Marketplace Perception Vs. Reality (Part 1): Food Safety

“I’d describe this as B.S. and A.S. — ‘Before Spinach’ and ‘After Spinach.’ B.S. — only a handful of customers wanted to know where and how their produce was grown, and taste and quality were more important. A.S — there’s no stopping customer distrust of produce or any product for that matter.”
— Interviewed retailer

Successful product marketing, regardless of product, is driven by the ability to predict and respond to consumer preferences, which can quickly shift in response to current events. No subject facing the produce industry is in more flux than food safety.

Earlier this year, Produce Marketing Association (PMA) teamed with Cornell University to study consumers’ attitudes about food safety and how well retailers know their customers on this topic. Led by my longtime friend and collaborator, Professor Ed McLaughlin, the researchers’ goal was to identify opportunities to better communicate with and satisfy our customers at the most visible point of the produce supply chain. Study results were first shared at PMA’s 2007 Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition in Houston.

This past summer, the Cornell team surveyed 544 produce shoppers in stores in four U.S. markets. They then asked 40 produce executives representing 81 percent of U.S. supermarket sales to predict their customers’ responses. Some were interviewed to get their interpretations of survey results. The research also covered attitudes about organics, which I hope to examine in a later column.

We found retailers often didn’t know their customers’ minds regarding food safety very well — and, as a result, there are many opportunities to have more meaningful conversations with our customers at the store level.

Consumers are more worried about food safety than their retailers think. Barely half of the surveyed shoppers report they are confident about the safety of produce growing conditions, while a nearly equal amount lack confidence or are neutral at best. Contrast this to the 90 percent of retailers who think their customers believe produce is being grown safely.

Retailers also misjudged the concerns that ranked highest with their customers; 73 percent of all shoppers report they are “somewhat” to “very concerned” about pesticide residues, while 50 percent report they are similarly concerned about “germs.”

But who pays for extra safety measures? Almost three-quarters of shoppers indicate they are willing, at least theoretically, to pay more for produce certified as grown under safe farming practices. Only one-third of retailers predicted their consumers would pay extra.

As the Cornell researchers commented at Fresh Summit, retailers tend to base their opinions of consumer attitudes on the actual purchasing behavior of shoppers — what shows up on the sales receipt — while survey respondents tend to say what they believe, which may or may not be reflected in sales. Bear in mind, though, that retailers were asked by the researchers to predict how their customers would respond to the survey, not how their purchases would be impacted.

The Cornell research echoes other recent PMA research findings that consumers are increasingly interested in locally grown produce — apparently because of recent food-safety scares. Two-thirds of consumers agree or strongly agree that locally grown foods are safer than produce transported long distances. Meanwhile, 73 percent of shoppers report they are somewhat to very concerned about the safety of imported produce. Here it came as no surprise to retailers that “local” equates to “safe” in consumers’ minds.

Many surveyed consumers feel safer when they can put a “face” on their fruits and vegetables, by buying local. Just over half of the surveyed consumers agree “somewhat” to “strongly” that they prefer to buy fresh fruits and vegetables if they can identify the farm from which they came.

The Cornell/PMA research confirms consumers are shaken by recent food-safety problems and their shopping interests are shifting as a result. For food safety — as with last month’s topic of country-of-origin labeling — the rules of consumer engagement are changing, and so must we. Consumers are becoming more demanding about where and from whom their produce is procured. As a result, we should also reshape our marketing strategies to address their needs.

I believe what consumers really want is the reassurance that comes with the transparency of information and a feeling of personal connection. While our industry is being aggressive on food safety, word of our efforts has reached retailers but not consumers. So now, we must consider how to do more at point-of-purchase to convey safety information in a responsible and reassuring way.

We must look for ways to put a trustworthy “face” back on produce, whether its producer hails from down the street, across the country or around the world. As the retailer quoted at the beginning of this article told our researchers, there can’t be any more B.S. We aren’t producing widgets; we’re supplying life-impacting food. We must listen to our customers and we must respond.