Five A Day Maneuvers

Last month the Produce Marketing Association held its annual convention in Boston, and by all accounts, it was a big winner. The attendance was strong throughout the show and stood as testimony to the organization that PMA was built.

What is it that has made PMA such a success? In short, I think it is two factors: Specialization and Professionalism.

PMA has made a decision that it will represent the buying end of the industry, particularly retailers. In fact, the organization has a rule that the majority of its board must be composed of these types of representatives.

Now the PMA doesn’t issue releases saying “we are on the side of retailers” or generally make a big deal of this, and it certainly encourages membership from all facets of the industry. Most of the time, the interests of retailers are no different than anyone else in produce, so there is no problem. But on those occasions where a choice must be made, it is clear where PMA will come down.

Another key to PMA’s success is Professionalism. The PMA staff takes this business of professionalism very seriously. Most of its top staffers today have earned the Certified Association Executive status. This is a program through which trade association executives can learn the art and science of association management.

I’m not so sure it’s the actual things staffers learn in getting this certification that matters. More likely, it indicates the drive for professionalism that encourages the staff to get this certification.

Of course, one of the big announcements at PMA was that the National Cancer Institute was going to put up $27 million dollars over the next six years to help promote the 5 A Day program. Good news for the industry. And a real achievement for PMA, which has been the spearhead organization for bringing together the national 5 A Day program. That kind of money coming to the industry is no small credit to PMA.

But exaggerated hopes can be an enemy here, and there is an awful lot in the industry. The $27 million is great, but the vast majority will be spent in community programs and research by the NCI. This money is not the produce industry’s to spend on network TV. Also, the amount must be kept in perspective. This six-year program involves substantially less money than, say, Coke or Pepsi spend in a single year promoting one brand of soft drink.

But as 5 A Day grows, one of the interesting questions will be to see if the Produce for Better Health Foundation (the official sponsoring organization for 5 A Day) will be able to carry the 5 A Day message to its logical conclusion.

Despite all the hoopla, there is not really much evidence that merely increasing produce consumption has an effect on human health. That is to say that if everyone kept eating exactly what they have been eating, but started eating extra servings of produce to make sure they have five a day, nobody would be getting much healthier. In fact, the health benefit comes from substituting healthy, low-fat produce items for high-fat animal and dairy products. Eat a salad for lunch instead of a hamburger.

The truth is that the same retail dominance that makes PMA so strong makes it difficult for the organization to really spread the true health message. After all, those retail supermarkets are in the business of selling not only good healthy products that a successful 5 A Day program will require selling less of.

Now, this also can be a problem for non-retailers. Chiquita, for example, owns John Morrell & Co., known for its canned foods and meats. And the government has political pressure from meat and dairy interests that preclude as aggressive a stance as government nutrition experts would like. But it is principally a retail problem. It is hard to believe that the PMA board, whose members so often answer to association members of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), could possibly be as aggressive in promoting a substitution strategy for produce as might be desirable.

In an earlier column on 5 A Day, I made an error. I had said that only retailers were on the board. I should have said that among industry members, only retailers were let on without paying $20,000. The reason this was done was not because the Directors of Produce Operations for retailers didn’t want to offer the $20,000. It was because most of their chains wouldn’t put up that much. I certainly hope that we’ll see a big poster at FMI this year listing all the contributors, in order of contribution. Perhaps it will embarrass some of the CEOs when they see where they rank.

I don’t think you can talk about the virtues of specialization for PMA without wondering where that leaves United. United, after all, prides itself on representing the whole industry. I think that there is no question that it is healthy for the industry to have an association that doesn’t have to agree with FMI on every policy. But it is hard to manage in practice.

I suppose you could argue that United can represent what’s good for retail produce even if it is not best for the supermarket as a whole. As such, United’s most important role in 5 A Day, like a boy who saw the emperor naked when others pretended he wore clothes, maybe to tell the people that they should eat less meat, cheese, and other fatty products and substitute them with more fruits and vegetables. This message might just come across clear enough to change behavior and boost produce consumption.