Pundit Interviews

Pundit Letters





Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
Boca Raton FL 33481

Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610


email:
info@PerishablePundit.com

a

Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Jam-Packed Days Of Business And Learning In New York City Promised At The New York Produce Show and Conference

The New York Produce Show and Conference is about to begin…

It has been a half decade now since we started, with the Eastern Produce Council and PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine joining hands to create something exceptional — an event in the heart of New York City, in the capital of the world, that provides world-class education and extraordinary opportunities to make and build relationships with thought leaders from around the world.

We explore exciting culinary adventures in the name of increasing produce consumption.  We capitalize on the location in the media capital of the world, to raise the competency of the consumer media and important influencers as to the reality of the contemporary produce industry.

The idea was also one of service, to help both business and culinary students find their place related to the world of produce and to each year donate generously to the local food banks to help people in need.

 We gave and gave and gave, and the industry responded. We’ve grown from the Hilton, to a Pier to, this year, the new ultra-modern North Hall of the Javits Center, where we can maintain our own space and control our environment while taking advantage of the amenities of a world-class convention center.

If you are already coming, make sure you are taking full advantage. If you are not yet signed up, get signed up today.

Come and participate in the Global Trade Symposium. The program is held at the New York Hilton on Tuesday, December 2, and, remember, you don’t personally have to export or import to be impacted by the variability of global trade.

Join us for the opening Cocktail Reception Tuesday night, also at the Hilton, a team-building exercise par excellence, where old friends reunite and new bonds are forged.

The Keynote Opening Breakfast with the Perishable Pundit’s “Thought Leaders” panel -- starting on Wednesday at 7:30am at the Javits Center's River Pavilion --is not to be missed, as Thought Leaders help analyze the state of the industry and identify paths for us to move forward.

During the tradeshow, don’t miss the University Micro-sessions, where cutting-edge research from top universities is made available to all. And if you are hungry, you don’t need to leave the floor, as we have Celebrity Chefs – The Spork Sisters, Dave Pasternack and Jehangir Mehta – cooking up a storm in Central Park, plus our Culinary Students from Le Cordon Bleu Chicago and Johnson and Wales will be competing for best flatbread pizza throughout the show from their own Culinary Cafes.

And on Thursday, don’t miss the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum or one of our tours of Hunts Point, the Philadelphia Market, New Jersey retail, Manhattan retail and a combined Brooklyn retail and Urban Agriculture tour.

Here is a Global Trade Symposium agenda.

Here is the University Micro-session agenda.

And here is the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum agenda.

If you are in the business, there is always the temptation to stay home and not engage, but staying on top of new industry trends, building relationships with people who will ultimately help your career and your organization, seeing and hearing and building – all crucially depend on separating yourself for a bit from normal show habits and immersing yourself in something elevating – such as The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Here is a little snippet to give a sense of the spirit from last year’s edition:

Capitalize on the opportunity and register for The New York Produce Show and Conference right here or at the door.

if you need help broadening an existing registration, say to add a tour or need help with hotels, or anything else, just let us know right here.

We look forward to seeing you at The New York Produce Show and Conference!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




Anthony Sattler Of C&S Completes The Pundit’s Thought-Leader Panel At The New York Produce Show And Conference Keynote Breakfast

Each year, we announce the participants in the Perishable Pundit’s “Thought Leader” Panel at The New York Produce Show and Conference, and we thank these participants because their willingness to share their expertise and insights with the trade is an act of personal generosity. The willingness of each participant’s company to support these executives in this outreach also is commendable.

This year, we announced our “Thought Leader” panel in this piece:

Industry Leaders To Share Knowledge And Ideas At New York Produce Show Thought-Leadership Panel Keynote Breakfast

It has been, however, our practice to always hold off on announcing the final member of the panel until just before the show. Call it one for good luck or, as the final panel member is always from a company that has not been on the panel before, we save a special surprise for last.

Sometimes these panel members are from far away, as when announced Johan Van Deventer from Shoprite/Checkers in South Africa.

This year our superstar is from closer afield. On behalf of the Eastern Produce Council and PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, it is our privilege and pleasure to announce the completion of the 2014 “Thought Leader” Panel with the addition of Anthony Sattler, Vice President of Produce Procurement for C&S Wholesale Grocers, headquarted in Keene, New Hampshire.

Anthony been in the produce industry for 18 years, first starting with C&S in 1997, where he has held various areas of produce responsibility, ranging from Procurement, Special Projects, Category Management and others.  Anthony holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and an MBA from Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.

Anyone who wants to know what opportunity America holds should look at C&S, a grocery distributor founded by Israel Cohen and Abraham Siegel. It is now widely recognized for breaking the mold of food distribution in America; in three generations, the company is now a $20-billion-plus enterprise.

We greatly appreciate Anthony Sattler’s willingness to participate in the “Thought Leader” panel and to C&S for allowing him to play this part.

Make sure you don’t miss the Opening Keynote Breakfast featuring the Perishable Pundit’s “Thought Leader” Panel. The event takes place bright and early on December 3 at 7:30 am at the Javits Center River Pavilion.

You can register for the event right here.

 




Theresa Nolan To Receive The Second Annual EPC Woman Of Distinction Award

Last year, the Eastern Produce Council established a Women’s Leadership Committee, and in conjunction with that we established a Women’s Leadership Reception at The New York Produce Show and Conference. This year, that event will take place at 4:00 PM on Wednesday, December 3, 2014 in the Javits Center on the trade show floor.

In conjunction with the reception, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine commenced an annual tradition of presenting an award to a woman whose life story inspires others and leads to a more successful industry.

Last year, the first annual award went to Theresa Lowden, Executive Vice President at JOH, who was instrumental in launching both The Women’s Leadership Committee and The New York Produce Show and Conference.

This year’s honoree is also a Theresa, who also has a special connection to The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Theresa Nolan, Founder, President and CEO of The Nolan Network, has a formidable claim to this award. For almost 30 years, she has shepherded her own successful business, being one of the first in the industry to establish a national network focused on enhancing merchandising techniques at retail. In so doing, she became a crucial connector between companies and organizations that wanted to increase produce sales and the retail community.

She is known as smart, hardworking, innovative and vivacious -- yet it was long after her thriving company was built that she would show her mettle in a way unexpected.

Theresa’s longtime husband, James Nolan, was widely respected in the industry for his integrity. Jim had been domestic and international sales manager for Ocean Spray and he felt that the company’s conduct was such that he was compelled to file a lawsuit against Ocean Spray arguing that the company had violated anti-trust laws.

It was all very complicated, but filing such a lawsuit became all-consuming, one he never could have undertaken without Theresa’s support. It was inevitable that such a battle would be emotionally and financially draining, but Theresa’s endorsement of the values Jim was fighting for left her determined to support Jim, whatever the cost to her business or her personal life.

Indeed when Jim died of a heart attack in March of 2008 at the age of 61, those who knew him best saw the lawsuit as a force that drained the life from him. Still Theresa would not settle. She was determined to see the fight through.

In the end a jury in Plymouth, Massachusetts, would vindicate the claims that the Nolans made, awarding the Nolans a million dollars in damages, with another judge reviewing the case raising the settlement to two million dollars.

PRODUCE BUSINESS ran several important pieces, including this one chronicling the story:

Special Report: Ocean Spray Sued By Longtime Associates,

And here on the Pundit, we fought the good fight for ethical standards in the industry and fair treatment in many related pieces.

This all came to a climax at the Inaugural edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference when Theresa took to the stage to announce the establishment of a foundation that, among other things, would fund scholarships for students to attend important industry events.

We still see Theresa Nolan on stage at the Hilton after marching forward in the face of difficulty, holding the memory of her lost husband and the values they both shared close to her heart.

There is no question that in selecting Theresa Nolan as the recipient of The Second Annual EPC Woman of Distinction Award the committee found a model who will be admired for business prowess, personal integrity and willingness to fight, when quitting would be the easy path.

That is an inspiration and a Woman of Distinction.

Many congratulations to Theresa Nolan… and we know that Jim is up there applauding hard -- he was always your greatest fan. But now many other fans will have an opportunity to express their admiration for who Theresa is and what she has done.

Many congratulations to Theresa.

Although free, this event is an Invitation Only limited-capacity event. If you would like an invitation, please let us know here




Spouses/Companions Can Take In The Holiday “Magic” At New York Produce Show And Conference



The New York Produce Show and Conference is all business – but business is about building relationships and that is often best done with your significant other. So, since its founding we have run a terrific Spouse/Companion Program hosted by Mrs. Pundit.



The base is the newly renovated State Suite on the 44th floor of the Hilton. Spouses can gather and get to know each other over breakfast, and then the Suite stays open with hors d’oeuvres and refreshments all day. There are experts on-hand doing hair, makeup and chair massages as well.



This year’s theme, fitting the holiday timing, is “Magic in New York” After breakfast, newly made friends head out in a luxurious coach with on/off privileges to see the highlights of the holiday season. The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the incredible shop windows on Fifth Avenue, world-famous Radio City Music Hall, and so much more.



Everyone meets for High Tea at the world-renowned Plaza Hotel and then a walking tour of the finest shops in New York as we head back to the Hilton.



Of course, registration for the spouse companion program includes access to all the business functions and the Opening Cocktail Reception, and every participant receives a special gift to commemorate your time in New York.

So come and capitalize on the business opportunities at The New York Produce Show and Conference and bring your spouse or companion along to build deeper relationships and to enjoy the magic of the Holidays in New York.

Register for the whole event here.

If you would like to add a spouse registration to your existing registration, or want additional information on the spouse program, let us know with an e-mail at this link.




Rooftop Greenhouse, Gotham Greens, Highlights Brooklyn Retail/Urban Ag Tour At New York Produce Show

Each year at The New York Produce Show and Conference, we run a series of industry tours. We have already profiled several for this year’s conference:

Constantly Changing Hunts Point Produce Market Opens Its Doors To Visitors Attending The New York Produce Show And Conference

Seeing The Future Of Wholesale Markets: The Philadelphia Story — A Regional Tour Of The New York Produce Show And Conference

Eastern Produce Council President Paul Kneeland Makes The Case For New Jersey Retail Tour At The New York Produce Show And Conference

Another favorite is our Brooklyn tour, which features interesting retailers such as PSK Supermarket, Cherry Hill Gourmet and Pomegranate and an urban agriculture location.

This year the highlight is the cutting-edge Gotham Greens facility sitting atop the Whole Foods Store in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Here is how Gotham Greens describes the site:

Gotham Greens’ second greenhouse facility was built in 2013 in Gowanus, Brooklyn, on the roof of Whole Foods Market’s first ever Brooklyn store. The rooftop greenhouse, designed, built, owned and operated by Gotham Greens, measures over 20,000 sq. ft., and will grow over 200 tons of fresh leafy greens and tomatoes each year. Recirculating irrigation systems capture water for re-use and all products are free of any harmful chemical pesticides, insecticides or herbicides.

This groundbreaking project represents the first commercial scale greenhouse farm integrated into a supermarket. Gotham Greens was approached by Whole Foods Market based on its experience and expertise in urban agriculture as well as its dedication to growing the highest quality produce with strong commitment to sustainable agriculture. The partnership with Whole Foods Market was a perfect match for Gotham Greens based on the retailers’ unparalleled leadership and commitment to promoting local, healthy and sustainably produced food.

Perhaps the most ecologically advanced supermarket in the country, the innovative project also features a 157kW Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant and a 325kW solar PV system located in the parking lot. Amongst other features, both the greenhouse and supermarket implement a high efficiency, zero ozone depletion, HFC-free commercial refrigeration system representing the first HFC-free supermarket store in the United States.

Rainwater collection is used for on site irrigation and sink/drain water from the building is treated and reused for toilet flushing. Gotham Greens and Whole Foods Market are thrilled with the project’s capacity to exhibit and educate the public regarding the latest technologies in local food production, sustainable energy, water conservation and re-use.

And Bloomberg did a short video describing the project further:

It is a fascinating project and we asked Pundit Contributing Editor Mark Hamstra to find out more:

Viraj Puri
Cofounder and CEO
Gotham Greens LLC
Brooklyn, New York

Q: What were the biggest challenges to opening a rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn?

A: In 2011, Gotham Greens built the first commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse in the United States. Being a pioneer in this type of facility development meant that there was little precedent and no examples to follow. Many of the design and logistical challenges stem from being several stories up in the air. Architecture, engineering, permitting and construction are unique challenges that greenhouse growers typically aren’t accustomed to.

Q: How did you come to partner with Whole Foods Market on this project?

A: Whole Foods Market has been a valued customer of Gotham Greens since we launched in 2011. WFM was an early supporter of our mission and recognized the positive impact we could make in supplying premium-quality produce, consistently and reliably year-round. In addition, our companies share many of the same values. WFM has shown tremendous leadership in advancing local and sustainable agriculture and is an incredible partner.

Early in our business relationship, we had exchanged notes about the possibility of integrating a greenhouse into one of their stores. Once WFM developed its plan for its flagship Brooklyn store that included an urban farming component, they selected Gotham Greens as its greenhouse partner, based on our leadership and experience in the urban agriculture industry. They recognized our ability to successfully execute urban agriculture projects and grow premium quality produce. Being a local New York, and specifically Brooklyn-based, company was also added attraction.

Q: How is the business relationship with Whole Foods structured?

A: Gotham Greens has been a supplier to WFM in the New York area since 2011. At the flagship Brooklyn store, Gotham Greens owns and operates the rooftop greenhouse. WFM is the landlord, and Gotham Greens is the rooftop tenant. But our relationship goes beyond the traditional landlord-tenant relationship. We have a unique supplier agreement and strong mission-and-values-aligned relationship with the common goal of promoting local and sustainable agriculture.

Q: What are you growing there, and how is that different from your other facilities? Is any of it organic?

A: At our second greenhouse located at WFM Brooklyn, we grow a variety of leafy greens, lettuce, herbs and tomatoes. We grow exclusively using hydroponic techniques, so obtaining USDA organic certification is a challenge since that certification is really geared toward soil health and soil-based farming.

Our seeds are all organic and non-GMO. Most importantly all of our produce is pesticide-free. I think a prevailing misconception amongst many consumers is that certified organic-produce means that pesticides were not used. That is certainly not the case.

Q: What are some of the biggest lessons learned so far that you could apply in your future expansion?

A: One of our abiding corporate philosophies is to learn from experiences and to continually strive for improvement. We’ve become better at assessing opportunities, designing and building our greenhouses and improving our operating procedures and infrastructure.

Q: What are your plans for growth? Will there be more rooftop gardens?

A: Gotham Greens currently operates over 35,000 square feet of greenhouse and grows over 300 tons of fresh, salad greens and herbs annually for the NYC market. We’re continuing to expand, and our third and fourth greenhouse farms will open in 2015 in Queens, NY, and Chicago measuring 60,000 square feet and 75,000 square feet, respectively. Gotham Greens is working on several other urban agriculture projects with the goal of advancing our company and local, sustainable agriculture.

Q: What are some of the barriers to overcome in urban farming?

A: Cities lack arable land or fertile soil, but do contain an abundance of unused rooftop space. We recognized this as a major opportunity and developed a plan for rooftop-integrated greenhouses. Many of the design and logistical challenges stem from being several stories up in the air. Architecture, engineering, and permitting are unique challenges that greenhouse growers typically aren’t accustomed to.

Despite being located in the urban environment, we still face many common agricultural pests found in rural greenhouse locations. Our integrated pest management program and use of beneficial insects allow us to maintain pesticide-free products. The regulatory environment and high capital costs are also challenges to overcome.

Q: What do you think are the factors driving its growth?

A: The growth in urban agriculture is connected to overall trends in the food industry. Consumers increasingly care about how and where their food is produced. They are demanding more integrity and transparency in food production. Urban farming is an extension of that. It allows urban consumers to get a little closer to the food they eat and connect with in ways that were not of as much interest or even possible in the past. Urban farming, whether community-oriented or commercially-focused, has great potential and benefits to cities and their people.

Q: What are some of the coolest things people on the tour should look for at the facility?

A: At Gotham Greens, we pride ourselves on the quality of our produce. There are some neat technologies also on display at our greenhouses, but the main attraction is the produce.

******

The issues specifically surrounding urban agriculture and urban greenhouses are many. On the one hand, the idea of using urban rooftops in a highly productive way is seductive. Local produce is all the rage from a marketing perspective, and the idea that things can be produced near the consumer holds out the promise of things being done with lower carbon footprints.

Of course, it is early days, and what this industry will become is up for discussion. Some issues:

1)   Food Safety

Most large retailers today won’t buy leafy greens without third-party certifications… yet they make exceptions for some local product, typically including urban agriculture operations. Does this make sense? Costco, for example, requires  various audits :

Greenhouse Audits:

The greenhouse audit is usually performed one time each year or during the growing season. The greenhouse audit is divided into sections that correspond to areas of potential contamination risk in the greenhouse operation. These areas include traceability, ground history, adjacent land, pest and foreign material controls, growing media, fertilizer/crop nutrition, irrigation/water use, plant protection, employee hygiene and food security.

A harvest crew audit will be performed at the same time as the greenhouse audit module in order to assess areas of potential contamination risk in the harvesting operation. A greenhouse is defined as a building constructed of glass or plastic, for the cultivation of plants under controlled environmental conditions.

Do relatively small urban greenhouses have the scale to afford and manage these types of requirements? Should they be exempted?

2)   Organic

Many of these operations promise to be pesticide-free, use organic supplies, etc., and doubtless many producers are highly reputable. But some producers will not be. Many retailers will monitor thoroughly; others will not. Should such product be Certified Organic? Should there be a new standard created for pesticide-free hydroponic production?

3)   Cost

Traditionally, energy is the Achilles’ heal of these operations. Rooftop farms can compensate for this cost as they reduce the loss of heat that would normally take place through a rooftop. However, construction costs on a rooftop are typically higher than on the ground. Many of these projects have received grant money and subsidized loans. Whether they can actually be financially viable, without subsidies, is unclear.

What is clear, though, is that this particular concept of putting a greenhouse on top of a supermarket is a kind of hyper-local marketing that provides a kind of halo of freshness over the whole store. That value may yet overcome any challenges.

Come and see this unique facility as well as some interesting Brooklyn retailing on the tour at The New York Produce Show and Conference. For information, just let us know your interest here.

If you want one of the other tours – Hunts Point, Philly market, Manhattan retail or New Jersey retail, just let us know here.

You can register for the entire New York Produce Show and Conference right here.

We can still help you if you need hotel rooms. Just let us know here.

We have one single booth left to sell on the floor; make it yours by letting us know your interest here.




The Intersection Of Technology And Trade:
At Global Trade Symposium Roberta Cook Of UC Davis Talks About Mexico’s Broadening Role In A Diversified Global Market

No speaker at The New York Produce Show and Conference has won more consistent praise than Roberta Cook, Cooperative Extension Marketing Economist in the Dept. of Agriculture and Resource Economics at UC Davis. Her information-dense presentations leave the listener not only with ideas, but with the data necessary to evaluate the ideas and applicability to their own business with plans for the future. In the past, Roberta has presented on numerous topics including these:

Dr. Roberta Cook Will Talk About Increasing Produce Consumption At Global Trade Symposium 

Riding The Roller Coaster: Roberta Cook Of UC Davis Explains How Economic Fluctuations Create Marketing Opportunities

This year, in line with the Global Trade Symposium’s theme of “disruption,” she has prepared a thought-provoking portrait of Mexico, analyzing how a confluence of technology – such as shade houses for tomatoes -- and new markets, such as the Asian market for berries, is transformative in the place Mexico occupies in the produce world.

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

Dr. Roberta Cook
Cooperative Extension Marketing Economist
Dept. of Agriculture and Resource Economics
University of California
Davis, California

Q: We’re so pleased you’ll be presenting again at the Global Trade Symposium. You tackle complex topics with a discerning perspective, and attendees praise your invaluable insights. This year’s talk surely will continue on those lines as you reveal how Mexico is broadening its competitive reach, primed to penetrate new global markets.  What else should attendees know to pique their interest?

A: I’m bringing in several discussions under a central umbrella to tell a broader story about Mexico’s emerging role in fresh produce international trade.  

The latest news is that Mexico just got access to China for raspberries and blackberries. I can verify that the agreement has now been signed by both countries so the document is official and Mexico hopes to ship by the end of this year, although that is yet to tell. So Mexico is gaining market access in Asia, while simultaneously becoming a more important supplier to the U.S., and attempting to diversify its markets internationally as well.   

Q: Do you see this as a tipping point? What are the major shifts in play, and how could these changes impact different segments of the U.S. produce industry?

A: The first key point is the changing relative size of the U.S. fresh fruit import countries of origin. There is no change in fresh vegetables, where Mexico has always represented about two-thirds of our imports.

For context, more than 85 percent of what Mexico exports in fresh fruits and vegetables goes to the United States, and this has been the case forever, since it started developing an export industry. A little goes to Canada, since Mexico, having a long land border with the United States, is then being able to go on through the United States to Canada, another important market in terms of per capita income. Although small — 32 million people or so — you add to that the U.S. population and you’re talking about a lot of people living in high income countries right next to Mexico with no need to put the products on the shelf. So it makes sense that the U.S. is Mexico’s primary market.  

Now for years, Mexico has attempted to diversify its market, and actually it faces a lot of the same problems we do. For example, many years ago, the U.S. and the California industry lost a lot of our export markets to the UK and the European Continent as they developed more important sources of supply in Southern Europe and also from Africa and other places.

Q: Where is Mexico making the most inroads? You say the dynamic shifts are occurring in the fresh fruit trade. Why?

A: One of the messages to understand is that you have to differentiate between fresh fruit trade and fresh vegetable trade. Vegetable trade is primarily intra NAFTA, going back and forth in different directions depending on the time of year, between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. This is true for all three countries. We’re importing and exporting mainly through our NAFTA partners. This is just because fresh vegetables often have greater perishability than many of the fruits that are shipped in large volumes internationally, like oranges, which have long shelf life, and apples that can be controlled with atmosphere storage, table grapes, and grapefruit.

That’s why fresh fruit trade for important players tends to be diversified. We import fruits from many countries and export fruit to many countries. Not so with vegetables. I want to make that distinction.

Q: So what’s happening with Mexico’s export markets? Is Mexico strengthening and/or realigning its competitive trade position? And if so, in what ways?

A: Mexico has been more typically a fresh vegetable exporter than a fresh fruit exporter.  That’s a key point. That’s made Mexico more dependent on the U.S., and it hasn’t been able to diversity vegetable exports, just like we haven’t.

Pass over to where we are today… Mexico over the years has developed a more important fresh table grape export industry. Demographics in the United States have driven demand for all the tropical fruits, so mangos, papayas, limes, as well as avocados {which I put on the fruit side) – all those things that Mexico plays an important role in.

Now, if you look at the composition of what Mexico exports, the share of fresh fruits is increasing. And Mexico is being given a greater possibility of expanding export markets.

Q: You’ve highlighted tropicals, but what is happening in the berry markets? Aren’t berries more challenging to export due to their more delicate characteristics and shelf life issues?

A: As global demand for tropical fruits increases, it has enabled Mexico to start diversifying export markets. In addition to that, the berry industry is exploding internationally, and Mexico is playing a growing role in berries. [Editor’s note: Dr. Cook discusses this evolving phenomenon further down in this piece].

Q: Could you describe Mexico’s growing export strategies in the context of other players in the market?

A: Mexico’s growing role must be considered relative to Chile, and also looking at Peru’s emerging role. [Editor’s note: Dr. Cook discusses Peru’s evolution further down in the piece].

I want to contrast between Mexico and Chile. Typically Chile, as you know, has had super diversified markets, mainly a fruit exporter, with the exception of asparagus, which is a small industry.  As I mentioned earlier, fruits generally have greater shelf life and can be shipped longer distances, which has enabled Chile, and also because it has open trade policies and a lot of bilateral trade agreements in many countries.

Mexico is starting now to develop a growing role relative to Chile, and Chile, only in the last decade and a half, has been developing a growing citrus export industry. Now it has lemons and the easy-peelers. 

Mexico is not aligned with Chile. Mexico has always had a big lime industry, so as demand grew in the United States, Mexico has been able to take advantage of developing a much more export-oriented lime industry.  Before, most of Mexico’s lime production was for the domestic market, and that still may be the case. The point is, Mexico has been able to start getting limes into the United States because our demand is growing, and now Mexico is starting to develop a lemon industry as well because of investments by U.S. firms.

So now they both have a role in citrus, with different crops. What Chile doesn’t have is the tropical fruits, and Mexico does.

Q: How does this dynamic play out with trends going forward? Where are the biggest growth opportunities? Which countries are best positioned to capitalize on them?

A: Look at what’s happening with global demographic trends, and where demand is growing. You see a rise in tropicals. Chile exports commodities into saturated markets; apples and kiwis, the winter fruit, tree fruits, peaches, plums and nectarines. Those are all saturated markets, relatively saturated in the developed world. Let me just add an aside… in the developing world, consumers are starting to consume those kinds of fruits. But most of these fruits are going to the developed world -- Europe, the United States, and Japan.

To sum up on this front, what we see happening is change in competition and demand for fruits, with Mexico having opportunity in the tropicals area. Mexico will never be a producer of apples or kiwis or anything like that, but it is starting to tap the global demand for tropicals. The other point is that Chile is primarily a fresh fruit exporter because it’s easier in general to export fruits than it is to export vegetables. 

Mexico is primarily a vegetable producer, and that ties the exporters more to the United States and Canada. Now as local demand for the kinds of fruits it can produce is growing, that is something helping Mexico better position itself to export markets beyond the United States.

Q: I wanted to follow up related to the berries markets. What’s happening here?

A: If you look at the evolution of the international berry trade, the first people who started developing the export market were the Chileans.  I wrote a case study on this.

About 20 years ago, a progressive Chilean company developed a market for raspberries, a very perishable product.  Everyone thought it was a crazy idea. The company first developed the market in Europe and, of course, the raspberries were all air-shipped. Eventually, Chile started exports to the United States. So, originally, raspberry imports came from Chile, not Mexico. With airfreight so expensive, the Chilean company looked to produce raspberries closer to the U.S., in central Mexico, but found it couldn’t succeed with raspberries there.

However, it found this really great variety of blackberries with good flavor and good shelf life that could be grown there for export over a long season of the year, including through the winter.  In the U.S., consumers really didn’t consume blackberries in the winter.  The company couldn’t really get any retailers to import or handle the Mexican blackberries because it was considered a risk.

Q: Did any retailers take on the challenge?

A: Costco, a non- traditional operator, took the risk and started handling these blackberries, and Costco only would consider this because they had flavor.  They took off and Costco was the market-driver, and eventually the other retailers followed. And now what we have is this berry industry. We’re still receiving a small amount of raspberries, just because they’re high-priced, from Chile, which controls most of our winter supply.  Then we have these blackberries from Mexico coming in during the winter. And really it’s an extended season past the winter.

Q: Fascinating. What about blueberries?

A: What happened is that Chile started developing the blueberry industry. Blueberries are much less perishable than raspberries and can be shipped by boat. While Chile started in raspberries, it changed its whole focus to blueberries to its primary supply. And it developed this market to as big as it is today.

As demand grows, Argentina enters to become a fall producer. And in the case of blueberries, we can grow them in the United States and Canada from the spring to the fall, so now we have year-round supply.  One of the things that helped make it completely year-round supply was that in California we never used to produce blueberries. In the last decade or so, we developed spring production.  

Q: Is Mexico capable of building blueberry production?

A: There’s still this idea that it would be nice to have blueberry production in central Mexico, and raspberry production there, because the blackberry industry was evolving and so successful. And that means the infrastructure goes in. The California companies become involved as well -- the berry shippers.  So there are all these firms there that have the capacity to invest in and expand the berry lines of central Mexico.

Q: Does that also include strawberries?

A: Now central Mexico always had strawberry producers going back to the time of the Spaniards. But their strawberry industry didn’t have full service technology, didn’t have good packaging, or good varieties. So fresh strawberries were always for the domestic market, and the only products they exported were freezer products.  Everyone knew of Mexico’s berry industry, which also produced raspberries and blackberries for the domestic market, before Chilean firms and U.S. firms started developing them as an export industry.  But blueberries were never part of that.

What happened in the early 90’s, a leading California strawberry producer was experimenting in different areas of Mexico for strawberry production in December/January/February.  California produced some strawberries during that timeframe but very little.  It was trying in Baja, which is a coastal area and similar to California.  

When I came to UC Davis in 1985, there were already fresh strawberries for export there, but not from central Mexico, where most of its domestic strawberry production existed. In Baja, there was a lot of quality problems, fluidity and land problems and it never expanded there to any extent.  That’s not where the game is at. California producers were working for years to expand into central Mexico, looking at different crops and experimenting in different regions, northern states that were close to the border.

In the end, I’ve watched this progression and done many studies in all the years I’ve been here. 

Q: What revelations came out of those studies?

A: In the early years, I was doing work in various regions of Mexico, looking at different crops.  In the run- up to the NAFTA 1994 agreement, there were big concerns that American companies would be put out of business.  I was hired by the American Farm Bureau to do this big national study on the fresh fruit and vegetable industry to research different crops grown in the United States and compare them to regions where they were being produced for export from Mexico or could be in the future, and to find out what the potential impact of NAFTA would be.  

I focused on strawberries. What I found out was that Mexico won’t end up having a big strawberry export market unless American companies invest in it and develop the varieties and infrastructure. Fast forward to 20 years of them trying to figure it out because the soil conditions and climate are different, and they couldn’t transfer the California technology package to central Mexico like they could for Baja. It was a real struggle. Now we have a whole berry cluster in central Mexico; the anchor fruit is blackberries.  A major California strawberry producer was the first to successfully develop a big raspberry export industry out of Mexico, and then others followed, with Chilean firms joining in.  

Mexico became a primary source for a major supply of raspberries for the winter months, and now with proprietary varieties of strawberries.  In addition, over the past five years, everybody has been trying to grow blueberries there, including Chilean firms. They know there is an opportunity to use the same models with the other berries to get production closer to the U.S. where they can trade over land.  Now they’re starting to have success.

I was just in a major supermarket near where I live, and they had a big display case of all Mexican berries, and the blueberries were from Mexico as well.

Q:  Did you get to try some? How do Mexican blueberries compare in quality and taste?

A: I’ve got some here that I’ll try right now with you as my witness. You can taste them with me vicariously!  I’m just opening the box, and I’m popping blueberries from Mexico into my mouth for the first time.  Hmmmm. They’re not that sweet, a little tart, but for this time of year that’s kind of typical.  They’re OK. They have really good visual quality, and are really fresh compared to what you would find now. Actually, they’re pretty good, good size, definitely fresh, nothing soft on the bottom, so there you go.  Mexican blueberries are now on the market.  I’m looking in my fridge, and the raspberries and blackberries from Mexico are gorgeous.

Q: Is it notable to find a retailer with a Mexican berry display complete with blueberries?

A: This is a big deal from my perspective. I see so much investment in Mexico from Chilean firms, and the California firms to have year-round supply.  Destination of market is a major factor in looking at relative competitiveness for fresh fruits and vegetables. Not only is the transportation cost a high percentage of the total value, but because whenever we’re talking about fresh fruits and vegetables, close to the market influences the quality and shelf life factors.

The investment in Mexico for raspberries is understandable, where we can’t produce enough, and certainly can’t do year-round, and for blackberries, which we don’t do in large volumes. It makes sense then to figure out how to do blueberries and strawberries to add to the berry mix.  

Q: Do you have figures on volumes to give some perspective here?

A: For strawberries, it’s still small volumes being exported out of Mexico.  The ERS just released the import share for fresh strawberries for 2013, and it is 13.3%.  Imports of strawberries have always been tiny, mainly coming in from Baja. Now we’re starting to see more volume coming from central Mexico. The trend is clear. Still, if you look at total U.S. consumption of strawberries, the vast majority are grown in the U.S. —85 percent to 95 percent, primarily in California, and some in Florida.

This is not the case for blackberries and raspberries. For raspberries, almost all are coming from Mexico, and for blackberries, it’s about 99 percent, so there are clear stories there.

What’s significant is that we seem to be at a tipping point now where straws and blues are going to become an important part of the market. People are predicting that Mexico will knock out Argentina in blueberries. After Chile developed the original export market and showed the way, then Argentina stepped in with the fall window, and a lot of Chilean firms have invested in Argentina in past decade. But I’m hearing it will go by the wayside if Mexico succeeds.  Mexico can produce for a lot longer period of time and with a lot cheaper transportation cost.  

The big story is the composition of fruits is changing in what’s being traded globally. We’re increasing demand for tropicals, which Mexico can produce, and then in addition, growing global demand for berry demand as a whole. Mexico had a big role in blackberries, then raspberries, and now we’re starting to see the evolution of blues and straws. I was speaking in Mexico with its first berry conference about four years ago. At that time I met with a lot of the California firms and Chilean firms as well, and the big company producing the blueberry plant materials, and they were all investing in blueberry production there.

Q: Are there any issues or hesitancies in regard to food safety or security problems?

A: Sometimes there are perception issues with food safety, but these firms all are trying to have the same standards wherever they’re producing, because their brand is at stake, and all the farms are focused on food safety, whether they’re producing in the U.S., Mexico or Chile.  From what I understand talking to the experts and third-party food safety inspection services, there’s no reason to be concerned. I mean, you can have a problem anywhere.

Q: I remember all the debates regarding new country-of-origin labeling regulations. Aside from extra costs and logistics issues at the industry level, there were also concerns that consumers might shy away from products originating from certain countries.

A: I do think there are perception issues on the consumer side, although the evidence isn’t showing that there is a reason for this.  FMI asks this in their annual surveys, Hartman survey reports and other national surveys that I’ve watched over the past 20 to 25 years show that people tend to be more concerned about produce that has been imported as opposed to domestic produce. And the country of most concern is China and then Mexico.

Q: Who will feel the biggest impacts of Mexico’s expanding global trade in the U.S.?

A: From the perspective of the U.S. produce industry, they have expanding sources of supply. For retailers, there are more sources and greater diversity of products available. For producers and their marketers, it is the grower/shippers developing the production to have year-round supply. Generally it helps to keep their product on the shelves. First evidence of this was our case studies when table grapes from Chile were introduced in the winter.  While there was originally concern from producers in the grape industry, it came to the conclusion it meant it didn’t have to fight to regain shelf space in the spring.

In the end, it’s to the benefit of consumers. There could be U.S. producers that could be impacted on the berry side. The state that could be affected by Mexico is Florida. Florida will face increasing competition if Mexico develops its winter straw and blue market. The reason why California firms invested in Mexico is there’s not enough production certain times of the year. Producers in California tried to develop in the Arizona desert, Coachella region where we do the greens, but nobody has actually succeeded yet.

California grower/shippers and marketers are interested in getting more supply during the year. Strawberries are just starting so I don’t want to oversell that, but it is news. I’m thinking wow, in my 30 years, I always said there would have to be a reason California tried in so many regions for so long.  It’s been challenging, and you really have to take your hat off to those firms for their persistence in the face of losing millions of dollars in the process. Another big produce company tried celery and leafy greens in Mexico to hit a window and got nailed with weather problems in the first year and pulled out.  They set up a big office but crashed and burned.

Q: Besides Mother Nature, aren’t there security problems that create obstacles?

A: Now you have all the security issues in Mexico in primary areas where they are producing these berries, which is very serious, and extremely challenging, so I’m actually surprised there is as much investment as there is. But it’s because they got to a point before the security got so bad. Once you get a cluster going, you have enough production and investment going into a product and region, then it’s worthwhile for suppliers to invest in the R&D for blues and straws and the right breeders, with the post-harvest technology and infrastructure in place. The firms are there, they might as well capitalize on that.

I wouldn’t say they could never pull out. I don’t know, things could get really bad, but what we’re seeing is more investment going in to more crops and more regions. Like I said earlier, there’s money going into a lemon sector and lime sector, and, of course, the huge investment in avocados. Firms are finding ways to manage the security. They keep low profiles, and don’t go out at night, so who knows what the mix will be? I’m not making any predictions; all I can say is now the investment is substantial and growing.

Coming back to global competition, and Mexico’s growing role relative to Chile, my talk will also look to what’s happening with Peru.

Q: Oh, yes. You did mention Peru’s emerging stake in global trade earlier. With the breadth of information you’re sharing, we could probably add in an extra day to the conference!

A: I think I can manage it!  Peru’s produce industry for exports started 20 years ago with fresh asparagus exports, then some significant investment came in for the mango industry, and also for avocados from northern Peru. It was able to get enough volume and infrastructure so people could come in on other crops; the Peruvians on table grapes and then Chile. So now Peru is emerging as a more important export player with international investments coming in, Chilean investments and some U.S. investments.

Peru knocked Mexico out of the asparagus export industry about a decade ago. Most had come from Mexico, and there had been a little from Chile, but Peru developed this power house from imports into the U.S. Now Peru is expanding into these other crops.  I haven’t heard predictions of Peru cutting into Chilean table grapes to cause it to decline. However, Peru has enough volume of trade, they can get better gateways to different markets and they have this avocado industry that will probably replace Chile’s.  

We’ve developed avocado imports to the U.S. from Mexico, which we haven’t even talked about. Once Mexico got market access to all U.S. states except Alaska, Mexico knocked out Chile. So the opposite happened to what occurred with asparagus in Peru and Mexico.  At the same time, Peru is starting to emerge, which will make it harder even yet for Chile with avocados.

It really does vary by crop, but we’ve seen major changes in relative competitiveness as investments take place in different countries.  It is big news that in three years Chile has been knocked out by Mexico with avocados.  Mexico produces avocados year around, and we can get them by land and at a higher maturity rate. Peru has some marketing window advantages relative to Chile.  I think that’s one of the reasons why now we’re starting to see this alliance with Peru, and Chile is crashing.  Each product has its own story to tell.

Q: The last area in this picture you’re painting relates to trade disputes…

A: I have some case studies I’ll reference in this regard. But before I go there, I’ve developed this whole scenario of why Mexico diversified crops and product mix, but I want to highlight that the government is really focused on getting market access to more countries, exemplified by this signed agreement that Mexico will have access to China for berries. The Mexican Department of Agriculture got ahead of the news by making the announcement in the trade press a couple of months earlier before it was finalized, but the point is that Mexico is focusing on bilateral trade agreements they’ve been developing for years, just like Chile did.

Another important point: Sometimes it’s just about trading market shares and the total pie is not expanding, but in this case, Mexico is growing in the U.S., as well as increasing overall production, not just domestically but for the international market.

Q: So how have trade disputes influenced all this activity?

A: I give the example of the tomato industry. Tomatoes have matured demand, but have always been the most important produce crop exported from Mexico for a half century. The market is saturated. In order for Mexico to expand exports to the U.S., it needs these other crops it’s now exporting, very large volumes of avocados, growing volumes of tropical fruits and berries. That’s where they’re getting their growth, not from their most important produce export, tomatoes.

Because of the fact we have this relatively saturated market of tomatoes in the U.S., for decades we’ve had trade disputes with Mexico related to fresh tomatoes; this is nothing new. It’s generally the Florida industry that competes with Mexico, so that’s where the primary disputes have arisen.

In the last decade and a half, we’ve seen the expansion in demand for protected agriculture tomatoes, a continuum, from plastic hoops, to shade houses, all the way to greenhouses, which can be glass or plastic. There’s a big range of technology applied within greenhouses, the most advanced are enclosed greenhouses, but most are not closed. 

Q: You might get some tough criticism for that flexible description of greenhouses. The definition of greenhouse has been the subject of much dispute. More costly, traditional enclosed glass greenhouse suppliers in Canada and the U.S. have argued that Mexico’s consortium of growing techniques under the protected agriculture umbrella should not be categorized or labeled as greenhouse grown, and is misleading to consumers. ..[Link to an earlier piece I wrote for Produce Business on this contentious subject].

A: You raise an important point. The Netherlands had been exporting small volumes of greenhouse product to the U.S., going back 20 years ago. Basically, Canada learned from the Netherlands and that greenhouse technology evolved in Canada, capitalizing on the potential to export to the U.S. and becoming an important supplier to the U.S. Simultaneously, companies started to develop greenhouse business in the U.S., finding out it was too hard to produce in the northeast, and moving to other areas in the U.S.

Mexico was always a primary resource of field-grown tomatoes for the U.S.  It started going to Spain and the Netherlands to learn about more advanced technology and began experimenting with protected agriculture shade houses and plastic greenhouses. So the greenhouse industry evolved from the field tomato industry, whereas in the U.S., the greenhouse industry came from outside the field tomato industry.

Q: What are the main draws to protected agriculture versus field grown?

A: There are advantages from protected agriculture. It improves yields, packout, cosmetic quality, reduces labor and is better from a food safety standpoint. There is more control with one entry inside and out. It brings in more trained workers and more productive workers, and labor is also becoming more of a challenge in Mexico, so this is a motivator as well.  Gradually, over time, Mexico has come up with hybrid houses for the right technology mix. That started to create competition for the Canadian and U.S. greenhouse firms, leading to trade disputes that go beyond traditional ones as you point out; particularly in the U.S. because Canada doesn’t really produce in the winter. 

Now they have new competition from Mexico, for “hothouse” tomatoes, when before they were the only game in town. The U.S. greenhouse industry doesn’t like this.  In reality, consumers don’t care about the technical definitions.

In addition, central Mexico, which never produced in the winter, and never exported, started developing shade houses, with its high altitude and good light levels, which is why its berries do so well. Now, high-tech greenhouses as well as shade houses in central Mexico are being designed that can supply year-round production to the U.S. market.

Q: Doesn’t this set up a firestorm for increased trade disputes?

A: There are more interests at stake in tomato trade disputes than in the past, and now you can have greenhouse producers also playing a role in these disputes with Mexico.  

It’s also important to understand that Sinaloa is still the primary exporter of tomatoes, but these shade houses and greenhouses there really don’t enable them to expand their season because it gets too hot. For Sinaloa, it’s pretty much the same season they’ve always had, December through April, albeit it can extend the season a little but not much. Sinaloa, during the winter, supplies all of Mexico. Now Sinaloa has all this competition in central Mexico.

So from its standpoint, that’s changing the competitiveness of its industry.  So what is Sinaloa doing? It’s investing in shade house and greenhouse suppliers in central Mexico because Sinaloa was never a year-round supplier of tomatoes. So now, we have investment in central Mexico going into greenhouse tomatoes there coming from outside field agriculture and also from Sinaloa field suppliers investing in other states.

Q: How does this whirlwind of events impact the latest suspension agreement between the U.S. and Mexico?

A: We had a dumping suit Florida had filed years ago against Mexico and that was negotiated with a suspension agreement for minimum prices for tomatoes. At the time this suspension agreement was formed, there weren’t all these different kinds of protected agriculture tomatoes. A few years ago, there were some adjustments made. Now in this latest suspension agreement that went into effect in March of last year, there are all these different descriptions of various tomato production technology methods.

The whole North American tomato industry has changed dramatically. You have all these different sources of supply at different times of the year, including greenhouse production in the U.S., Canada, and now Mexico. It changes the whole competitive playing field.  

******

The heart of this presentation, as with the heart of the whole “disruption” theme of the Global Trade Symposium, is that what is going to hurt you and your business in the future is projecting that the future will be just like the past. That is not true of British supermarkets or the Mexican produce industry. We can’t wait to have Dr. Cook lay it out for us.

Come hear Dr. Roberta Cook at The Global Trade Symposium and attend the whole New York Produce Show and Conference. You can register right here.




A Vision Of Prosperity And Democracy:
Tinashe Kapuya Speaks Out On Citrus, The Africa Opportunity Act And Opportunities For Trade

When the Pundit had the opportunity to keynote the main South African produce event some years ago, it was a special privilege. Typically the USDA works to help promote American exports, but in South Africa our national interest is different.

Under very difficult circumstances, the South Africans have done what no one else in Africa has done -- create a multi-racial democratic society. And as the world’s great arsenal of democracy, it is in our interest to do all we can to help South Africa prosper and to prove to the world that men and women of goodwill working together can, regardless of skin color, create a society in which all can prosper.

In the produce industry, our bit is to help create employment and help South Africa’s valuable foreign currency by buying some of South Africa’s world-class exported produce.

We found a thoughtful expert who could paint the way, and we asked Keith Loria, Pundit Contributing Editor, to find out more:

Tinashe Kapuya
Manager of International Trade and Investment Intelligence
The Agricultural Business Chamber
Johannesburg, South Africa

Q: Please provide a little background about your experience in the industry.

A: I have a stronger academic background than industry background because I spent a considerable amount of time at the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), which is a think tank based at the University of Pretoria. They have been doing a lot of industry work, but it’s about creating market models to generate outlooks. For a while I was doing econometric modeling and scenario analysis.

Q:What do you do in your current role with the Agricultural Business Chamber?

A:I joined the chamber a little over a year ago. Since joining, I have had a lot of industry experience because I have interacted with a broad spectrum of agricultural players. The membership of Ag Biz spans from banks to insurance companies to manufacturers and processors, as well as traders.

As a result, I have had a lot of exposure from different players in the industry. We align ourselves more toward issues that are common for everybody but we take into account the issues that affect the unique needs for our members. The balance between academia and industry is one that I have tried to strive for over the past 18 months.

Q: You’ll be attending your first New York Produce Show and Conference as a featured speaker at the Global Trade Symposium. What will be the subject of your talk?

A:I’m going to be talking about something that has been at the core of what we’ve been dealing with the past couple of years. It’s really about trying to give the audience an insight into South Africa’s exports to the United States for citrus.

South Africa is one of the major global exporters of citrus, and the United States is quite an important market for our oranges and soft citrus. There have been some very interesting developments that have happened over the past couple of years, and part of the reason for my presentation is to give the audience some insight into what we’ve been dealing with as an industry and the broader implications of the market access.

Q: Can you summarize one of those implications to give people more of a preview?

A:The first issue is concerning the sanitary issues. The U.S. has a standard protocol and operating procedure, which is quite a stringent mechanism that ensures whatever output coming out of South Africa meets quality specifications suited to the health and consumer needs of the U.S. market.

Back in 2006, two trucks going to California were intercepted and some false marks were discovered. Further investigations showed that the larvae of the false codling moth (FCM) was dead, reflecting that the cold treatment had in fact worked. However, the US insisted on the addition of a further two days of cold treatment to allay fears of a risk in the spread of FCM, particularly in California. After exports peaked in 2006, we saw exports dropping by nearly a third due to new regulations, and we have tried ever since to lobby the U.S. around this protocol.

Q: What do you hope attendees learn from your talk?

A:The Africa Growth Opportunity Act is the main issue that I would like to bring to the attention of the audience.

Q: What are your expectations from the New York Produce Show and Conference as a whole?

A:First of all, we value the interactions between ourselves and other players in the global markets, so the networks are quite important to the Agriculture Business Chamber. There’s also the issue of leaning more about what’s going on in other parts of the world.

Q: With some of the most important executives in the North American produce trade being present at the show, in what ways do you feel it will be beneficial to you?

A:I’m greatly looking forward to talking with some of those others who will be presenting at the show or showcasing their products and services. We bring that back to our membership. Every time I come back from important events like this, I present the information to our council and talk about the opportunities. We present it in a way that is positive and talk about what we can learn from developments or practices happening outside of Africa.

Q: The U.S. obviously has a great interest in the peace and prosperity of South Africa. In what ways do you feel your presentation will assist that?

A:Beyond creating awareness and sharing of information, we also want to attract investment from other players in the global space. We, like any other economy, want to attract investors from outside to grow the industry.

Q: What are you hoping to bring back to Africa?

A:The middle class has demanded more in terms of food quality and we’ve seen a lot of changes in taste and preferences in Africa. The supermarket revolution—as it has been called—has been facilitated to a large extent by the increases in income across the continent. What we hope to get out of this conference is to import the practices and business models we see out there, adapt them to the African context, and bring them back home to us and meet the unique needs of the African population.

Q: I understand this will be your first time outside of Africa. What are you looking forward to most about coming to America and New York?

A:There are a lot of things I expect to learn, even outside of my professional life. To see the infrastructure and development of the city of New York, which I’ve only seen on TV…. many Africans who go outside of this continent bring with them concepts and ideas that are basically fed off the practices and economy structures of the developed Western hemisphere countries, and I would like to learn more about how things are run.

And of course, I’ll go to the Knicks game! But it’s more about bringing the development agenda home and trying to tell people that there are a lot of things happening in the global space, and this show is giving us a platform to learn from others and help us with global competitiveness.

****** 

First, we wish to express our thanks to a variety of government officials who worked with us to secure a quick Visa for Tinashe so that he could join us in New York. Julie C. Nicholson and Eugene P. Philhower of the USDA/FAS in the US Embassy in London, and Eric Wenberg (Minister-Counselor), Margaret-N Ntloedibe (Ag Specialist) and Abigail Nguema, all with USDA/FAS in Pretoria, worked diligently to make it happen.

Together they are a shining example of government at its best. All the attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference owe them our gratitude and appreciation for going above and beyond the call of duty.

Second, we appreciate Mr. Kapuya’s willingness to make the journey. We hope that by sharing ideas, we can do more produce trade together and that this trade might lead to a closer friendship between our nations and greater prosperity for all.

Come hear Tinashe Kapuya speak at The Global Trade Symposium on Tuesday.

You can register for the Global Trade Symposium and the whole New York Produce Show and Conference right here.




‘Most Influential’ Food-Wine Critic John Mariani To Address Other Influential Journalists At New York Produce Show’s ‘Connect With Fresh’ Luncheon

Located in the media capital of the world, The New York Produce Show and Conference serves the interests of the trade by running a substantial media outreach program. The program has various aspects. One element serves financial journalists interested in the business of produce. Another aspect serves journalists with culinary, shopping or homemaking interests. A final element is an outreach to consumer influencers of non-traditional types, such as those who blog, tweet or maintain Facebook presences speaking about food, restaurants and how people should eat.

The umbrella under which these media/consumer influencer programs function is called “Connect with Fresh.”

At the center of the program is a Media Luncheon. In the past we have had keynote speakers such as Florence Fabricant, Sara Moulton, Maricel Presilla. This year, we are honored to host the noted author, John Mariani. By a fortuitous circumstance, pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS has a Contributing Editor — and noted author himself — by the name of Paul Frumkin. Paul is a CIA-trained chef and has known John for many years and so we asked him to fill us in about Mr. Mariani and talk to him about his take on today’s New York food scene:

For the past 35 years, author and journalist John Mariani has traveled the world writing about food, wine, restaurants and culture. A columnist for Esquire magazine and Bloomberg News, Mariani has covered everything from the rise of nouvelle and American cuisines to the best pizza in Naples, the best barbecue in Texas and just about everything else that impacts restaurants. Over the last three decades he has been responsible for selecting the Best New Restaurants of the Year for Esquire, and for the past five years, he has written a wine column for Bloomberg News. He also publishes a weekly blog, Mariani's Virtual Gourmet Newsletter.

Called “the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press” by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mariani began his writing career in 1973 with an article that appeared in New York magazine. Since then he has written numerous articles and books. His first book, The Dictionary of American Food & Drink (Ticknor & Fields, 1983), was celebrated as the “American Larousse Gastronomique” and was chosen “best reference book on food for 1983” by Library Journal.

His other books include Eating Out: Fearless Dining in Ethnic Restaurants (Quill, 1985); Mariani's Coast-to-Coast Dining Guide (Times Books, 1986); America Eats Out (William Morrow, 1991); The Four Seasons: A History of America's Premier Restaurant (Crown, 1997; revised 1999); Vincent's Cookbook (Tenspeed Press, 1995), with chef-restaurateur Vincent Guérithault; The Dictionary of Italian Food & Drink (Broadway Books, 1998); Grilling for Dummies with Marie Rama (IDG Books); and his latest book, How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2011).

Recognized as one of the country's pre-eminent food writers, Mariani will be a speaker at New York Produce Show's “Connect With Fresh” media luncheon at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, on December 3.

John Mariani
columnist for
Esquire and Bloomberg News

Q: What are some of the most notable changes that you've witnessed in the restaurant industry over the course of your career?

A: The major and most important shift in both American and global cuisines is the availability of better ingredients and more variety. The fact is, 30 years ago you couldn't get wild mushrooms of any kind. Now you can get everything — chanterelles, shiitakes, portobellos … as well as balsamic vinegar, truffles, fresh foie gras, extra virgin olive oil and all of the products that come in from Asia. That changed everything. You can't cook well without good ingredients.

Also, I would say the willingness of American chefs to adapt and invent has had a striking effect on kitchens everywhere. By being open-minded, young American chefs were willing to travel and learn and express their own American exuberance, whereas cuisines of other countries often stultified, and had little reason to change until American chefs led the way.

Q: How has the use of fruits and vegetables on the menu evolved?

A: We're seeing a lot more variety. Who would ever have heard of kale 15 years ago, or Broccolini? The wide varieties of squashes you can get now, or radicchio, simply weren't available outside of Europe, and even then that was regional. Now you can get available products with 24 hour’s notice and shipped fresh. And any American chef can just go to FedEx and get Dover sole in its prime as opposed to 4-days-old.

Q: Have you noted many changes at vegetarian restaurants during your career?

A: I don't think vegetarian restaurants in the United States have changed much, except to become more varied. Greens in San Francisco said it all. You can eat vegetables that are stunningly delicious. The big news is that many restaurants in France now have vegetarian sections or vegetarian tasting menus that once would have been unthinkable outside of a sanitarium there.

Q: What are some of the most significant trends you've observed lately?

A: If I speak to members of the media who don't get out that much, they would like you to believe that there is a “Brooklynization” effect on a wide scale. That means brick walls, exposed pipes, no tablecloths, waiters in T-shirts. But there have always been restaurants across the country like that. They've just come to the fore. It's also that the media has fallen in love with the hipster attitude of food.

Also, for those who say people are cutting back on protein, I say not around here! There's been a tsunami of new steakhouse openings in the last year. Ten expensive prime steakhouses have opened in New York City alone. It's astounding. Those places are packed with diners willing to spend $50 for a slab of protein, and there's not a vegetable to be found on the plate.

Meanwhile, more American restaurants are offering vegetarian selections and are getting gutsier and more calorie-rich and robust than ever before.

Q: What are some of most innovative produce-based dishes you've tasted lately?

A: Everybody seems to have kale now. But it's not innovative anymore. I've seen vegetables chopped like Cobb salad and roasted in a ceramic dish — cooked vegetables that have lots of spices and seasoning and cheese that make them palatable and delicious.

Q: What dishes or ingredients do you think are overdone?

A: Beets and goat cheese, certainly. They're on every menu everywhere from here to San Francisco. They're passé.

Also, pizzas are on a lot of menus they shouldn't be on. And tilapia is a joke.

Farm-raised salmon is almost ubiquitous and not very good. And non-American-raised lamb. People get lamb from New Zealand, which is a slap in the face of the farm-to-table movement ... which itself is a farce. It's admirable but nearly impossible to do and egotistical to think you can do it all year-round.

Q: Is it more difficult to be creative with produce than protein?

A: The contrary is true, because vegetables in and of themselves have very little flavor without being toyed with. You have to be creative. You need to add texture, nuts — anything to spike them up. Chefs from India have known this for centuries. Let's face it — nobody wants to eat okra on its own.

Q: What is the difference between Baby Boomers and Millennials when it comes to dining out?

A: The Millennials have the attention span of a fruit fly. They're the ones who are lining up to get a cronut. They follow fads and want to get into the latest hipster restaurant. They care what Gwyneth Paltrow says about food, and follow all the food shows on TV.

Baby Boomers, on the other hand, were the ones who discovered that dining out and food and chefs were wonderful. We went to Spago and Gramercy Tavern, while Millennials go to hipster restaurants and wind up spending the same amount of money.

Q: What changes can we expect to see in restaurants in the future?

A: I am very optimistic that not only will fine dining not go away in the future... but you'll see more restaurants that are all about the fine-dining experience — those that pay real attention to every detail and make people feel special and pampered. That ain't going way.

Restaurants agreeing that amenities like tablecloths and wine glasses have to be the best, servers must be nicely dressed, the bartender knows how to make a classic cocktail... Those standards haven't radically changed. 

Q: What changes would you like to see?

A: I would like to see better-trained, more appealing waitstaff. I want to see a reduction of noise from unspeakable, ear-shattering playlists to the pleasant hum of people dining out. Possibly the worst thing that has happened at restaurants is the introduction of the chef's personal play list. It's the worst thing.

Q: What are your favorite types of restaurants?

A: James Beard used to say the ones where he's treated best. The fact is most people return to the same six restaurants. My favorites are the ones where I'm treated well, love the food and am not surprised by anything garish.

Q: What's your take on Superfoods?

A: I really haven't been paying any attention to them.

Q: What do you think of the trend of chefs opening multiple restaurants?

A: I think it makes good business sense, but dilutes the product. A few chefs can do it. Alain Ducasse is in control of his restaurants; Michael White has done it so far, too. But in most other cases, it really just comes down to management contracts. You throw a general manager in, and it is what it is.

But everybody's favorite restaurant is where they see a familiar face like the owner or chef or maître d' who has been there for 20 years. It really makes an enormous difference. If I walk into a restaurant where the owner has no plans to be there, it just isn't the same.

It's like going to a Broadway show and seeing the understudy is on that night and paying the same $100 for tickets.

Q: Do you think that farmers are the new celebrities?

A: I wouldn't go that far. Seriously, names like Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio bounce around in peoples' heads, but how many farmers can you name?

******

So many trends get started in the restaurant scene in New York that growers, distributors and restaurateurs would be foolish to not keep a careful eye on the trends.

Of great importance, though, is how these trends will translate into the lower-price-oint zone that feeds most of America. In fact, the restaurants of scale can’t just go to FedEx and pick up fresh Dover Sole because the price point is beyond reach.

Tilapia may well be a culinary “joke,” but the Nielsen Perishables Group says it accounts for about 25% of all “finfish” sales in supermarkets.

One key question for public health: How can we take booms of interest, as with kale, and turn these into opportunities to increase produce consumption? All too often, an increase in interest in kale simply means that spinach gets removed from the menu and replaced by the hot vegetable, but the net effect on consumption is zero.

It is good for the industry and the media to hear Mr. Mariani’s tell-it-like-it-is approach when it comes to things such as the boom in steakhouses. All too many in the industry and the media treat the rise of produce – because of its health and environmental attributes -- as inevitable. But the reality on the ground is different, and those who want to see a more plant-based diet have a lot of work to do.

******

The Connect with Fresh program and Mr. Mariani’s presentation are only open to registered members of the program. But these types of efforts are part of the broader eco-system of The New York Produce Show and Conference.

The student program, the culinary program, the university interchange program, the Global Trade Symposium, the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum, the Perishable Pundit’s Thought Leader Breakfast Panel, the Regional Tours …. even the Opening Cocktail Reception all are part of a larger effort to create a place for the industry to advance, to exchange ideas, build connections, and simply become better. Having brilliant authors and attentive journalists all focused on produce is a win for us all.

Please come and join us, you can register for the event right here.

If you need a last-minute hotel, just let us know here.

Don’t forget The Global Trade Symposium on Tuesday, ask about it here.

And the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum here.

We have five regional tours you can sign up for here.

Come by plane, train, bus, subway or walk, but come join us in Celebrating Fresh at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

 




Is There An Organic Option?
Professor Ramu Govindasamy Returns To New York Produce Show With New Info On Produce Grown Specifically For Ethnic Households

Professor Govindasamy has been a fan favorite at The New York Produce Show and Conference in the past, with presentations that we’ve highlighted with pieces such as these:

ETHNIC AMERICA: Opportunities For Growers, Wholesalers And Retailers In Ethnic Produce Items...Rutgers University’s Dr. Ramu Govindasamy Unveils New Research

Rutger’s Professor Ramu Govindasamy To Speak Out At The New York Produce Show And Conference … Research On Asian And Hispanic Produce Marketing On The East Coast Identifies A Profitable Opportunity

His work is at the intersection of two big issues: how to grow the produce that will serve ethnic communities as the population makeup changes, and how to set up a system so that consumers can access that produce through retail and other channels.

When we heard that Professor Govindasamy had now thrown a third industry interest – organic – into the mix, we quickly asked him if he would update the show attendees and, when he said yes, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:

 

Ramu Govindasamy
Rutgers Professor
Department of Agricultural,
Food and Resource Economics

Associate Director of Research,
Food Policy Institute

Rutgers University
Extension Specialist,
Rutgers Cooperative Extension

New Brunswick, New Jersey

Q: Tell us about your latest research: Opportunities for Organic Ethnic Greens and Herbs: A Study from the Eastern Coastal USA. Is this work an extension of the series of projects you’ve undertaken through the USDA-funded specialty crops initiative?

A: Yes, this is a continuation of that work. In fact, this research uses the 2010 data, which we collected through the USDA-funded project. There are three sections in my presentation. The first section introduces the project and talks about the data. Then the second section talks about the characteristics of consumers who are willing to buy organic ethnic produce. The third section compares the characteristics of consumers who are willing to buy organic ethnic greens to that of those who are not willing to buy organic ethnic produce.

Q: What inspired you to pursue organic production potential, in what would decidedly be a niche market and challenging one to pursue?

A: I was traveling along the East Coast and visited more than 100 retail ethnic stores. And none of them offered organic ethnic produce. It was a glaring omission. We were curious if people wanted to buy organic and examine the issues for why retailers weren’t offering it. 

We went back to data we collected and found out more than 70 percent of the people we interviewed wanted to buy organic ethnic greens. Even though there is a lot of demand, they’re not offered. It’s strange.

Q: Through your previous studies, you’ve demonstrated the opportunities to build production of conventional ethnic greens varieties as demand for niche items grows among various ethnic groups. Here, you’ve been collaborating with small to midsize conventional growers in the northeast through ongoing pilot programs.  Doesn’t organic production up the ante?

A: Yes, especially when it comes to ethnic vegetables. The success in commercial farming in the East depends largely on the ability of the growers to focus on high value, specialty crops such as ethnic greens and herbs targeted at specific niche markets for favorable competitive advantages.

I don’t think the production information to grow different organic ethnic specialty crops is out there. As you mention, it’s not easy to grow organic greens, and it might be the primary reason why they’re not offered.

Another important factor that comes into the picture is price. While the majority of people in the ethnic groups we surveyed want to buy organic ethnic greens, only 57 percent are willing to pay more for them. They want organic, but don’t want to pay more for it, which is problematic.

Q: What do you learn when you delve into the data, and analyze how it breaks down by ethnic group? Are you able to pinpoint opportunities?

A: We studied four ethnic groups: Asian Indians, Chinese, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. We looked at the demographics of those willing to buy organic, and consumer spending. On average, among these four ethnic communities, people shop four times a month and spend $89 per month on ethnic greens and herbs.

Q: How do spending habits differ by ethnic group?

A: The Asian Indians are the ones who are really after the organic ethnic greens, 81% are willing to buy organic; Chinese 74%; Mexicans 76%; and Puerto Ricans at 73 %.

Q: Are there generational shifts? How does age effect interest in organic ethnic greens?

A: In terms of age: Of those willing to buy organic ethnic greens, most often it belongs to the 36 to 50 age group at 40%; The 21 to 35 age group is 27%; while older consumers between 51 to 65 is 21%.

In terms of education: for the entire group, 49 percent of those willing to buy organic ethnic greens had a high school degree or below, which I think is a huge number. Those with a post graduate or advanced degree is 24 percent. We see extremes, actually, with post graduates showing a relatively low interest compared to those with less formal education.

Q: What accounts for that?

A: If you look at Hispanics, very often their education is low, so the percentages in the category are reflective of the number of Hispanics. At the same time, on the higher end, post graduate degrees primarily are coming from the Asian Indians and Chinese, also reflective of the percentage differences. 

Q: What other factors have you pulled out?

A: We looked at the income category.  The majority — 63 percent of people interested in organic ethnic greens — has an annual income below $40,000.  

Q: That goes a long way in explaining the discrepancy between the high demand for organic ethnic greens and the lack of willingness to pay more for them. For many consumers in the target market, couldn’t financial issues prohibit purchase, unless the supply chain can bring the price of the organic ethnic greens in line with the conventional alternatives?   

A: If we split the income data by ethnicity, it gives us more information. I will have those numbers to discuss at the Show.

In terms of the language they speak at home, over 94 percent speak their ethnic language at home, In fact with that question, 79 percent were born in their home country.

Q: Does it follow that this group desires to cook traditional cuisines that would call for specialty ethnic greens? When people become assimilated, isn’t there a movement to more mainstream produce and away from niche ethnic crops? Conversely, as demographics in communities change, and global influences converge, niche specialty items gradually move into the mainstream… Further, interest in organic ethnic greens seems to intersect with sustainability, a popular and modern trend.  Does your research explore these dynamics?  

A: Yes. Some ethnic greens get very popular over time because they are being bought in relatively high volumes by several ethnicities, which means they will be sold in mass supermarkets. It’s like what happened with okra in America. As time goes on, you will find many niche ethnic greens becoming mainstream.

Q: Do you have examples? 

A: There is an ethnic green called Purslane, considered a weed in the U.S., that is being consumed by many ethnicities.  Roselle, an herb native to West Africa, also is consumed by many ethnicities. Both are becoming very popular.

Q: Isn’t it a leap to create an organic market for items like these?

A: These are very unique greens, and farmers don’t even know what kinds of pests affect these new crops. So, how would they know what pesticides to use? When it comes to organic, it becomes very challenging. What kinds of pests are attacking these new crops, and how do you counter these problems within USDA organic requirements. It is a complicated process.

Q: What strategies do you recommend going forward?  Where are the most promising opportunities?

A: Looking at the entire East Coast, covering 16 states plus Washington D.C., the first strategy is to understand where different ethnic populations are concentrated. The largest Mexican population on the East Coast is in Florida. The largest Chinese population is in New York. Also for Asian Indians, it is in New York, and for Puerto Ricans, it’s New York. This is data from 2010.

Q: Has much changed since then?

A: The populations have gone up but the proportions are pretty much the same, except one category, Asian Indians. There is quite a large Asian Indian population in New Jersey, neighboring New York, and it has gone up in the past four years.

Q: Sounds like the New York metropolitan area wins!

A: In looking to develop an organic ethnic greens market, a good place to concentrate efforts is New York. Right now, that market is nearly non-existent, or there is nothing that looks good. Demand is there for organic ethnic greens. The main thing is finding a way to produce these products, at least the high volume varieties, for these ethnicities.

Given that organic specifications are very rigid in the U.S., Consumers trust organic products from the U.S. compared to imported organics.

One thing I’ll talk about is comparing those people willing to buy organic ethnic greens versus those not willing to buy organic ethnic greens.

Q: Did you ask questions about why they preferred organic?

A: Not directly. For those willing to buy organic over conventional, the general attributes they would consider were ranked as follows: Number One — fresher; Two — higher quality; Three -- wider variety; Four -- lower prices; Five — better access; and last — that it was grown by local farms.

Q:  Some of those attributes will be challenging to meet with organic…

A:  It will be mostly grown by local farms, so that attribute will be satisfied and, concurrently, the Number One and Number Two attributes related to freshness and quality can be met. The challenges will be on pricing and varieties.

Q: Did those attributes change with different ethnic groups?

A: I don’t have those numbers broken out now, but I can share that information at the Show.  

Q: Could you also talk more about the production side?

A: Given these populations are small and concentrated; the focus must be primarily on small and midsize growers. For larger growers, typically the price doubles because the volumes are not there. When volumes do go up, the price plummets. Since the demand is not there for the larger growers, these varieties saturate the market. They won’t be able to sell them, and ultimately the price goes down.

Q: Where do these ethnic groups shop?

A: Mostly ethnic grocery stores. Where the volumes are so small, supermarkets struggle unless they are located in populated areas of ethnic communities.

Q: Is there an expansion of these types of ethnic retail stores?

A: Yes, a lot of growth. In the past 10 years, ethnic grocery stores have mushroomed, especially in New Jersey and in pockets across the East Coast.

Q: Have you been continuing to work with small and midsize growers in the North East to increase their development of conventional ethnic greens and herbs to supply this growing retail base?  Could you update us on what’s happening with your field trials in different states?

A: Our goal is to help small and midsize farmers. Originally, we looked at conventional greens and herbs and had trial plots in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Florida to document that we could grow these ethnic greens in different environments. We’ve proven that it is possible.

We have many field visits to farmers at these locations. Now they have more knowledge on what ethnic greens are in demand, and more farmers are growing ethnic greens and herbs along the East Coast.

Q: Have you been measuring results? Are you able to quantify this?

A: We didn’t do any surveys of growers yet, so right now results are all anecdotal, but it is something we’ll do in the future.

It’s very fulfilling to see a lot of these farmers selling ethnic greens and herbs. These are new farmers coming to the market to produce these varieties. 

Q: Since these are conventional growers, will you be looking to recruit organic growers to pilot organic ethnic greens now?

A: It would be challenging for these new growers of conventional ethnic greens to transition to organic.  The next stage of the project is for us to reach out to organic farmers, and set up field trials for the organic category like we did with conventional ethnic greens. That’s the next logical step. We’ll be applying for more funding, to extend our research through the USDA specialty crop initiative.

******

There is something almost surreal about this study. It has been said that the difference between capitalism and democracy is that democracy tells you what people want, but capitalism tell you what people want most.

We’ve not sure what point there is in finding out that people want Ferraris, if we also find out they can’t or won’t pay the premium to get a Ferrari over a Ford. In an economic sense, we are not sure what it means for people to say they want organic, but won’t pay the market price for organic. It is like people saying they really want diamonds, but only if they can get them at the price of cubic zirconium. In effect, it means they don’t want them –as they actually are – at all.

Then when we see why consumers might prefer their ethnic greens organic, the surrealism comes to the fore:

For those willing to buy organic over conventional, the general attributes they would consider were ranked as follows: Number One — fresher; Two — higher quality; Three -- wider variety; Four -- lower prices; Five — better access; and last — that it was grown by local farms.

This is interesting but also somewhat bizarre.  Let us look at the points one by one:

1)   Fresher

There is no indication that organic ethnic greens would be fresher than conventionally grown. Indeed, because the volume would probably be smaller, the distribution may be more difficult and they may be less fresh.

2)    Higher Quality

It is not clear what this means. Flavor? Freshness? In any case, it is not obvious in what way organic ethnic greens would be of higher quality than conventionally grown ethnic greens.

3)   Wider Variety

Why should there be a wider variety of organic than conventional product?

4)   Lower Prices

There is zero reason to believe that organic growing will result in lower price points.

5)   Better Access

Why would there be better access to organic than conventionally grown crop?

6)   Locally Grown

If there is substantial commercial demand for ethnic greens, organic or not, on a commercial scale isn't it likely that the industry would wind up growing them in Salinas and Yuma and other places ideal for the production of greens?

The next stage of research we would like to see conducted in this area involves logistics and distribution. Just establishing that something can be grown somewhere isn’t enough.

FedEx was founded on a simple insight – that the most efficient way to get a package from Point A to Point B was through a distribution hub – in this case in Memphis. Why? Because it is very expensive to get one letter from Visalia, California, to, say, Springfield, Massachusetts, but if you can put a whole trailer of all the letters Visalia wants to send and send them to Memphis, and then have full trailers of all the packages the whole country wants to send to Springfield  go from Memphis, you can be fast and efficient.

The truth is that the most efficient distribution system for this type of product would probably be a mixed pallet added on a trailer already loading in Salinas.

We look forward to discussing issues such as this with Professor Govindasamy as we discuss the intersection of locally grown and ethnic.

Many thanks to Ramu for contributing to The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Please come and join this discussion and all the discussions taking place at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

You can register for the event right here.




Connecticut Professor Ben Campbell Comes Back To The New York Produce Show With Seminal Work On Consumer Reaction To The Marketing Of Locally Grown Produce 

Ben Campbell, Assistant Professor and Extension Economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of the University of Connecticut, is a powerful reminder of the importance of the individual and, particularly, the importance that a teacher can have in the life of a student.

The involvement of the University of Connecticut with The New York Produce Show and Conference is almost wholly due to Dr. Campbell’s personal willingness to make it happen, and in so doing, he has fulfilled Connecticut’s land grant mission to disseminate knowledge while also providing opportunities for students to engage with the produce industry every year.  He is truly one of those people who make a difference.

His research has always been intriguing, and we have discussed his previous work here:

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

This year Professor Campbell is pushing the research to the next level. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

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

 

 

 

Michael Katz
Graduate Student
University of Connecticut
Storrs, Connecticut

 

 

Q: We’re excited to learn about your most recent research in your unfolding portfolio of consumer studies regarding local and organic.

In your initial presentation at The New York Produce Show, you explored consumer perceptions and misperceptions of local and organic.

Then you expounded your study on the changing roles in local and organic, and the relative willingness for consumers to pay for each.

How has your researched evolved?

A: We’re digging deeper into the local and organic concept. I am planning on presenting some of the eye-tracking work that I and a graduate student, Michael Katz, are doing. We are looking at how local and organic labeling influence the decision to purchase produce in a retail setting, while also incorporating eye-tracking technology to see how local and organic labeling catch a consumer’s eye.

Q: How do you incorporate the eye-tracking device?

A: We show people images on a computer screen and the device will tell us what you’re looking at. If I show you a local label, for example, it will tell us down to a millisecond how long it took you to see that label, how long you looked at it and how many times you fixated on it.

Q: Where are these computer screens set up?  Is this in a simulated retail setting? How do you create a realistic shopping experience?

A: What we’ve been doing is going around to farmers’ markets, retail stores and other places and showing people screen images of different produce items, like apples, blueberries and sweet corn. We experimentally change what they’re looking at in each display.

What we’re interested in finding out: Does a logo like Connecticut Grown catch your attention, and at a higher rate than, say, writing the words Connecticut crop? When you go to a retail store, sometimes you see a state logo, sometimes you see the words locally grown, sometimes it’s a USDA-certified organic label, sometimes just the word organic. Will consumers pay more for a product labeled with a logo versus a word, but also does the logo catch your attention more than words.

Q: Aren’t there myriad other factors in play as well, such as how large the logo, what other words and images appear, the type of product, how it’s packaged, how important local or organic is to the consumer, income level, etc.?

A: There is a lot of research looking at the effects of produce packaging and things like that. We standardized things throughout the displays to neutralize variables, with targeted research objectives in mind.

So the only things we’re varying really are, what the price is, is it locally grown, is it with a logo versus word form, is it grown in Connecticut, where we’re doing the study, grown in the northeast, in California, or imported from overseas. We have numerous labeling schemes that we use in the process.

To give you an example: We standardized apples into one variety, so we wouldn’t have to worry about consumer preferences there. In one instance, the only things we were citing were the price, whether it was organic, with a logo, which could be USDA-certified, or the word organic, or sustainable in the text, or no label at all.

We did a similar scheme for local, giving consumers different options of a standardized apple variety based on price, logo-versus-word format, with a choice of the Connecticut state logo or locally grown in Connecticut, one grown in the Northeast, one grown in New York, and another grown in California. There was a variety of scenarios.  

Q: From previous research as a foundation, did you have a hypothesis going into this work?

A: For me, I know people will pay more for produce grown locally. Research shows people value local products enough to invest a little bit more. What I’m caring about now is what role, if any, logo-versus-word format has on that purchase decision. Also using eye-tracking to learn, does the logo capture attention faster and hold that attention.

Q: What if the product label crosses over your defined categories?

A: We just said it had to have one. So it may say this product is organic, grown in Connecticut, and the next item could be grown in Connecticut, but no organic listed. We don’t have local and organic in the same category. However, with our eye-tracking device, if someone sees the logo faster than the word, we will get a sense of order and information down to the millisecond level.

Q: That must accumulate to a lot of milliseconds in data collection!

A: It’s really interesting technology. If you look at a picture for 10 seconds, that’s 10,000 milliseconds, so imagine how much data we get! We’re still working through all the data from our eye-tracking research.

Q: Who participated in the study, and how did you recruit them?  Did you randomly pull out consumers walking in the farmers’ markets and supermarkets and ask if they wanted to volunteer?  Would the computerized technology or the novelty of the research study create bias on who participated and what answers they gave?

A: We’re recruiting consumers who are in a food shopping situation, to a controlled area, where we have computers set up on a table. We say, hey, we have a survey. We’ll pay you money to sit down and do the survey, looking at the computer screen. Sometimes we’re in a farmer’s market, sometimes we’re in a grocery store, and sometimes we have people come to an extension center.

Q: Have you broken down data by demographics, age, etc.?

A: We have in a way. We’re starting to do modeling now, and are seeing some things happening. I’ll be able to share some of these results during my talk at the New York Produce Show.

Q: Could you give us a preview?

A: It’s really interesting to see what’s going on in the marketplace. For example, what we see with age… older consumers in general didn’t like the word organic compared to younger consumers. However, it’s not as simple as one-size-fits-all. Results are varied depending on the product.  We had four products  three fruits and vegetables and one plant -- blueberries, apples and sweet corn, and impatiens.

If we look at sweet corn, the local logo and local word were interchangeable, and the same can be said for organic sweet corn. However, for organic sweet corn, people cared much more about the organic logo and the organic word, and they were willing to pay a higher premium for the organic than non-organic, and a higher premium than the local premium.

There was a clear difference with apples.  People would pay roughly the same for organic and local apples, but the local logo was more important than the words locally grown in Connecticut.  

Q: It sounds like there are a lot of details to sort through to understand statistical relevance.  Could you share some key findings?

A: By and large, for local products, the logo did better pay-wise than the words. For organic, the logo and words performed the same. Generally, logo and words are interchangeable for organic, and logo is more important than words for local. Blueberries were a good example of this. For blueberries, participants tended to like the Connecticut-grown logo for local. The logo did better than words for local. But the logo did no better than words for organic.

We’re seeing differences in demographics, which is fascinating. For example, with blueberries, females like words more with organic than males. And for sweet corn, the higher one’s income, the more likely they are to prefer the logo over the words.

We’re just at the tip of the iceberg of what we can learn. We’re going through all the eye-tracking data and analyzing it.  During the talk we’ll present some of our results and showcase what people are really looking at.

Q: Will you be able to demonstrate how this eye-tracking technology works?

A: As part of the talk, we’ll show a heat map, LINK TO HEAT MAP IMAGE HERE so attendees can see this technology and how people look at different products.

Have you ever watched that TV show, “Cops”?

Someone is running away from the police and a helicopter is tracking his movements, through thermal imaging; the person is running and he’s hot, so he shows up red in the dark. The heat map is similar. Where are people focusing their visualization? What are they looking at, and for how long? As you move away from that red hot spot, it will get yellow as they have less interest.

Q: Where are you in analyzing all the data? Have you formulated some conclusions?

A: We’re getting there and still running the results. Higher income consumers may have more confidence in state government saying something is local or not, which fits with their preference for a state logo and not liking words.  As far as organic, generally we see committed organic consumers want to be sure the product is authentic, so if shown a handwritten word on a label saying it’s organic, they may be more skeptical and doubt it. They want to see that certified seal.

Q: What can attendees make of all this information? 

A: Not only does it matter if you label product organic, but also how you do it.  People see and treat logos and words differently. With eye-tracking, we can shed light on this. If a produce company knows that the consumer they’re targeting sees and prefers logos to words; that can be important marketing information. 

When you’re selling something in a crowded retail space, if people see it, they’re more likely to buy it. But further, how do consumers’ buying decisions fit with your product label? It could make a huge difference on how companies market and package products.

My guess from our initial findings is that a logo catches attention faster and holds the consumer’s attention longer, which is a way to sell more product.

A preponderance of evidence suggests the majority of people will pick local over non-local, and some people will pay more for it, so how do you capitalize on that? Most people, including myself, will say they’re not going to buy organic over non organic unless it’s the same or relatively similar price.  

In Connecticut, or other states, if you want to increase locally grown, how do you get people to stop and see it and buy it?  Which of these methods is the best way? Is it through logo or text? How do you best capture and hold consumers’ attention?

Q: Doesn’t it make a difference if the retailer builds a huge local produce display with festive wooden bins and friendly pictures of local farmers? Couldn’t that type of merchandising have an impact far outweighing whether the product has a logo or words? Isn’t that important to incorporate into your data gathering?

A: Yes, that’s correct. Some grocery stores do have the farmer signage and things like that. But in general, you go to a grocery store and what you see is a sign that says local or a local logo, or a sign that says organic, or an organic logo, and that’s what we’re trying to simulate. Of course, if you go to a farmer’s market, everything is local. The consumer is making a conscious decision to go there, so already has the mentality of someone dedicated to local.

What we’re showing in the eye-tracking scenarios is what that person would see in a conventional grocery store. Will a local logo or words make a difference in a farmer’s market? Probably not. We go to a farmers’ market to get consumers with the mentality of shopping local, to find out what would catch their attention in a mainstream supermarket. 

If we show you these scenes in a grocery store, what would you buy? And then we go to grocery stores and other settings to get different consumer perspectives. The next thing is seeing if there’s a difference with shopping at different outlets and also looking at different valuations of different products. The rest will be revealed at the Show!

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What we love about this research is that it is an attempt to move the industry beyond mere speculation or “gut instinct” to what would actually work.

At the same time, we read this and our first instinct is to say someone has to give this guy a grant, because what is really needed is to move the research into the real world. It is not very difficult: You make an arrangement with a store and have three displays of the same variety of local apples -- one is not labeled local, one says local with signage, and one has a logo. Or, perhaps, use three different supermarkets controlled to be demographically similar and assign each one a certain type of display. What actually happens to sales?

We also think there is a need for longer term research. For example, Professor Campbell states the following:

“A preponderance of evidence suggests the majority of people will pick local over non-local, and some people will pay more for it, so how do you capitalize on that?”

One thing is that, because of the varied definition of local, we are not sure what this really means. For example, we did many focus groups in the United Kingdom down by the English Channel, and it was very clear that the vast majority wanted local – they even waxed poetic on carbon footprints and food miles. But when we asked the obvious question -- “So would you like to see a lot more produce from just over the English Channel in France as that would reduce the food miles and carbon footprint?” -- the answer was a resounding no; in fact they would rather have produce from the hinterlands of Scotland 800 miles away than French produce. Local, to them, meant British. It was a political statement.

Not surprisingly, this is roughly in accordance with what 30 years of study on state programs have shown – they are effective in the state, but not outside the state. In other words, there is evidence that Jersey Fresh motivates consumers in New Jersey, but evidence that Connecticut consumers are moved by Jersey Fresh because it is more “local” than “California Grown” is scant indeed.

This is problematic because it could pit states in a beggar-thy-neighbor battle that does not increase total produce consumption.

Even if we came to an acceptable definition, we still have to distinguish between trial and continued purchase. Let us posit that local has an edge in trial. How does it work out over the long term? After all, in this experiment, the professor is controlling for things such as varietal differences, but one powerful reason to reach outside one’s region is because one wants varieties that don’t grow well locally.

There is a lot to discuss about this research and the next stage.

Come be a part of that discussion at The New York Produce Show and Conference. You can register right here.

Look forward to seeing you in New York.

 




David Szanto, An Italian/Canadian Professor Working In A Developing Field, Discusses The Art And Science Of Produce At New York Produce Show

Well, now for something completely different!

From the Museum of Transitory Art, ice box studio:

David Szanto is exploring the material-discursive practices of food and gastronomic sciences. His aim is to better understand the systemic, intra-active relationships between humans, food, and the processes that frame the experience of eating, which is at once a mundane act and a magnificently complicated daily performance. As a researcher in a field that does not yet wholly exist, David’s work takes an experimental, research/creation-based approach that includes theory and practices from the realms of design, ecology, complex systems, chemical physics, and cooking.

From the Rodale Institute, a piece called Recipe for Success:

As a recent American graduate of the University of Gastronomic Science, foodie David Szanto brings an interesting view into the discussion. “Given the contemporary reality of food in our world, it's critical that food be thought about in complex and interconnected ways, and that that way of thinking be spread to a large audience,” he said. “The forces of industrialization are too strong, and there need to be equally organized counter-forces for anything to change.”

Szanto believes the major flaw of Slow Food is ironically its great strength: its universally accessible brand with access for producers, processors, consumers, community organizers and activists, alike. Szanto views these many entry points as necessary for Slow Food, which believes in using cross-disciplinary action to bring about change; people want to be aware of food's taste, history, environmental impact, anthropological significance, production techniques, economics and nutritional benefits, he said. “You would also want people in places with wildly different food cultures to connect to a common cause and direction, so it does have to have a pretty wide and loose brand. That means at the local level, Slow Food looks different from place to place as convivia approach food through taste education, producer concerns or fancy food.”

Szanto emphasized that it would be wrong to take the Italian Slow Food model and force-fit it onto the U.S. “One of the problems with food culture in the U.S.—aside from separate and simultaneous overemphasis on nutrition and convenience—is the focus on fancy food and food elitism. Good food becomes an aspect of consumerism, rather than about environmentalism, tradition or social justice. We are, after all, a highly consumerist society, and until that changes, food will remain a subset of that culture.” There are really two Slow Food movements operating in the U.S., Szanto offered in wrapping up our conversation: the national leadership with its overarching culture, and the collectivized organization embodying a mosaic of cultures.

At The New York Produce Show and Conference, we have a commitment to seek out the unusual and to find  people doing things that will make you think differently.

One of the really interesting fonts for original thought has been our partnership with the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Universita Degli Studi Di Scienze Gastronomiche). We have asked various university representatives to explain the nature of the school:

Meet The Gastronomes — And Learn About Their Mission To Increase Produce Consumption — At The New York Produce Show And Conference

We also have had a series of really intriguing presentations:

New York Delegates To Receive  An Education In Ethnobotany From Eminent Italian Professor

Food “To Die For” May Do Just That… Seminal Study Encouraging The Eating Of Bitter Vegetables For Health To 

In fact we were so thrilled to be associated with such an intriguing thought process, we also invited the school to participate in the London Produce Show and Conference:

Provoking Questions: How To Get People To Eat More Fruits And Vegetables -- Barny Haughton Speaks Out

When we learned David Szanto was attempting to create a new food-related field of study, we were intrigued and asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

David Szanto, Ph.D.
Director of the Masters Program
in Representation, Meaning & Media
University of Gastronomic Sciences
Pollenzo, Italy

Szanto also is an artist and a professor of gastronomy and food studies at Concordia University and l’Universite du Quebec a Montreal, Canada.

Q: Tell us about your presentation and why produce industry executives should be interested in attending. The title of your presentation is quite profound and esoteric: Performative Produce: Food, Art, and Materiality. What is food art exactly? How does your work connect to consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables?

A: My tendency is to be a bit academic, but how does this make sense to people not dealing in an academic context? I’ll start with the second half of the title. More performance-oriented art, rather than visual art, has been used in the past to discuss all kinds of issues, including human health, but also psychological and environmental health, questions about power and politics and certainly how it affects culture.

I’m interested in talking about these questions within art rather than hitting them over head with theories, because art is often more abstract, and people tend to interpret it themselves. It’s more personal and emotional, non-intellectual. How does it make me feel, not just what does it make me think about. It’s also a fun and non-scholarly way to get across ideas and issues we deal with related to food. As for the materiality part, a lot of people, who have done art with food, have used it as a medium to express different ideas. Instead of paint, clay or photography, they use food.

Food has a lot of interesting properties; it decomposes, so it demonstrates the passage of time beautifully. Things like bacteria, oxygen, and water, all come together to cause food to decompose. Most art is made out of materials that don’t decompose, made to last, oil paint, clay, even digital photography now.

Q: Isn’t fresh produce a food artist’s dream, with its volatile script? 

A: Food art shows passage of time differently than other artistic media do and that’s interesting. It ties back to performativity and demonstrating some kind of dynamic. Think in terms of the standard definition of performance – it happens on the stage and follows a script, whether in words, musical notes or choreography.

There are other definitions of performance that are fascinating, including non-theatrical performance. If you think about a seed, it performs in certain ways with certain specifications, or a metal high beam in a building or a piece of construction. It uses architectural materials to perform in different ways under certain conditions because of its own nature and materials.  Link theatrical performance with non-theatrical performance and it comes around. The non-performer is an actor, not because of a script, but because of the environmental and variable nature around us.  

For me, it opens very interesting questions about how it connects to plant-based foods and also some more academic and theoretical ones around performance.

Q: The produce industry certainly is filled with dynamic actors and performances, but this is a whole new way to look at it…!

A: There’s an historical perspective to this, looking back to the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. A lot of theater directors started thinking about what else is performing during a play other than the actors; are the spectators performing, are the props performing, is the theater performing as much as the actors on the stage. And the answer is yes, everything in an environment performs in order to produce the performance that is witnessed. 

The actors on the stage and the spectators in the audience are part of the performance, and so are the walls, and the text, which is what I’d call a much more ecological interpretation of performance.

When you come back to things like climate change, the economy, and human health, challenges of obesity, underweight, undernourishment and poverty, if you look at performance, you can start to understand it’s not just people but the entire environment that produces effects.

Q: These issues you highlight all connect to the produce industry and trigger complex thinking and debates about nature versus nurture, and the myriad variables impacting outcomes…

A: People in the food industry are thinking in more ecological terms, but the human, cultural and political aspects all go into producing wellness.

Q: How will your presentation clarify this further?  

A: I’m planning to talk a little about the history of food and performance, including performance art.  For reference points, in ancient Greece, slaughter and sacrifice was food performance. That was something done with a very theatrical clarity. It also served in society for connecting humans to their food and their guards in one moment.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of performance art using food, and that’s shock-oriented or extreme, generally focusing on the symbolic qualities of food, issues to do with human identity and power and sex, big subjects in general, with a lot of strong images.

Q: What kinds of foods are used to project these images?  Do food artists look at produce as powerful and sexy?

A: Meat, chocolate and wine are powerful sounding foods used in these performances in order to talk about complex ideas. What I find interesting, and the hook I’m thinking about for The New York Produce Show, is that the big themes of sex and power often use what I call big food, high value-added products, that have been transformed, exceptional or festival foods.  

What’s intriguing to me is that in more recent years, performances use less transformed foods, and those with perceived values, turning more to plant-based foods, less transformed by humans, to see how fresh fruits and vegetables are allowed to perform on their own, because they haven’t been processed or shelf-stabilized. It’s interesting to demonstrate this ecological phenomenon because over time they do decompose. It’s an exciting thing that a number of food artists including myself have been dealing with.

For example, we look at fermentation actively pervading food transformations through time, and bacteria and microbial agents and what can be done partly to demonstrate the connection between all humans and the environment and their food. It’s more topical with fruits and vegetables than with things like meat, honey and chocolate. That’s exciting and significant.

Q: Why?

A: We’re looking into the smaller details of what makes us into an ecology. It allows us to see how foods that may not be considered “big value” or “important” are in fact very valuable to pay attention to, particularly as we get into the questions of human health. Clearly, fruits and vegetables present opportunities for humans to take care of themselves in better ways, serving our bodies. Plant-based products are often much more healthful than these so-called big value foods.  

It doesn’t get into day-to-day interpretation or analysis of how fruits and vegetables can be considered important in representing our ecology, but I can find abstract examples to bring for the talk.  

Q: Can you elaborate on why the perishable aspect of fruits and vegetables versus the long lasting nature of chocolate or wine is important to consider in this discussion.  You’ll find plenty of people who will attest to the positive health benefits of chocolate, honey and wine!

A: The connection or line I’m trying to draw is this: Over time food artists, as well as the general population, have become more interested in plant-based foods, pointing to increasing interest in how plants behave in our bodies, the different transformations in our body over time. It’s paying attention in a different way. I’m not going to say it’s better because of the health aspect; it’s different.

I talk a lot about living through the exceptional in the mundane. Very often on restaurant menus and in performances, people look for big dramatic things, like fois gras and pork fat, and expensive wines, things that are showy and theatrical. With fruits and vegetables and performativity, it’s paying attention and respect to the exceptional nature of plants rather than the exceptional nature of animals.

It’s coming around in the art world, and it’s also coming around in restaurant menus. Certainly the higher end restaurants are giving much more respect to a beautifully produced cauliflower or tomato, or the high quality of good local produce. These are questions that produce managers have to think about, too, because obviously not everyone is producing on a small scale, and there is a much bigger industry to consider.  But paying new attention to small and exceptional details of plants could help produce managers in their strategies to benefit people’s health around the world, as well as local economies.

Q: Could there be a dichotomy between producing high yields of fruits and vegetables to feed the world, and producing the finest tasting, top quality cauliflower or tomato? And doesn’t it also require a change in mindset for produce to be the center of the plate?

A: I have a favorite restaurant that does an incredibly beautiful dish with cauliflower, squash, and pumpkins, with a little smoked trout, but the vegetables are the focus of the plate. It’s a wonderful turn to recognize the value of produce. So many fruits and vegetables are transported a great distance, and therefore have to be much more shelf-stable, but often don’t have as much flavor. Paying more attention to that is important.

But the change in mindset is happening all across the spectrum with consumers. Any contact the consumer has with food, whether in a supermarket, a restaurant, the theater, in a book store or a class room, a cooking demo, television… all of these places are ways consumers develop a new appreciation and respect for fruits and vegetables. But all these places are also avenues for this not to happen. It’s not necessarily a coordinated effort, but a continuous effort across the whole food realm, aiming at how produce can be as exciting as a really expensive, beautiful piece of meat. There are opportunities everywhere. It’s not just one solution providing value.

It starts with produce managers providing the value to food, and paying attention to texture and taste.  There’s a lot of blame in different parts of the industry for lackluster tomatoes or flavorless lettuce. At times, it may be a misstep in the industry, but mostly it’s the challenges that come with the perishability, and the problem that produce decomposes over time, and the need for durability on the supermarket shelf. But that’s also leading to some of the disrespect that produce has come to acquire sometimes.

Q: You speak of produce being disrespected like it’s a human being with emotions!

A: Watching it decompose or grow or ferment can give you that connection, even if it’s taken from the tree or bush or soil; you see it actively changing and that’s very dynamic.

In a farmer’s market, the produce lasts three days, and in a supermarket two weeks. When I go to the farmer’s market, my senses are taken in by the fresh, crisp vegetables. I can’t help but think, wow, they’re alive. When I go to the supermarket, I think wow, they’re not so alive, and they look just like the ones I got two weeks ago. What’s wrong with that?

Also, we want to be able to shop once a week or once every two weeks, but that’s not the way food behaves.

Q: Could your reaction also be related to how the produce is packaged and merchandised?

A: The whole chain is responsible for how produce arrives. Packaging is used to take care of issues, but for as well as it preserves and protects, it also separates us from the liveliness of food. I hate to sound like a classic food activist, but short production chain is a way to keep the activity and liveliness of food honored and valued. As soon as the product is too stabilized or packaged, it starts to kill what’s lively and interesting about it. That’s the tension and balance the industry faces.  

Q: What are the key points you want attendees at The New York Produce Show to take away from your presentation? And what are the most valuable things you’ve learned in your research and studies?

A: My main objective with all of the work that I do is to help myself and others see what seems normal in a new light. So if it means seeing fruits and vegetables almost alive like actors on a stage, that’s good. If it means seeing packaging as both aromatic and valuable, that’s great. If it means seeing decomposition as a fruit’s value, that’s great.

The goal is to help perceive reality in a more complex and more diverse way, and there are many realities going on at once.  It’s a matter of taking different angles of things, which can lead to opportunities for packaging innovation, or playing with our fruits and vegetables to have them be lively actors in our performances of food.

Q: Do you have examples in your work to highlight these points?  

A: I do have lots of examples from art installations I can talk about, showing how fruits and vegetables are incorporated into art works. They’re not stagnant, permanent pieces in a gallery somewhere. They’re alive and playful, and sometimes shocking people with their simplicity rather than complexity. And I can show images and videos that also could be reinterpreted for day-to-day interaction in the marketplace to help increase consumption of produce. At the same time, my work isn’t paying attention to health and nutrition aspects.

Q: In the industry, there is debate about how to market and promote fruits and vegetables, and whether highlighting the health, nutrition and utilitarian benefits could actually dampen enthusiasm, and turn people off, and rather focus on the colorful tastes and textures. Is this more in line with your thinking?

A: Yes, I tend to agree. What I find intriguing with the work that I do is that it’s delightful. It entertains and stimulates my intellect and my emotions and my body. Getting someone excited about food is a much more viable approach than the various intellectual aspects of, this is better for my health. When you’re deciding between two different foods, you tend to go for the one that is more visual and exciting.  Trying to convince through health and nutrition and seriousness is a much bigger challenge.

Of course, there are several issues that can be incorporated into the message, but I also think that the pleasure, excitement and congeniality and sharing and the fun weirdness of performing fruits and vegetables is much more appealing. 

Q: How do the impacts of food differ from culture to culture, and based on people’s own personal experiences? 

A: There is a whole bunch of ways that people connect to food, and no one is the same.  That’s why it can be difficult to market food. Everyone has an extremely intimate relationship with food. Our interest in eating plant-based and animal-based foods is as diverse as we are as human beings, and as varied as our cultures, backgrounds, and education.  There isn’t one solution.

Q: In the U.S., there can be dramatic diversity in produce preferences from state to state, and demographic makeup, among other things, and those preferences are constantly evolving and changing…

A: That’s for sure. There’s an evolving history of food in the U.S. and in different regions of the U.S.  When I’m in Italy, I hear people talk about the American food culture. They tend to forget there are 150 American food cultures, and that Americans are not one common mass of people. There are as many different tastes as all of Europe.

Traditions are different as well.  For instance, In America, putting out a crudité of raw carrot sticks and celery sticks is common, but in Italy, you don’t see people snacking on raw vegetables like that. In some countries, vegetable preparation is related to safety issues, which brings in another element to consider.  The food cultures are so different and so diverse, and agricultural habits are so different as well.  There is no consistency, and you have to adapt approaches; no one approach fits all.  

The most wide spread and most common activity on our planet is food, and it’s also the most complicated.  

Q: Can you elaborate on your point that food is so personal?

A: If you think about it, there are only a couple things that penetrate our bodies as human beings; food is one of them, other people’s body parts, and medication is a third. So if you’re not trying to medically treat something, food and sex are the only times personal boundaries are crossed by other things. That’s a very intimate pact.

We know how intimate sex is, but don’t give as much credit to the intimacy of eating. But food actually makes us, and it has the potential to damage us. Food can be toxic. It alters us. It can change our identity and is deeply intimate, and therefore both very exciting and also very scary; if you just make the parallel to sex alone.  What makes food so interesting is that we eat it every day, so it is both mundane and exceptional in its intimacy. There is a conflicted tension in the relationships we have with food.  

Q: What about the expression, there are people who live to eat and others who eat to live?  For some, food isn’t that important… they’re focused on work, running around doing errands, taking care of their kids and they’re just going to grab what’s most convenient, whereas others are real foodies, adventurous about cooking and tracking down the best restaurants…

A: It is true some people pay less attention to food, and other people are all about the latest trends and restaurants and pay a lot of intellectual attention to food. People who are just grabbing a bite on the go may not be paying that much intellectual attention to food, but their bodies, their emotions, hearts and souls are. 

We don’t just grab whatever; we actually make a lot of choices when we’re grabbing something convenient. A lot of people won’t grab a handful of carrot sticks; they’ll grab a burger.  There’s a lot of choice-making based on various intimacies, they’re just not viewing them that way, but food is always deeply important to everyone. It’s just expressed in different ways, sometimes through emotions and body reactions.  Education, culture, identify, family, all of that contributes, as well as changing food habits growing up through adulthood, either intentionally or from advice from doctors.

Q:  Tell us the story of how you came to your position at the UNISG in Italy, and what inspired you to delve into this intriguing field of intimate tensions. 

A: I did the master program at UNISG myself in 2005 and 2006, and from that time on, I’ve been working with the university in different capacities. I’m also a professor of gastronomy and food studies at Concordia University and l’Universite du Quebec a Montreal, which is my home city.

I’m very interested in performance and food art. I did an art project of the food scape on my own street, and have also done research on this university as a whole on how all sorts of performances are taking place. Performance as a notion can include ecology, economy, architecture and design, and all the things beyond theatrical performance. Thinking about what is performing right now, it could be news reports on weather and politics, and ways to interpret ideas about the world.

Q: Will attendees get a chance to see your art project of the food scape on your street? It sounds intriguing…

A: Yes. I can include that. I live on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, a major north-south street in Montreal. It’s an important identifier in the culture of Montreal. It’s where all immigrant groups start out and build a food culture. Sometimes, future generations move to more urban, more gentrified areas.  But in the history of Montreal, the street has become incredibly dynamic, and a multi-cultural site of food. So within a couple of miles, you have Italian food, Greek food, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese; a Chinatown section is now more Korean. It’s a place where you have Latin American food.

It’s part of Montreal’s hip and trendy crowd now, so there’s a contemporary direction in food. You have meat and vegan restaurants, a bagel place. It’s in constant change. It’s nicknamed the Main or La Main, but it transcends language, and there isn’t any one food culture. It’s constantly evolving, every week and every month with new business and new food, and new identity, providing nourishment and intellectual curiosity. That led me to create this ecology performance. 

Q:  When you come to New York, will you have time to explore the streets of Manhattan for new projects?

A:  I’m really looking forward to it, although my visit will be brief this time.   I lived in New York for seven years, and it brings back memories.

Q: What do you remember most?

A:  What sticks with me are the little things; the green grocers on the corner, and the best pizza in the world; not the fancy restaurants, but the daily street living.

Q: Of course, your New York City memories tie back to intimate experiences with food. What a nice way to conclude our pre-show interview.

******

And what a nice way to think about the impact coming to New York can have on opening a mind to new ideas. Please join us in learning to think in new ways and to challenge accepted perception.

You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.

 

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