FRESH FOODS: Produce: Open your ears

"Are we listening to consumer trends?" The answer to that question, posed just a few weeks ago by Bryan Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, had better be "Yes," because the future livelihood of the produce industry depends on it.

Silbermann made this a galvanizing theme during his state-of-the-industry address at the recently concluded PMA Fresh Summit in Houston. Against the backdrop of one of the world's largest fresh produce and floral industry gatherings, he urged produce industry players not only to build a better supply chain, but also to build a better value chain for end users by getting "back to the basics" and focusing on "the first, and perhaps most important, basic rule" of listening to consumers.

The trade exec acknowledged this is easier said than done, given the fickle nature of consumer feedback. Produce trading partners should, of course, be wary of throwing millions of dollars at "a trend that may disappear in the face of the Next Big Thing." But that's no excuse for failing to listen or act.

The onus is especially on retailers, the PMA exec said, to devote even adequate, if not additional, resources into training store-level personnel to enable them to connect more effectively with shoppers.

"Consumers tell us there is very little interaction with the clerks in most produce departments, [yet] they also tell us they buy more when those interactions increase," said Silbermann. The industry's premier retailers have always made sure they've had well-trained produce associates "who make it their business to engage customers," he added.

Silbermann's comments set a tone for discussion that carried through the three-day expo, which this year featured more than 800 exhibitors on a bustling show floor. Some 15,800 industry professionals from across the country and the globe, including retailers, grower-shippers, processors, and suppliers, were at this year's Fresh Summit, which exceeded PMA's expectations for a convention outside of California or Florida.

"In the midst of all this hoo-rah, it all comes down to the square feet of the produce department, and more specifically, giving consumers what they want," said produce industry veteran Bruce Paschal, a former exec at a major grower, echoing Silbermann's message. "Too many people have gotten too far away from these things, and are avoiding 'getting into the guts' of the business."

While he said he vigorously applauds many of the industry's latest products and promotions, Paschal also admitted he's "worried by how we keep putting more and more of our products in bags and clamshells," which threaten to deprive consumers of the sensory delight of seeing, smelling, and touching fresh produce as they shop. "That's the sex of what makes our products sell," noted Paschal. "It's something that should never be forgotten."

Paschal urged his produce brethren to hit the stores for a much needed reality check. "Whenever you need a refresher course on what's going on in our business -- or rather, what should be going on -- get into a produce department and take a good look around," he advised. "Don't just go to flagship stores; go into average, middle-market stores" that make up a far larger percentage of where the average American shops.

'Locavores' rising

Silbermann also said that, regardless of the current size and scope of their markets, the organic and local segments already generate a disproportionate amount of consumer affinity, and that shouldn't be downplayed by the industry. Consumers more than ever want to make connections with local farmers, unique products, and a lifestyle that is perceived to be more harmonious "with what nature intended."

The "locavore" trend in particular is being fueled by a perception that "local equals safer, healthier, more flavorful, and grown with less impact on the environment." The majority of locavores, said Silbermann, are motivated by a basic instinct to connect a product with a place or a face. It is thus imperative that the industry do a better job of "telling consumers who we are."

And for an industry literally rooted in multigenerational family farm businesses, it's a job that could and should be more forcefully embraced, he stressed.

What price safety?

Food safety remained a hot topic of conversation as well, although it didn't dominate this year to the same degree it did at last year's PMA show, when the infamous fresh spinach recall was in full swing.

Retailers had food safety at the front of their minds at the Houston show, and many said they have high expectations for the efforts to address the issue at the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California at Davis. The center's mission is to fund scientific studies to mitigate risks in produce, and provide science-based, field-level training to reduce future outbreaks of food-related illnesses. Initial funding came from a coalition comprising the PMA, Salinas-based Taylor Farms, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and the University of California.

Many suppliers welcome an uptick in awareness among retailers regarding suppliers' heightened food safety protocols. "Up until recently, retailers' eyes simply glazed over when we began talking about our food safety programs," said one grower-shipper at the show who requested anonymity. "They've mainly been concerned only about -- what else? -- prices, and when it came to food safety, it was all talk and no action."

The produce executive said more rigorous food safety procedures are "obviously very expensive to implement and administer, and add considerably to sellers' cost structure. But it's a two-way street, and retailers must be fully prepared to absorb the extra costs resulting from heightened food safety assurances that many are now demanding."

Another produce executive who requested anonymity said the best way to "get everybody on the same page, from a food safety cost standpoint, would be for retailers to stop doing business with companies that have failed to adopt stringent food safety measures -- be it a national or local supplier. Retailers recognize that as buyers of product, they have a lot of leverage to make things happen -- even more so than the government -- by being fully prepared to say, 'We won't do business with you anymore.' Retailers need to start using that leverage to the extent they can, to convey to their grower-shipper partners that they realize we're all in it together."
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