Inspected For Quality

An “IQ” logo, standing for “Inspected for Quality,” is the heart of a special effort by the PMA and United to address consumer concerns over pesticides and to reassure the public of produce safety and quality. The following is the edited text of a letter sent to Robert Carey, secretary of the Produce Marketing Association and Roger J. Stroh, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association:

I enjoyed seeing you both at the recent PMA Convention. I was also quite excited to see the plans of the produce safety task force. It is clear that a great deal of work and thought have gone into the proposals.

At the same time, I do have some concerns I would like to share with you:

  1. The concept of uniting the entire industry under a “brand identity” as with the IQ program is an exciting one. However, I do not feel that sufficient attention has been paid to contingency planning for problems that may arise. I ask you to think back to the watermelon problem we had a few years ago and imagine what would have happened had this program been in effect at that time. Surely it takes no great stretch of the imagination to realize that the very first film shown on TV would be of a large IQ symbol shining next to the poison watermelon. I think this is a matter of serious concern because it holds the possibility of tarring the entire industry with negative feelings in the event of a problem with any facet of the industry. Surely, if we establish in the consumers’ minds the idea that this IQ program is the assurance of produce safety and quality, the first time something goes wrong, the whole program may be discredited and result in people believing all produce is suspect.
  2. I am also concerned about the effects of this program on the sale of produce at foodservice. I hope that you will bring in the restaurant chains and consult them on the matter. Once again, if we establish in the consumers’ minds the idea that this IQ program is their assurance of safe, healthful produce, the consumers might feel they shouldn’t eat produce at restaurants where, as far as I could tell from the program presented to us, there will be no IQ signs. I believe this is a mistake, and every McDonald’s should have a sign advising that everything they serve is under the IQ program.
  3. I have to confess that I have some doubts about the whole use of the term quality. The problem is credibility.Some markets serve produce which, though it may have legal pesticide residues, is not of quality in other ways such as condition, appearance, etc. I have to wonder how much faith consumers will have in a program that is so at odds with their perception of reality. Big signs in a market declaring that the produce has been inspected for quality are not likely to build confidence in this system if the store features rotten produce.
  4. Another important area of concern is how this program will get down to small operators. This will be particularly important if you want to generate support from the wholesale community. This is not as insignificant an issue as it seems. For example, here in New York City, the main customers of the wholesalers are the many small Korean-owned greengrocers and the foodservice industry, with the large supermarkets coming in only for fill-ins. As in other parts of the country, the chain retailers and even some independents buy most of their produce direct from the grower/shippers. One of the worst things that could happen with this program would be for wholesalers to feel that this program is neglecting their customers and designed to help their customers’ competitors. This would divide, not unite, the industry.
  5. At the meeting, we were given a general budget figure. I think that to raise the necessary money you will need to provide more specific numbers with a breakdown detailing exactly how you intend to spend the money.
  6. Not having seen the breakdown mentioned above, it is difficult for me to comment in any kind of final way, but suffice it to say I am doubtful we can run a nationally effective campaign on the budget advanced at the meeting. If I am correct, this means you will have to go back to people for more money later. Having to do this would undermine the credibility of the task force unless plans to go back and get more money are defined at the outset.
  7. As you know in being invited to attend this meeting, I was asked to treat certain portions of the meeting as background information and, of course, I will honor my promise. However, I believe you should give substantial consideration to presenting as much information to the industry at the earliest stage of the process as possible. I can understand some sensitivity about money issues as that might not play well in the consumer press (though I must tell you that in the end, the consumer press will say the industry is looking to protect itself by paying for a PR campaign no matter how secret this is kept.) However, on the rest of the program I cannot help but feel that whatever is gained by keeping this plan a secret is far overshadowed by what is lost in A) failing to gain industry input and B) insulting people by excluding them. I have found in my life that people do not take well to being presented with a “done deal.” They want to know that you respect their judgment enough to listen to their input. Failure to do this will make the job of soliciting financing and participation much more difficult. I strongly urge you to consider opening this program to more participation and input from the industry. Even something as small as sending a survey to every member of PMA and United, asking for the membership’s opinion on what should be done, would be a welcome gesture.

Once again, I do want to commend your efforts on behalf of our industry. I have made these comments in the hope they might help improve the program. I hope you accept them in that spirit. I look forward to working with both of you to ensure the success of the program that is ultimately used.