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Got Produce? Has PBH Been Effective At Boosting Produce Consumption?

With all the attention being paid to the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s promulgated proposal for a Generic Produce Promotion Program, isn’t it reasonable to look at the effectiveness of the efforts that PBH has conducted on behalf of the industry for so many years?

Indeed, considering that PBH was established in May 1991, we now have over 18 years of records to look at whether all the money spent, all the talent engaged, has actually done anything to increase consumption.

Obviously we don’t have the ability to definitively see if a consumer eats an apple or throws it in the garbage. But the best data we have is what the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture calls “Loss-Adjusted Food Availability.”

This data basically takes all the food available to Americans and then subtracts for “loss,” such as nonedible parts of food, spoilage, plate waste, etc.

Based on this data, fruit consumption in 1991 was 0.8 servings per capita, per day. In 2007 — the latest data available — the number was 0.9 servings per capita. Vegetables in 1991 were 1.7 servings per capita per day. In 2007 — again the latest data available — we had 1.8 servings per capita per day. Most likely, these numbers are within the margin of error for calculations of availability and then adjustments for spoilage and waste. The numbers show no meaningful consumption change in eighteen years.

Remember that this all took place during an unprecedented increase in affluence and obesity in America. So, for example, consumption of flour and cereal products, where servings are measured in ounces as opposed to cups for fruit and vegetables, increased from 7.0 per capita servings per day in 1991 to 7.7 servings per capita per day in 2007. “Added Fats” — where servings are measured in grams went from 52.5 in 1991 to 71.0 in 2007. So we have substantial increases in grain products and added fats — items we highlight specifically because they do not have big commodity promotion efforts — even while produce consumption is flat.

There are many things other than promotion that influence consumption. For example, when a society becomes more affluent it tends to consume more meat — a phenomenon we are now witnessing in places such as China. Not surprisingly, during this period of great affluence, the category known as meats, eggs and nuts saw consumption go from 6.2 servings per capita per day in 1991 to 6.7 servings per capita per day in 2007. These servings are measured in ounces.

We’ve looked at the data carefully and simply cannot find any reason to think that the Produce for Better Health Foundation has had the effect of increasing consumption.

Yet they have been content to keep asking for industry money.

It is a truism in venture capital that you focus not on the business plan but on the people. We have made clear that the people advocating for this program are good people who intend well. But the PBH track record is as advocates for doing “something” even if that “something” is ineffective or not sufficient to achieve its intended goal — in this case increasing consumption. That may be OK when people are giving money voluntarily, but it is not a track record that justifies compelling people, many of whom have no faith in the project, to ante up.

By the way, over the same period from 1991 to 2007, the mighty Dairy Category, backed up by a generic promotion program ten times the size of that proposed for produce and one widely praised for cleverness — the Dairy Category started in 1991 with consumption of 1.8 servings per capita per day and ended after 18 years of effort with consumption at… drum roll please… 1.8 servings per capita per day!

Don’t we need more than the wishful thinking of the advocates before we conscript $150 million from the produce industry over the next five years?

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