Jim) that can take any subject, spin it, and make people believe it sounds logical. Mitt Romney alluded to this about his five sons in the first debate. As they were getting older, his sons believed the more they could repeat their ‘spin’ on a specific topic, the more likely they could convince their parents they were right.

Now we have a New York Timesreporter spinning the extraordinary exuberance of cycling without a helmet and justifying it by stating “…many researchers say if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes.” He then takes it a step further by adding, “…a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network.”

Next I expected to read how wearing a helmet was keeping us from obtaining World Peace! First, note the so-called “researchers” are not identified. Could these possibly have been buddies he was riding with one day and in general conversation one of them mentioned, “You know, I bet if we didn’t wear helmets, it would encourage more people to ride”?

Having been an active cyclist for 10+ years, the thought has never crossed my mind that not wearing a helmet would encourage me to ride more. The article does state that many European health experts take a different view; “Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a ‘certain speed’ and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury.

A CERTAIN SPEED? Are you kidding me! Again, this is where common sense is needed. Having taken a fall on asphalt traveling 18 mph, with skin ripped from my shoulder and arm, and a scratch 8 inches long down the side of my helmet, I can testify wearing a helmet prevents serious injury.

But, if you have ever ridden a road bike with clip-in shoes, you have probably experienced an unexpected sudden stop where you were unable to un-clip your shoes quickly and toppled over. Regardless of whether you are traveling 18 mph or at a stand-still, if your head hits concrete pavement without a helmet, it will hurt and can cause serious long-term damage.

Much has been written about the growth of Organics in produce with opinions on both sides spinning the benefits and/or non-benefits. Proponents claim it is better for you, healthier and better to be grown without pesticides. A recent study conducted by Stanford University and released in the Annals of Internal Medicineconfirms that “consuming organic foods reduces consumers' exposure to pesticide residues and to bacteria-resistant to antibiotics, but that the nutritional value between the two categories is not significant.”  

A separate report recently released by PBH adds:

A new study published by Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) concludes that consumers have a much better chance to reduce their risk of cancer by eating one more serving of fruit and vegetables a day than worrying about cancer risks from pesticide residues on produce. The study estimated 20,000 cases of cancer per year could be prevented in the U.S. if just half of the U.S. population increased its fruit and vegetable consumption by one serving a day.

The study also looked at the likely relationship between pesticide residues and cancer and concluded the upper limit of 10 cases or less per year could result from residues. The research used estimates from a 2011 World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute of Cancer Research published report, according to the release from PBH.

“Fear of cancer from pesticides unfortunately affects the perception of some consumers towards fruits and vegetables; this analysis shows that the opposite is true,” Rick Reiss, principal scientist, Exponent, said in the report. “Consuming a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is a way to prevent cancer and to lead a generally healthier life.”

“This study beautifully demonstrates relative risk: 20,000 to 10 or less,” PBH President Elizabeth Pivonka said in the release. “In fact, the true benefits are underestimated, given the role fruit and vegetables play in weight control, reduced risk of heart disease and overall cellular function in addition to cancer prevention.”

Pivonka said in the release that it is much more important to make fruits and vegetables at least half of what you eat than to be distracted with concerns about pesticide residues.

Wake up America! Research and start making decisions for yourself based on what makes sense, not on what someone else has twisted and repeated again and again to make you think it makes sense. Consumption of fresh produce is the answer for many of the health issues we face today.

We have the resources to safely grow, harvest and market an abundance of affordable product for everyone in the United States. If in your mind it makes sense to purchase Organic, do so. On the other hand, if you believe conventional produce tastes good and is good for you, then purchase it. Regardless, it is our responsibility to the produce industry, to our families and to our country to encourage everyone to EAT MORE PRODUCE!

Oh yea, unless your head is harder than concrete, wear a helmet and get out and ride your bike!

—   Maurice Totty
Director of Produce
FAC Food Logistics
Rocky Mountain, North Carolina

Maurice is an enthusiastic cyclist and one could support few causes more worthy than contributing to support his annual efforts in the Ride Without Limits, Benefiting United Cerebral Palsy, in honor of his granddaughter Tatem. We made a donation, and you can do so on Team Tatem’s Fundraising Page.

However, Maurice’s very intense involvement in cycling may make his thought process and experience atypical with the casual bicyclist.

When the Pundit was a kid, we rode bicycles without helmets. In fact, we didn’t know one single kid who had a helmet. Now, if you are like me and you have to search for your helmet and get your kids to do the same each time you want to go for a ride, bicycling becomes less spontaneous and more of a project. We have no trouble seeing how that could depress the amount of bicycle riding that gets done.

When one turns to the issue of bike sharing programs, a requirement for helmets definitely depresses participation. Under these programs, one picks up a bike a Point A and rides it to point B, where one can return the bike to the system. Imagine perhaps getting off a subway stop and then riding the rest of the way to a park near one’s work.

But many of these programs don’t offer helmets — so now one must carry one’s own around.  Even if they start to offer helmets, many who would be comfortable riding a shared bike won’t want to wear someone else’s helmet, which could be sweaty, dirty, have lice etc.       

These programs don’t involve road bikes with clip in shoes — in fact when you look at these programs, the riders are often in their work or leisure clothes, not athletic garb, not even sneakers.

Here is a fairly typical photo from the Dutch bike sharing program:

This type of casual rider will certainly be deterred if he now has to carry around a helmet and can’t just impulsively grab a bike share bike.

The argument that requiring a helmet psychologically suggests that bike riding is a dangerous activity is more difficult to verify, and quantifying the impact of such requirements is almost impossible. But it is not implausible.

It is also the exact argument that the produce industry asserts against things such as the “dirty dozen” list. The idea is that scaring people about the dangers of minute pesticide residues does not, in fact, increase public health. Whatever benefit may be derived by people switching to organic is far outweighed by people eating less produce due to fear of pesticides.

In bike riding and in public health advisories related to food — and in much of life — we have to make sure that we do not allow the best to be the enemy of the good. Thinking one can only ride a bicycle with a helmet or that one can only eat organic produce are both manifestations of this attitude.

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