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Perishable Pundit
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Prop 37, GMOs, Labeling And The Nature Of Rights

Tonya Antle, whose retirement we trumpeted here, sent a video link to Frieda Caplan, who we first wrote about in Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS in this cover story, and, most recently, co-chaired, with Bruce Peterson of Wal-Mart fame, the 2011 University Exchange Program at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Frieda sent the video link to, in alphabetical order, the Pundit, Bryan Silberman and Tom Stenzel, asking for comments.

The topic: GMOs, which we just dealt with in the context of a California ballot initiative, which ultimately failed. We titled the piece, DECISIONS FOR ELECTION DAY: From California’s Proposition 37 (GMO Labeling) To The Presidential Election Coming Down To Maine’s Potato Growers.

Now that the pro-labeling contingent has been rejected by the voters of California, they hope to achieve through the bureaucracy what they were not able to achieve through the ballot box. They want the FDA to require the labeling of foods that are made with genetically modified ingredients.

An organization identified as “Just Label it! We have the right to know” has gotten together a group of stars to make a video:

Having prominent names willing to speak out for your cause is attention-getting, but it does not mean that the proponents are necessarily right.

The first issue is that, somehow, everything is now a “right,” and this is troubling. If it is a desire, then we can negotiate; we can trade off. Somehow we can probably find a way to co-exist. If, however, something is a “right,” then we can’t negotiate, can’t discuss; as such “rights” proliferate, it becomes harder and harder to sustain a civil society.

We would say the advocates here are misunderstanding the nature of “rights”. The right that must be defended here is the right to decline to purchase something. If these people want labels, and vendors don’t provide them, this Pundit will fight to the death to defend their right not to be compelled to buy that product.

If these individuals do not want to purchase foods that have not been labeled as to their GMO content, they should stop doing so. They could purchase organic, which is GMO-free, or they could petition other companies to label things. If other companies are non-responsive, they could start their own company and capture what they claim is a large market.

These are their rights — to refuse to purchase product they don’t approve of; to petition others to do as they would prefer; to launch a business that creates the products they want.

Note that as far as the rest of the population goes, these “rights” only require us to refrain from interfering. We cannot force feed them product they don’t want, we cannot tape their mouths shut so they cannot communicate their preferences; we cannot restrict them from manufacturing and marketing the products they want available.

In contrast, their notion of rights implies that others somehow have obligations to do the things these people happen to want.

Of course, our society is complex, and we compel various activities for various reasons, but from a rights-based perspective, why shouldn’t Joe have the “right” to make up a smoothie and when asked if he used GMO ingredients, simply refuse to disclose. Why can’t he say: “I choose not to reveal whether I used GMO ingredients or not. If that is problematic for you, you should buy elsewhere.”

So the rights based argument seems frivolous. There is no “right” to know, because others don’t have an obligation to tell you. They certainly don’t have an obligation to spend money on labeling, etc.

Of course, something may not be a ”right” but still may be desirable from a policy point of view. The problem here is that the proposal to label GMO foods is completely ad hoc.

Usually, what you want to do from a public-policy perspective is create a rule — a standard — for, in this case, when labeling should be compelled. Then, anytime someone proposes that something be labeled, you can compare it against the rule and get an answer.

We basically have that approach. We label things, generally, because a label is helpful. If something is dangerous or a poison, we require labeling.

We require nutrition labeling on certain items because, if used properly, knowing the calorie count or sodium count can help people to eat in a more healthy manner.

What is most troubling about the advocacy in this area is that it is an effort made on behalf of a prejudice. If the advocates have any evidence that GMOs are not safe, they could assert that they should be labeled — or banned — on that basis.

Equally, if knowledge of GMOs in food was helpful to consumers, say if by avoiding GMOs they could be healthier, this would also be compelling as a reason to consider requiring labeling.

Very specifically, though, the advocates avoid making these claims; they imply vaguely bad things about GMOs but hang their hats on the “right to know.”

There is an old saying among lawyers: If the law is on your side, pound on the law. If the evidence is on your side, pound on the evidence. If nothing is on your side, pound on the table. This focus on the “right to know” is a way of pounding on the table, because they have no evidence that GMOs are dangerous.

If we make public policy based on such table-pounding, we will have a lot of policies, but they won’t help us at all. As Shakespeare wrote:

 “…it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Do we not have any real problems left to confront?

What Makes Consumers Willing To Pay More? University Of Delaware’s Kent Messer To Unveil A Unique Synthesis Of Multiple Studies At The New York Produce Show And Conference

One of the important aspects of The New York Produce Show and Conference revolves around its University Exchange Program. The idea is simple: Go to the great centers of learning in the region, discover ground-breaking research that would not normally be disseminated in the trade and assist the schools in pursuing their land-grant missions to disseminate knowledge, while positioning the attendees on the cutting edge of the field by exposing them to the best and most innovative research and study being done in the field.

Simultaneous to this, we also invite students of these universities to the event, infuse the trade with their youthful energy and exuberance, while the students win by learning about the industry and leap-frogging their competitors in the job market as they get to have personal interaction with top industry executives.

We already announced the expansion of the program to include the University of Connecticut; with a piece we titled Perceptions And Misperceptions: Consumer Attitudes On Organic And Local — University Of Connecticut Study To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show and Conference. Now we are thrilled to announce the elevation of the University of Delaware into the roster of the illustrious institutions taking part in the event. UConn and Delaware join founding participants, Cornell University, Rutgers University and St. Joseph University. Plus, these schools will join the first foreign school in the University Exchange Program – University Degli Studi Di Scienze Gastronamiche, which we highlighted in these two pieces: Food “To Die For” May Do Just That… Seminal Study Encouraging The Eating Of Bitter Vegetables For Health To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show And Conference and Meet The Gastronomes — And Learn About Their Mission To Increase Produce Consumption — At The New York Produce Show And Conference.

It is an expensive program. Between this program and the separate Culinary School Connection Program, we are well into the six figures as we have transport, hotels, food, etc., for both faculty and students. (A Short Promotional Plea: If anyone is willing to help provide scholarships for some of the students or sponsor an individual school, it would be a valuable contribution. Please let us know here.)

Whatever it costs, the Eastern Produce Council and PRODUCE BUSINESS — as presenters of The New York Produce Show and Conference — would not be content with simply a trade show and some industry speakers. We are committed to elevating the industry, enriching it with new ideas and new people and so, when we learned about some really intriguing research being done at the University of Delaware, we knew we had to reach out.

We had heard scuttlebutt about a bright mind from Cornell who was doing fascinating research down in Newark, Delaware, so we are thrilled he accepted the opportunity to make a presentation to the industry in New York. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:

Kent Messer, Ph.D.,
Associate Professor
Department of Applied Economics
and Statistics
Director, Experimental Economics Laboratory for Policy & Behavioral Research
College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of Delaware

Q: It is exciting news that the University of Delaware has joined the University Exchange Program and that you will be doing a presentation at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

We’d like to provide attendees with a sneak preview of your talk.

Could you tell us about your background and what inspired the research you will be sharing with attendees at the show?

A: My background in terms of food and agriculture relates to being from South Dakota and connected to agriculture. I went to Grinnell College in Iowa, pursuing my interest in farmers and decisions on the land, production choices and how they were affecting the environment, and also how consumers viewed these choices.

My Master’s was at University of Michigan. I did a study that has influenced my future work. The research looked at consumers’ willingness to pay more for coffee given its label; did it matter whether the coffee was grown in shade canopies, labeled as organic, etc.?  

We conducted a study at two retail outlets to determine how consumers responded to shade-grown coffee. There was a new label with product packaging that talked about the eco benefits of growing methods in traditional shade canopies as opposed to those of hybrid plants, describing how a lot of the biodiversity in tropical trees was being destroyed. Would consumers pay more for a less productive growing method that was more environmentally friendly?  Consumers in our focus group said, ‘yes, of course we would.’

Q: Did these consumers, who expressed enthusiasm for buying environmentally friendly coffee despite the premium price tag, actually redirect their purchases and switch brands? 

A: Coffee consumers are repeat customers. Most said they didn’t know about environmentally friendly coffee and were happy to pay more for it.  However, the day after, they chose the same coffee they always purchased even though they now knew it did not have the attributes of the alternatives they had so recently committed to buy.

Q: Isn’t it the case that what consumers say they’ll do doesn’t always translate in their actions? The industry witnesses this with produce consumption, where in surveys, consumers will say they are eating the daily recommended servings of fresh fruits and vegetables yet produce consumption statistics prove otherwise.  Similarly, people might contend they are reducing calorie intake, yet the scale tells a different story…

A: I became skeptical of consumer research. Consumers’ actions are different than their ideal selves. With consumers and food, I saw this played out and was interested in understanding that mystery and what drives behavior. At that point, I continued my research on agricultural resource issues at Cornell, which is where I received my Ph.D.  

What I’ll talk about at the New York Produce Show relates to experimental economics and better ways of gauging purchasing behaviors. Are people putting money where their mouth is?  

I’ll present a conglomeration of three studies in food safety and draw broader conclusions applicable to the produce industry. How do consumers respond to media information regarding food safety? How do they respond to other clues?

Q: You’ll certainly have a captive audience, addressing an industry devastated by the spinach crisis, and the Salmonella St. Paul outbreak, and battling misinformation in the media like the Environmental Working Group’s annual Dirty Dozen report…

A: The first study, “Can Advertising Alleviate Consumer Concerns Over Food Scares?”  looked at generic advertising of hamburgers. We set up focus groups with different parameters. Some people were just presented at lunch to buy a hamburger through an auction. Other groups were also showed videos of mad cow disease, where they could see what happens to those afflicted. They learned that it tends to afflict healthy people. It showed an infant sick from baby food, and young people in hospital beds. A reporter interviewed on Fox TV revealed how few cows were being tested. Information tended to be factual but negatively slanted. After seeing the video, people weren’t inclined to buy a hamburger.

Other groups would be shown videos and radio clips featuring the campaign, Beef, What’s for Dinner? and generic advertising promoting beef. We wondered if we just showed positive videos and regular generic clips, maybe it would influence consumers to buy a lot of hamburgers.  What we found was that the average consumer wasn’t moved.

However, when we showed people both the mad cow videos and also the positive generic beef advertising, they were much more comfortable with beef, even after the bad ads. It didn’t matter the order in which we presented the videos.

Q: I’m surprised the beef promotions were able to neutralize the mad cow disease images… especially since the videos were shown consecutively in such close proximity to each other, and people didn’t have ample time to allow the negative images to dissipate…

A: It goes to the psychology of food. If we can turn off the negative, we’re psychologically inclined to do that. In the U.S., when we had the mad cow disease incident, the beef industry increased positive advertising and we didn’t see major differences in sales. I’m not saying some people didn’t freak out, but in general, there was a strong consumer response to this advertising to counteract the news of the mad cow incident. McDonald’s stocks went down abruptly when the news broke, but didn’t see a prolonged trend.

Q:  Aren’t there many other variables to consider?  For example, the scope of the outbreak, the amount of coverage, both negative and positive, how it was handled at retail, the importance of the food item to people’s diets, people’s previous experiences with food safety issues, etc.

A: This is examined further in another study targeting mad cow disease: Which Consumers are Most Responsive to Media-Induced Food Scares?

Q: Your focus group studies are designed in an artificial environment. How does this impact your results?

A:  We are in a controlled environment, and we are controlling a lot; from a specific time period, to an adult population, to presenting just one food.  It is rare for consumers to only have one option. We do think there is something interesting about conducting a study in the lab. We can isolate variables like scientists. It wasn’t because prices changed or weather changed. We know it was because of advertising. We’re doing this with economics, the same as a scientist with chemicals in a lab.

We were interested to see how food safety information would affect purchases over time.

We did a study, Do Consumer Responses to Media Food Safety Information Last, doing a case study on poultry. A Consumer Reports article came out in 1997 that chicken was really contaminated. Looking at major brands, 81 percent had salmonella, 15 percent had campylobacter and 13 percent had both. No major brand did better than another, except a Northwest brand, Ranger, which was extremely clean, 0 percent salmonella and just 20 percent campylobacter. The Consumer Reports piece wrote about a guy that got paralyzed.  I’m pretty convinced I could scare people by showing them this article. However, people are in the real world, not looking at people crippled by eating chicken. Do these articles stick with them?

We did an experiment in the lab, where we gave subjects this food safety information about chicken, and had subjects coming back a week later and six weeks later. We shipped in the northwest Brand Ranger chicken, which got the clean Consumer Reports scores over night from Seattle. And the subjects gravitated to it. They liked the cleaner chicken and were willing to pay more for it. Both the positive and negative information lasted.

Q: How did these results compare to your earlier beef study, where the barrage of positive beef advertizing counteracted mad cow disease fears?  

A:  People were not as concerned about the bad information written about chicken as I thought they would be. The effects for chicken were smaller.

Q: Did you analyze possible reasons?

A: We did provide information to the participants that if you cook chicken up to certain degrees, the bacteria is eliminated. In the mad cow case, cooking won’t eliminate the risk.  With chicken you have control, although you still face a lot of cross-contamination issues.

Q: So consumer concerns about safety are not based on risk factors?

A: Why is airline travel so frightening to people? It’s because people have very little control over the risk.  Of course cars are much more dangerous but people feel more in control. People are comfortable with airbags even though they can kill us if they go off when we don’t need them, but people don’t freak out about them.

My last study during the presentation is related to milk. We wanted to determine, Does Production Labeling Stigmatize Conventional Milk. Some dairy industry officials believed that labeling various milk products as “hormone free” or free of rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin, which is a synthetically produced version of the naturally occurring hormone bST, developed by the Russians) stigmatized conventionally produced milk.

Q:. A controversial ballot measure in California mandating genetically modified labeling on foods just got defeated.

A: Looking at production techniques for milk, adult subjects all got a chance to taste different milks; including conventional no label milk, and one rBST-free milk, which didn’t include artificial growth hormone. At the time of the study, some milk was free of this hormone and others weren’t. Some producers didn’t believe in this hormone and labeled products rBST-free. Ben and Jerry’s label said it. Moms were concerned girls were growing too fast. A third milk in the sampling was focused on organic, which was associated with lack of growth hormones and no pesticides.

We had a tasting and then tried to sell the product to them through an auction where they would place a bid.

We changed the order in which we presented the different milks for tasting. They knew they were making choices on products, but they only knew the choices of reduced fat, skim, and whole milk, and in general they were willing to buy them. The first group liked the taste of the organic better.

They could see the labels, but not the brand, or whether it came from Wal-Mart or Costco. We didn’t want branding to be a variable.

They were given three different milks and told what they were.  In the conventional group, they could see the nutritional label and the price, and could choose skim, one percent or whole milk. One percent was the most popular, while whole milk “tasted better.”

After we did conventional, then organic was next, and then rBST-free.  People were presented the milks in different orders.

This is my understanding: consumers didn’t realize that conventional milk contained hormones. When consumers were presented with conventional milk first, they had no problem purchasing it. However, when subjects were presented with hormone-free milk or organic milk first, and then presented with conventional milk, they were concerned about the conventional milk because now they realized it might contain hormones, and that’s why in the bidding process, the value of the conventional milk dropped significantly. 

When they then got a chance to go pay for the milk, conventional decreased by 50 percent in value.

This goes back to my study with coffee.  Coffee producers were concerned that shade-grown coffee coming in with environmentally friendly labeling would drive people away from conventionally grown coffee, which is 99 percent of the business.

Q: In the case of your coffee study, didn’t those concerns turn out to be unwarranted, since purchasing behavior didn’t correlate with what shoppers said they were going to do? Yet, in other studies, you experience different results. What are some of the overall conclusions you can make when comparing the varied research you’ve conducted?

A: With milk, consumers had similar concerns, separating out one of the choices as bad milk.  Our result showed that consumers cared. They responded to these labels in a big way. Conventional milk took a significant price dive. Yet, it didn’t increase the price of the rBST-free milk.

Wal-Mart and Dean Foods decided they wouldn’t sell rBST milk in 2008, and the rest of the industry followed. It was a major shift in response to big retailers and consumer demand.  All retailers switched. To my knowledge, it is not in the food supply anymore. It is not banned, just not there.

I will highlight these results, in the context of limitations with our studies.  For example, in the real world, consumers don’t just isolate one product at a time. They have options of lots of products, but we can illustrate that consumers really do care about production, and sometimes labeling can negatively stigmatize. Milk labeled organic emphasizes that it doesn’t include antibiotics, but no milk has antibiotics!

Q: What other research do you have in the pipeline? 

A: We are looking at international import issues related to honey. A lot of product is coming from China that is not necessarily honey, but cut with corn syrup. In some cases, it can be difficult to distinguish. Now the Chinese manufacturers are routing these tainted products through other countries and bringing it into the U.S.  Most consumers are unaware that in some cases they are buying product that is not real honey. The olive oil industry has similar issues. A big price is paid for extra virgin olive oil, so there are big incentives for deceptively blending. 

Q: These issues also occur in the produce industry. For example, Vidalia onion producers fight to protect their namesake from counterfeits that could damage the brand’s integrity, while the organic industry must deal with mislabeling of conventional produce from China…

A: We are also looking at the value of local and if there are negatives associated with imported. There are varying definitions of local, so we’ll define it in our study. With the growing support for local, will people really pay more for it? 

Q:  Do you have any advice for produce industry executives in what to emphasize in labeling and advertising, and how to approach food safety issues with consumers?

A: I take a general view about food safety that consumers care. I don’t advocate positions. I want to be clean in my data. I can say from my research that having advertising that points to the good parts of a product seems to reduce people’s concern about food safety. The beef industry didn’t go out and say, ‘We’re safe.’ They said, ‘Remember why you love beef.  We’re healthy, and wholesome.’

As exemplified in the poultry study, consumers wanted the Northwest Ranger chicken, which had gotten the excellent food safety scores from Consumer Reports. Those companies that can keep product safe and clean, and invest in the best production processes, can yield long-term benefits. When concerns arose about the safety of chicken, consumers could distinguish between the leading brands and the Northwest Ranger brand.

Q: In the produce industry, there is less branding, so an entire category can be damaged if there is a food safety problem at one particular company. The spinach crisis is a seminal example of that phenomenon.

A: You make an interesting point.  If Coca Cola turned out to have a food safety problem, it’s so well defined that instead of damaging Pepsi, it could help increase sales of Pepsi. If a problem occurred with one brand, it could help the competitor. In the spinach crisis, consumers just didn’t eat spinach, period. To understand that most spinach was fine to eat would require a lot of consumer knowledge.

In the chicken study, we wanted to see if eggs were impacted, but we found no meaningful change in purchases of eggs. The level of consumer control matters as well, when the consumer has the ability to cook the problem away. Unfortunately, this becomes a problem in the produce industry where a large percentage is eaten raw. 

This is all very intriguing, especially the idea that negative news may not be best handled by responding but, rather, by promoting the positive aspects of a product.

One wonders how broadly does this apply. Many political experts claim that the recent Presidential election was decided when Mitt Romney did not respond to a barrage of negative television ads run late spring and early summer by the Obama campaign. One wonders if the need was for a “response” or for advertising promoting Romney’s positive attributes.

We do think that there are a couple of cautions to consider in evaluating this type of research and its implications for the trade.

One thing to keep in mind is that consumer attitudes may vary depending on how the product is expected to be used. For example, the different responses between beef and milk might be due to the fact that babies and children are such heavy milk consumers. So the response might tell you less about what the consumers think about the food and more about how protective they are of their children.

The other caution is how regulators and retailers react, which can be more important than what consumers think. Bagged spinach, for example, is more prominently branded than most produce items. That didn’t matter because regulators recommended the consumption of no fresh spinach.

We also know that after the Alar scare, retailers pulled back on apple promotions and space devoted to apples. This depressed apple sales regardless of what consumers thought about apples and their safety.

In any case, such a conglomeration of research, bringing in ideas tested on other products, under controlled lab conditions, is an important contribution to the expansion of knowledge and we are excited to hear how Professor Messer builds on these ideas during his presentation in New York.

Make sure you get to experience the New York event, including Professor Messer’s intriguing talk, by registering here.

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Pundit’s Mailbag – 'Booth Babes', Professionalism and Hypocrisy: What Should PMA’s Policy Be?

Our pieces — Pundit’s Mailbag — Booth Babes And The Disconnect With PMA’s Position On Women’s Careers and Pundit’s Mailbag — Nothing Wrong With Booth Babes! — have brought many responses. Some are simple endorsements:

Thank you, Jim.  In my opinion, you are on the right side of this issue.  

—   Lauri Raymond
Chief Visionary Officer
Sisters & Brothers, Inc.
Austin, Texas

While still others, thinking of firms with prominent female buyers, offer pragmatic thoughts to Ward Thomas of Majestic Produce, who had offered up a defense of “Booth Babes” at conventions:

I hope Ward doesn’t plan on doing much business with SYSCO, Darden, Costco, or Delhaize anytime soon!!

—Gina Nucci
Director of Healthy Culinary Innovation
Mann Packing Co. Inc.
Salinas, California

Other responses were irate, passionate and earnest:

In response to Ward Thomas' response to the subject of the inappropriateness of "Booth Babes" at professional functions such as PMA's Fresh Summit, I’d like to ask Ward this:

       * Do you have any female co-workers or employees?

       * How about a spouse or daughters?

Please ask them what they think and how your response, I like booth babes! …Sounds like jealousy to me,” makes them feel.

Unless McAllen, Texas, is a bubble from the times of “Mad Men,” I would bet that your opinion and views make them feel uncomfortable.

Women in this industry work hard to uphold a professional image – most of us do not want to resort to Sexing it up.” We, as do our male counterparts, aim to establish professional relations with all members of this industry (no matter the gender) built on respect and professionalism.  

As a human, a woman, and as a female veteran of this industry, I find it mortifying and demeaning when I see women at trade shows hired only to be scantily clad and flirtatious – undoing and undermining before our very eyes much of the effort and hard work that we’ve put into this industry in order to be taken seriously, do business and be treated as equals.

Reading and viewing matter I recommend on this subject include the book, Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy, and the documentary film, Miss Representation.”

I am certain that perpetuating the Objectification of Women is not healthy for any of us, and is not a direction in which our industry should revert.  I am of the opinion that the use of "Booth Babes" only serves to alienate and offend the women of this industry as much as it may entertain some of the men.

I’m happy to see so many women speaking up to voice their objection to this out-dated and sexist practice.

Thank you Perishable Pundit for bringing this important conversation back to the table.

—Deidre Smyrnos     
Account Representative
CF Fresh, Inc.
Sedro-Woolley, Washington

But our correspondent seems to be a man with principles, and he is not afraid to express them. Some would say he is a glutton for punishment! In any case, he sent a follow-up response as well:

You may look at the issue as 3-fold, but everyone sees it the way they see it.

The shallow people will give you their opinion. The deep people will give you theirs and a whole lot of in-betweens. To answer yours: 

First, I am at the show to meet people face to face that I rarely get to see and hopefully meet some new ones. We all do most of our business over the phone. Who exchanges PO's at the PMA? 

Second, you speak as if the Booth Babes were the only focus. Would the same companies approve of their staff racing little potato trucks around a track, throwing footballs to win prizes, or filling every fishbowl with a business card so they could win free golf clubs or an Ipad?? Distraction or attraction??? Depends on how one looks at it. It's purely an individual choice. If it is not your cup of tea, then walk on by. Nobody is making you stay and watch.

Third, how do you know that the organizations don't want these sorts of attractions?? What are we going to do, just go to the show and look at everybody's signs? Every exhibitor brings to the show what they think will work best for them. It is unfortunate that some women (prudes are usually vocal about it) don't like the fact that more attractive younger females are getting all the attention but that's the way it is, no matter how much eye cream they buy. Like you said, when the Italian hunks are showing off at the cooking demonstration, you don't hear the men complaining about that.

99.9% of straight men are going to say this is labeled backwards!

Thank you for your acknowledgement of my freedom of expression. Look what happens in countries where one cannot do that.

—Ward Thomas
Majestic Produce
McAllen, Texas

It has been said that being a diplomat requires the ability to say the nastiest things in the nicest way. Should, as expected, Hillary Clinton choose to resign from the State Department, Mr. Thomas probably should not hold his breath waiting for a call from The White House. It is unnecessarily offensive to speak of women being “jealous” or “prudes” or to make caustic remarks about people’s use of cosmetics when one doesn’t even know the people.

Yet, in some ways his letter gets to the core issue: professionalism.

Back in our salad days, when we were green in judgment, we once showed up for work in the office of the family business and the Pundit Poppa sent us home. Why? We weren’t wearing socks and that was unprofessional.

We were taught that reputation was everything.

So when we showed up at PMA in 1985 to launch PRODUCE BUSINESS, we didn’t go around collecting stuff. Nobody had to tell us that we didn’t want to be thought of as the kind of guy who cared about swag.

Over the years, we have tried various activities to make our booth at trade shows stand out, and our experience has been this: The more effective these efforts, the less we achieve at the trade show. In other words, if we just have, as Mr. Thomas alludes to, “a sign” saying what we do, and we give samples of our products, we only get people, well, we only get people interested in our products.

Once we did a little promotion where we placed a credit card type thing in each issue of Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, and we encouraged people to come to our booth, slide the card through a machine and see which of a plethora of prizes — televisions, golf clubs, paid vacations etc. they could win.

Well the promotion was very effective, if you define effectiveness as attracting lots of people to our booth. It actually hurt business as our staff was so busy dealing with long lines of people who had zero interest in our products that we actually spoke less to those who really did have interest.

On a business basis, we can certainly posit that lots of men in the trade show hall like women and will be interested in engaging with attractive women. Some are single men looking for a “date” — some are married men who are looking for something scandalous, and others are married or committed and just enjoying a little light fun. So having pretty women hanging around will boost booth traffic.

We suppose theoretically one could imagine that a crackerjack team could dive in after the attractive women attracted the men, identify key buyers and prospects and woo them away to discuss the latest in traceability systems or bagged spinach — but we doubt it. After all, the men were attracted by something else… why would they want to leave that to go talk food safety?

So we suspect that the exhibitors who do a lot of stuff other than business need to carefully assess the ROI on their efforts.

We read with heartbreak what Deidre writes: “I find it mortifying and demeaning when I see women at trade shows hired only to be scantily clad and flirtatious — undoing and undermining before our very eyes much of the effort and hard work that we’ve put into this industry in order to be taken seriously, do business and be treated as equals.”

We actually wonder if Deidre is not, maybe, underestimating men! There are plenty of male business executives who are simultaneously capable of saying that Joan is beautiful, but Julie has the brains. They want to be in a business partnership with Julie regardless of what they may have on their minds with Joan.

We doubt that a bunch of Chippendale men giving out salad in a booth next to ours would undermine all the hard work we have put in to get a certain reputation. We would suspect that female executives would note that the Chippendale guys are good looking and athletic and note that the Pundit is, well, whatever they thought of the Pundit before.

We doubt that they would think us less of a Pundit, simply because those guys have six-pack abs. We are not sure why Deidre is so convinced that perception of her as a business executive has anything to do with what some women brought in as eye candy by a modeling agency look like.

In some ways, we see this as less an issue for men than a feminist issue to protect the interests of attractive women. Almost by definition, those women who write to the Pundit are successful executives. And certainly we want to value the skills that make them so successful: Intelligence, verbal facility, tenaciousness, etc.

But what about women who are really good at being flirtatious or at just looking good — is it right for one sister to dismiss the talents and abilities of another? Indeed, is it right for women with a whole different set of skills to try to get the rules of the game changed so those other sisters just can’t compete?

Indeed we wonder if the issue isn’t broader than the “booth babes” — our pieces here on the Pundit have all been focused on temporary staff brought in to wear mock “Daisy Duke” type clothes. But beauty doesn’t just influence temporary hiring. There are companies in the industry known for hiring attractive women as their sales reps. Is that right? Wrong? Does it matter if the sales results of attractive women exceed that of less attractive women?

For us, as a business, the issue is simple. We think for the long haul, and everything we do is about reputational enhancement. So we would never think of doing anything that wouldn’t lead in that direction.

We would encourage companies throughout the industry to think this way.

In this case, what Lorri Koster and Dan’l Mackey Almy are saying is actually in this vein but directed at PMA. They are really trying to make a case about hypocrisy. They are saying that since PMA has become so focused on promoting women in the workplace, hosting the Women's Fresh Perspective Leadership Breakfast at its annual convention and now launching a new conference specifically directed at women executives, it should focus on its own reputational enhancement and prohibit activities that professional women will find objectionable.

It is a serious argument. We wonder what Lorna Christie, Executive Vice President & COO at PMA, thinks about it. She is very sensitive to branding issues.

Although we think it is good to have someone like Ward Thomas around — someone willing to speak his mind even when he knows many will forcefully disagree — it does seem like the forces of history are running against him. Women are a majority now in colleges and most graduate schools. The definition of professional is changing, and it is perfectly plausible that companies such as Costco and Wal-Mart will one day ban their employees from attending events that don’t meet their standards — and that will lead to a change in event policy.

Whether more professional events will lead to more or less attendance is something yet to be determined.

Many thanks to Lauri Raymond, Gina Nucci, Deirdre Smyrnos and Ward Thomas for helping us think through such an important issue.

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