October 2019 – The world is ablaze with people promoting plant-forward eating. From Bill Gates to TV chefs, from environmentalists to culinary schools, it’s the next big thing. Not surprisingly, there is not a marketing mind in the produce industry not looking for a path to use this enthusiasm as a way to sell more fresh fruits and vegetables.
It will not be easy.
First, the way the plant-forward movement has developed actually functions as a nemesis to more produce usage. If you care deeply about CO2 emissions, or animal welfare, or believe your health requires it — and therefore commit yourself to not eating hamburger at your weekend barbeque — the fruit and vegetable default for a good 30 years has been to grill a nice portobello mushroom. In recent years, blended meat and mushroom combinations have offered consumers an opportunity to reduce beef consumption while not abstaining from beef.
The massive efforts to create meat substitutes, such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, typically involve little, if any, produce. These products are marketed specifically to people who, for one reason or another, are interested in reducing their beef consumption. In the absence of meat substitutes, these same people would have to find alternatives, many of which are actual fruits and vegetables.
Now, if these meat substitutes turn out to be indistinguishable from beef, sure, many people might buy them with the thought they can help the environment, prevent cruelty to animals or reduce their calorie consumption — but none of this is likely to have any impact on fresh produce consumption.
Second, people outside the produce industry don’t recognize there are, de facto, many different produce industries. There was a time when, say, domestic apple producers were the suppliers of not only fresh apples but also apple juice. Today, the price of apple juice concentrate makes it a financial loser for U.S. producers to sell into this market. They grow for the fresh market where prices are at a premium.
So, when you hear some clever person has found a way to increase the fruit or vegetable content by adding a powdered or liquefied produce item — again they may be doing something good for the world and even good for the individual. But, in most cases these items are likely to be produced, processed and imported by companies that are not part of the U.S. fresh produce industry.
The same goes for dried, canned, frozen, juice or shelf-stable items. They may increase produce consumption, which may have a positive impact in the world, but these items, whether sold in the produce department or not, are not part of the fresh produce industry as we know it.
And, by the way, some of these products get an advantage over fresh produce by not having to disclose country-of-origin. The law requires retailers notify their customers of the country-of-origin of muscle cuts of meat and ground lamb, chicken, goat, wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, perishable agricultural commodities, peanuts, pecans, ginseng and macadamia nuts. Many of the new plant-forward items, though, are processed products. The mushrooms may be from China, but that fact is not required to be included on the label of the packaged processed item.
Third, industry promotions have been obligated, due to internal industry politics, to treat all produce items as equal. So, whether the grapes are antiquated varieties that don’t actually taste very good or the newest and most delicious hybrid, they all get to participate under the various industry umbrellas. We push to get produce into schools. To that end, we obviously should be offering something appealing to school children, say Cotton Candy grapes or Honeycrisp apples, in order to turn kids onto fresh produce.
Sadly, the decision of what to serve children is actually a function of the lowest bidder; as a result school foodservice programs typically get the cheapest produce available. In other words, what adults are unwilling to buy is served to the kids.
Think about it … one reason we have to talk about animal cruelty, global warming and high fat content in the hopes of driving consumption is because the produce we serve to our most impressionable consumers is the worst we’ve got.
Fourth, produce marketing is somewhat dangerous because our products are not consistent. However, good or bad, the Impossible or Beyond Burgers always taste the same. That makes advertising more feasible and even profitable. What we can do, however, is offer a peach or tomato that is so delicious it brings one to tears. Conversely, we can offer one with no taste at all.
This makes the marketing of fresh produce difficult, because attracting consumers to a bad-tasting product can be a turn-off and dampen consumption long term.
The obstacles are formidable. Still, produce has many of the flavor, health, ethical and environmental attributes people seek today. This creates an incredible opportunity. The challenge is not to think the zeitgeist of the times will do the job for us. We need to innovate, to find new products and new ways to promote. We need to ride this tide, but we have to recognize the bigger the wave, the more important it is to know how to ride it. pb