How Best To Boost Produce Consumption

June 2021 – How best to increase the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables is an issue that has confronted and troubled executives in the produce industry for many years. Voluntary efforts by all of our government, trade associations and charitable organizations  seem to have come to naught if the goal is to see per capita produce consumption increase.

PBH’s big “State of the Plate” research came out with a new version this February that made this issue clear:

The research shows people are eating fruits and vegetables less frequently, down nearly 10% since 2004, when the PBH State of the Plate reporting began. The most significant contributors to this decline have been a 16% decrease in vegetable consumption frequency, followed by a 15% reduction in juice intake. In the past five years alone, overall consumption has declined by 3%, indicating the trend is worsening every year.

The issue is serious, and it is so frustrating both for industry members and health professionals that there is an inclination to utilize tougher tools. In the United Kingdom, the Boris Johnson government wants to ban “junk food” advertising online and before 9:00pm on television.

This is just the latest effort to improve diets through government intervention. In New York City a few years back, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed a plan through the Board of Health to prohibit certain businesses from selling sodas and other high sugar beverages larger than 16 oz (473 ml). In a lengthy decision that traced the Board of Health’s powers back to Britain’s King James II, it was ruled that the board had overstepped its powers and the ban died.

The government in the UK has more power, but the evidence that even this kind of mandatory legislation will lead in increases in produce consumption is, basically, non-existent.

We can’t endorse such efforts. First, because it is more posturing than policy. If the UK was serious about these things, it would run studies in test markets and confirm this is a productive path before imposing such a law. Second, because we believe in freedom. These are not harmful products, like a poison, that are being restricted. They are perfectly fine products if consumed in moderation. Banning even the slightest item deemed a “junk food” — such as pizza, jam and honey — is just a nanny state gone amuck.

Any hope that the government or society will handle our consumption problem should not be encouraged by our industry. Here in the United States, with PMA and United merging, the key issue is what we want this new combined association to do.

We’ve been in touch with many board members and industry leaders, and the consensus seems to be that efforts to increase consumption should be the focus of the newly combined association. Yet, it is unclear what this would actually mean.

In the Dairy Checkoff Program, dairy farmers pay 15 cents and dairy importers pay 7.5 cents for every hundred pounds of milk (or the equivalent) they sell or import for promotion, research, and nutrition education. In total, the program raises almost $500 million a year. In produce, there are questions about how we would treat canned, frozen and dried produce as opposed to fresh. Also the organic industry has concerns about being lumped in with conventional items.

The bigger issue, though, is that in produce there is not one “source material” as there is in dairy. Marketing that gets people to eat cheese or ice cream draws from the raw material and so benefits those selling fluid milk. Produce is a category of multiple products, not “a thing,” so a marketing program that boosts sales of fruit doesn’t help vegetable farmers. A marketing effort that boosts sales of grapes doesn’t help apple farmers. Indeed, unless the effort somehow boosts overall produce consumption, these efforts that boost the sales of one item actually hurt the producers of other produce items.

The last time this issue came up, the late Rick Antle asked if I could guide the industry and government discussion so an assessment would be collected at retail or when the consumer checks out. He made this request because he feared industry efforts wouldn’t result in higher prices to growers.

Indeed, boosting consumption is one issue; boosting grower returns is another. If a farmer has a 500-acre farm, and consumption of his product grows, but new farms spring up to meet the extra demand, in the end, that farmer didn’t gain from the marketing he paid for, even though the marketing was a success.

Certainly there is evidence that better tasting varieties and novel varieties, as we see in the grape and apple industry, can boost consumption. Innovative flavoring, packaging and processing as we see in fields such as beets and coconut, can boost consumption. The entire fresh-cut and bagged salad industry stands as a testiment to how human ingenuity can boost sales and consumption.

Our sense is that an industry-wide assessment would have to be carefully tailored so as to not impede the growth of these newer innovations in the hope of increasing sales and consumption of older commodity products. Milk is milk, but produce is a cornucopia of different products. Taxing innovation strikes us as the opposite path from the kind of pro-innovation path we need to pursue. pb