We’ve paid extensive attention to the proposals for a generic promotion program for the produce industry. If you are just joining the discussion, here are a series of articles we’ve run in the Pundit that can help in understanding the issues at stake:
In addition, Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, has covered the issue including, one column written by the Pundit, titled, Generic Promotion Program Requires Due Diligence.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to our coverage of the issue was paid by an important industry member who has generally supported generic promotion when he told one of the advocates this: “Don’t you realize that even when the ‘Pundit’ deals with uncomfortable issues regarding generic promotion, he is actually the best friend the proposal could have. Why? Because he adds sanity to the debate.”
Part of that insistence on sanity was insistence on bringing in academic experts to deal with the issues at hand.
The advocates of this program moved in that direction by asking the esteemed Professor, Harry Kaiser of Cornell University, to weigh in on the subject, a contribution we analyzed here.
Professor Kaiser is undoubtedly an expert on generic promotion, but we actually proposed bringing in academics in a different capacity. The problem with using someone such as Professor Kaiser is that he is already well known as an advocate of generic promotion. We proposed bringing in academics who are respected but have no particular skin in the game of generic promotion — such as Professor Kaiser’s colleague at Cornell University, Ed McLaughlin — to serve as neutral arbiters.
The problem with experts in generic promotion is two-fold:
First, the field seems a little “clubby.” Although Professor Kaiser is at the pinnacle of the field and we have not the slightest doubt that he holds his views sincerely, it seems by the nature of the bird that the field attracts and retains only people who are believers. Now this could be because this is the correct position. It also could be that human nature is such that non-believers find other things to research; who wants to spend their whole career being “Dr. NO”?
It also is possible that the financial opportunities belong only to those who are enthusiasts in this field. Most generic promotion programs have some requirement that they be evaluated periodically for effectiveness. So, someone, usually the head of these generic promotion programs, has to hire an expert to do such an evaluation. Much as CEOs always manage to hire executive-pay consultants who somehow always manage to find a peer group that requires the CEO’s pay to go up, so any “Experts” out there who consistently find that generic promotion programs should be closed due to ineffectiveness probably won’t get hired very much.
Second, it is not clear that anyone knows very much about the actual likely effects of a generic produce promotion program for the simple reason that there are no programs remotely like what is being proposed. Almost all generic promotion programs have one root product: A cow is a cow, a pig is a pig, etc… it matters not to the producers if the promotions boost sales of filet mignon or ground chuck; they all come from the same cow.
The proposal before the produce industry calls for the inclusion of all major produce items and product that is fresh, frozen or canned. These products vary from row crops — where production can quickly be increased — to tree crops — where production increases take longer — to products where importing is easy, and products where it is problematic. The connection between an importer of Chinese apple juice and a fresh potato producer in Maine seems as much competitors as complementary cohorts in joint promotion.
This has never been done, so academics weighing in on the likelihood of success are sharing with us their inclinations and their judgment, but they cannot share with us the results of relevant research, because no such program has ever existed and thus no such program has ever been researched.
Still, we are pleased to have Professor Kaiser join us in adding some sanity to the discussion. It is unfortunate that the advocates for the program have been unwilling to have a fair debate on the issue. We had hope once… at the PMA Foodservice Conference, at the last minute they gave us an hour notice and we still managed to frame a vigorous discussion between Mark Munger, Vice President of Marketing for Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce, who is also the immediate past chairman of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, and Lorri Koster, Co-Chairman, Mann Packing Co. You can see our discussion of the event, which the attendees found very valuable, here.
We hoped we had broken through but the inherent contradiction, in which the advocates try to both manage the discussion and advocate for the program, is too much. So they now have gone to holding panel discussions where everyone on the panel is selected because they are in favor of the proposal. Then they select one token opponent — at the upcoming PMA convention, it will be Rick Antle — to appear on the panel and thus they can pretend they were fair. We applaud Rick’s bravery, and we are sure he will do a fine job, but this is no way to encourage truth-seeking.
In fact, if we want to encourage industry members to really access the best thinking on this subject, what we need to do is present the best thinking on both sides of the issue. You do that through a debate, not a panel discussion where the panel has been tilted toward one side of the issue.
Doing things in this manner may seem terribly clever, but it really is not. First, many of the people who might be influenced by sound argument won’t even show up for a panel discussion where they will be propagandized. Second, people know the score, and they will quickly ascertain that these presentations are tilted toward one side and assume that the opponents either didn’t get enough time or didn’t have enough experts handy to fully present their case. So they will not even be influenced by what they do hear.
It is really simple… you can’t be both an advocate for a program and set up the ground rules for discussion. Should the industry go through something like this again, we hope that we will reach out for neutral parties to select, in an even-handed way, people of intelligence and expertise on either side of an issue and then let them debate it out with ground rules that are fair and even-handed. You have a pro side and a con side, equal numbers of people on each side, same amount of time, and same rules for cross-examination.
In the meantime, we try here on the Perishable Pundit to maintain an open forum for discussion of these issues. We’ve published important letters from advocates, such as Mike O’Brien, Vice President of Produce & Floral at Schnuck Markets — Got Produce? Schnuck’s Mike O’Brien Tries To Add “Balance”, who is the former Chairman of The Produce for Better Health, and letters from opponents, such as Bill Vogel at Tavilla Sales LA — Pundit’s Mailbag — Generic Promotion Plan Does Not Allow For Differentiation:
Today, we are pleased to publish a lengthy letter from Professor Harry Kaiser responding to a piece in which we analyzed a Produce for Better Health press release and the accompanying statement from Professor Kaiser.
Your piece, Got Produce? Generic-Promotion Expert Enters Debate With Some Shocking Analysis, raised a lot of concerns and questions regarding my analysis of the proposed fruits and vegetables generic promotion program.
Both Jim Prevor’s and my comments are useful for furthering the policy debate over whether or not the proposed program would be profitable to the fruit and vegetable industry.
Here (in red) are my responses to Jim’s original comments (in blue).
We appreciate the Professor taking his valuable time to help educate the industry, and since the advocates have elected to avoid a live debate, we take this opportunity to do the best we can and create a virtual debate here on this site.