Those who understand the produce industry’s commitment to food safety were saddened and frustrated by the April 30 NBC Dateline program that challenged the safety of bagged salads.
We were saddened by heart-wrenching images of a sick child, especially when we know how committed our industry is to provide safe, nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables. One person sick from our products is one too many. And as I’ve said before, there is no place in this industry for any company for which food safety is not the No. 1 priority.
To prepare for Dateline, PMA joined the Alliance for Food and Farming, International Fresh-Cut Produce Association, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association and Western Growers Association to ensure the producers received fair and balanced information on the industry’s commitment to food safety and its goal of zero illnesses. The coalition worked to develop key messages used in media training, to identify spokespersons and to provide Dateline with balanced technical guidance.
PMA also commissioned Opinion Dynamics Corporation to conduct two surveys among 1,000 primary food shoppers nationwide. Our goal: to assess consumer perception on the safety of consuming fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. Our timing: the first in early February to establish a baseline, the second just days after the program aired.
The good news is consumers’ perceptions about the safety of fresh-cut produce changed little from pre- to post-Dateline. Bottom line: the news program had no noticeable negative effect on public opinion about fresh-cut produce. The percentage of consumers with any concerns about these products stayed practically the same: one-fifth of those surveyed.
Other good news from the surveys is that most consumers indicated they rely on their personal experience when making decisions about food safety. Next highest are family and friends. Bringing up the bottom of the list are the government and media, with 26 percent and 17 percent respectively.
This reliance on personal experience is doubly important as more consumers have positive experiences with fresh-cut produce. Though our research was conducted primarily to find out how and why Dateline affected consumer perceptions about fresh-cut, we also uncovered great news about consumer purchasing attitudes. Around 86 percent of consumers say they have purchased fresh-cut fruits and vegetables in the past year. Looking ahead, over one-third expects their purchases to increase over the next year.
Another positive aspect is that many consumers rely on themselves to be what I’d call “food safety gatekeepers.” This is why organizations like Partnership for Food Safety Education are important in educating the public on its critical role in keeping the safety of the food supply chain intact from start to finish.
PMA’s leadership has played a prominent role in this industry/consumer/government partnership because we believe so firmly that industry’s commitment to food safety must also include public education on basic food handling principles. Industry can never abdicate the responsibility we have first and foremost to grow and deliver tasty, convenient and nutritious fresh-cut products. But we also can never abdicate the role we must play to help consumers understand what they have to do with our products once they buy them.
We need to do a better job to communicate our commitment to food safety. Before we all breathe a collective sigh of relief that this latest negative media coverage apparently did no damage, understand that if this industry is to reach our goal of increased consumption worldwide, we can’t wait for others to paint us in whatever colors match their worldview.
It is time to challenge the industry’s traditional approach to communicate with government, consumers, media and one another about ensuring food safety. To do otherwise is to continue to allow others — including perhaps some in our industry — to define us all.
We often view food safety stories with the specialized knowledge of industry insiders, so our initial reaction is often defensive. We trot out statistics of the number of bagged salads sold versus the number of outbreaks reported. We spend too much time defending the science and not enough time expressing our commitment to our customers’ health.
I’m not suggesting the scientific and technological bases underpinning the progress of our fresh-cut industry are not essential. They are. The statistical chances of ever becoming ill are minuscule, but it is the wrong message to send if that’s the only message consumers absorb. Research shows that attempting to balance illness outbreaks with the benefits of consuming produce increases consumers’ concern. It sometimes implies to consumers that we expect someone to get sick, and, perhaps, tacitly accept illness as a part of doing business.
Our goal is zero outbreaks. Our families consume our products. That’s why we work toward zero outbreaks on farms, in packaging, shipping, processing, distributing, at retail and in foodservice.
Food safety is the industry’s top priority. Our livelihood depends on it. And, it’s the right thing to do. We have a responsibility to help educate consumers, too.
Consistent messaging is key when communicating with consumers, media and government. We have to push forward with more proactive communications now if we are to effectively demonstrate how seriously we take the responsibility of providing the most healthful and nutritious fruits and vegetables to all consumers everywhere.
There’s little value continuing to debate whether news programs like Dateline are fair or balanced. Instead, let’s consider it another reminder to proactively communicate our commitment to food safety. This is a job not just for PMA but for every company in its everyday actions and communications to customers and consumers alike.