Hanging Together Or Separately

Ben Franklin, on the occasion of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, warned the signatories that they would be wise to all hang together, for otherwise, they were sure to hang separately. This might be wise advice when dealing with King George III, but is hanging together necessarily the best course for the produce industry today?

At the PMA convention in Nashville, I participated in a closed meeting of something called the Coalition for Food Safety. Basically, this was a group put together by United and PMA to plan an industry response to consumer concern over pesticide and other chemical residues. And, in fact, a plan was reviewed at this meeting to deal with these concerns. Now the trade is trying to raise the money to fund this campaign.

The folks at PMA and United are trying to keep things as secret as possible, and I pledged not to reveal the details of the plan as a condition for being shown the whole presentation. I understand their squeamishness over telling too much too publicly. They fear that self-proclaimed “consumer advocates” will attack the program before the industry even agrees to it. This could make it much harder to raise funds for the program. But I hope the people at PMA and United will open the process up to get input from their members as soon as possible, and certainly before they spend a lot of money on the campaign.

These types of campaigns, when done by industry associations, always tend to favor the big supermarket chains. Not out of malice, nor even due to the clubby atmosphere permeating these organizations, but because the big retail chains are the easiest to involve. If you want a poster placed in every Kroger, you really only have to persuade a small group of people. If you want a poster hanging at every greengrocer in New York, you have a big job. But for a project like this, it’s vital to get everyone involved. If this program is implemented only at large chain stores and neglects foodservice and small retailers, the program might be construed to imply that only large chains have safe produce. This is not a good way to draw financial and moral support from wholesalers and others who depend on this sector of the industry for business.

This pesticide and food safety issue has clearly become an area of great concern. But I have severe doubts about the way this concern has been directed.

First of all, I see absolutely no possibility of convincing consumers that they shouldn’t be concerned about pesticides. There is just not enough money in the world to allay their concerns. Nuclear power is not in trouble because the industry didn’t pay for a big enough PR campaign, and the produce industry will not win consumers over with a PR campaign. I am all for a promotional campaign to sell the virtues of produce, like the one the Dairy people have, but I can’t see the industry being able to change negative attitudes toward pesticides.

Second, I think that any response to the public’s concern about pesticides and chemical residues has to be a genuine response. It has to recognize that the problem is that consumers prefer not to ingest chemicals if they can avoid it. “The customer is always right” is not just a saying — it’s something the industry needs to listen to. If the industry comes out with a program designed to do nothing more than generate better PR, they will be wasting a lot of money. When the U.S. auto companies realized they had problems with consumer perception of their quality, they came out with advertising and PR programs to improve their image. But they also made substantive changes to increase the quality of their products. They reorganized factories, worked with unions and installed robots. The automakers significantly improved their warranties. All this lent credibility to their advertising and PR campaigns.

If the produce industry comes out with a PR program but does nothing to reduce pesticide residues, then the whole program will be attacked as an industry cover-up.

The whole idea of a program to deal with the food safety issue is premised on the notion that in fact, this is one of the consumers’ major concerns. But if consumers are concerned about chemicals on their food, then the thing to do is not to run a PR campaign to convince them that the produce with chemicals is OK. The thing to do is to find ways of growing produce with fewer chemicals. When Tanimura & Antle recently announced a program to reduce their use of chemicals for pest control by 50 percent within two years, they were showing a willingness and ability to change to meet the client’s demands. This is what good business people do.

Finally, I am skeptical of these attempts to tie the whole industry together. To me, the effort is likely to end in disaster. Let’s assume the program is a success— that somehow we convince a high percentage of people that, in fact, the current system of government testing keeps all fresh produce safe and healthy. Now let’s imagine that one day we have a problem such as we had with the watermelons a few years back, a problem of a dangerous chemical residue. Isn’t it clear that by uniting the industry, we are exposing it to attack at its weakest link? That the minute a dangerous residue is found on one item, the credibility of the whole industry program will be shot?

If instead, consumers are depending on individual retailers for assurance of safety or even on individual brands of produce, the discovery of a problem in one place will not necessarily imply faults anywhere else.

In the Revolutionary War, the British soldiers wearing bright red coats marched in united formation. The Americans scattered all about. Remember, it is the big, united targets that attract fire. And remember, those scattered rebels were the ones who won the war.