Consumers Consider COOL A Hot Topic

As members of the produce industry, we know today’s supermarket cornucopia is made possible by our now-global marketplace for fruits and vegetables. According to our latest consumer survey, American consumers want to know the origin of their produce, as availability is increasingly accomplished with the help of imports, and they have strong attitudes on the subject. Behind these strong attitudes lies a rash of recent safety scares that have hit everything from food to toys.

Working with Opinion Dynamics Corporation to conduct a national telephone survey in late August, PMA learned a majority of consumers place high importance on knowing the origin of their fresh fruits and vegetables. Almost 7 in 10 claim that they are aware of where their produce comes from at least some of the time and 51 percent assign the highest importance to that knowledge. Meanwhile, 18 percent view the issue as unimportant.

When asked why they want to know the country of origin, 14 percent of consumers cite their general interest in being informed, while 10 percent want to know because they prefer to buy local and 7 percent to buy US-grown. When responses related to food safety are combined, those worries rank highest with consumers, totaling 18 percent: Five percent point to general safety concerns, another 5 percent point to lack of trust, 4 percent cite poor regulations and inspections, and another 4 percent cite apprehension for how imported produce is grown and handled.

Our research also tested how perceptive consumers are. Only one shopper in five (20 percent) claims to know the origin of the produce he/she buys all the time, while 49 percent say they are aware of their fruits’ and vegetables’ origin some of the time. Just under one-third (29 percent) say they either hardly ever or never know from where their produce originates.

Among those claiming at least some level of awareness of country of origin, 55 percent report they get their information from packaging and another 42 percent cite stickers, while 17 percent reference signage.

While 62 percent of primary shoppers indicate they don’t single out locales to avoid, a full one-third (33 percent) indicates they avoid purchases from specific countries or places. China (42 percent) stands out as the country most likely to be avoided, while 11 percent said they don’t purchase imported produce at all. China’s recent spate of product recalls appears to be the main concern behind boycotting that nation.

In contrast, 54 percent of consumers say they have preferred produce sources. The United States is the overwhelming choice for 68 percent, followed by 13 percent referencing local/homegrown. Among those singled out the United States as preferred, “buy American” patriotism (24 percent) and a sense of superior regulations (21 percent) are the main reasons cited.

Shoppers appear divided on how they cope with the unavailability of US-grown produce. Twenty-six percent opt to buy similar imported produce or to switch to a different produce item altogether, while 21 percent say they don’t buy the produce at all if a US-grown item is not available.

The version of the 2007 Farm Bill already passed by the US House of Representatives includes language that would impose mandatory labeling on all fresh produce at retail, allowing a variety of means to convey that information to shoppers. Though the fate of this legislation in the Senate remains unclear at this writing, the much-delayed COOL provisions of the 2002 Farm Bill do go into effect on Sept. 30, 2008 — unless new legislation is passed to replace them. That leaves anyone marketing produce in the United States — whether domestic or imported — between a rock and a hard place: having to plan for labeling products at a retail point of sale but not sure which provisions will rule the day.

While consumers certainly appear to want and deserve COOL, we must be realistic about what is feasible. In-store research done previously shows more than 60 percent of the top 20 fruits and top 20 vegetables by consumption are already labeled as to origin if one counts US state or regional designations (which the 2007 House bill does).

This includes the full range of labeling options: stickers, bags, twist ties, etc. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater: We should not alter produce merchandising practices so much that we deny consumers the opportunity they crave to select many produce items from bulk displays, thereby driving down consumption. It isn’t possible to label all produce at the point of packing, so there will be a need for retailers to supply information to customers in ways other than labeling on the product, bag, etc.

Might we see a reduction in the variety of produce items offered at retail? Could packaging get a boost so more labeling of tough-to-label bulk items (think green beans, for example) can be done upstream from the store? How will COOL impact on the increasing interest in locally grown produce? These and other questions spring to mind and cannot easily be answered.

Whichever version of COOL finally gets implemented, our challenge as an industry is sure to give concerned shoppers the information they want about produce origin without adding excessive cost in the process. Some shoppers seem concerned enough to avoid particular places, while others want to support their local growers. Wherever they are on this spectrum of beliefs and behaviors, we need to accept that the current mindset of many consumers has changed the dynamics of COOL. We must work to keep the government’s mandate practical and avoid reducing consumption as an unintended consequence. But we must also accept that the rules of engagement have changed.