Spinach-Crisis Tipping Point

Given the severity of government action, extensive media coverage and nearly universal public knowledge that “something was amiss with spinach,” I have argued elsewhere that the September spinach crisis represents a tipping point for our industry. When PMA’s research — along with others’ — showed in late September that nine out of 10 Americans knew about the government’s call not to eat spinach, we knew we had achieved a level of awareness reached by very few news stories.

Before looking at what consumers told us in the weeks after the crisis, here’s what I said about our industry’s state of mind at PMA’s Fresh Summit in San Diego in October:

“What makes this kind of outbreak so difficult…to swallow is our…very accurate perceptions of WHO we are and WHAT we do. We are in business to grow and ship the most nutritious, diverse and tasty fruits and vegetables ever assembled for the public.

“Many of us have generations of family blood and history as a backdrop for what we do today. We see ourselves as the guys and gals with the white hats, the heroes fighting an epidemic of obesity, broadening taste horizons and adding color to the food palette.

“The fertile valleys of the central California coast are a key contributor to the safest food supply in the world…serving tens of millions of consumers safely each and every day with the most nutritious produce ever known.

“So how, suddenly, did we get to be seen as the ones with the black hats, the villains in a movie we want no part of? Whatever the reason, few will dispute this outbreak, this crisis, was unlike any we have faced before.

“…I learned…that this crisis was based on not one, but two realities — the reality of the facts, and the reality of the perception.”

Two PMA studies measured consumer awareness, attitudes, confidence levels and the likelihood of purchasing fresh spinach. Opinion Dynamics Corp. conducted these Sept. 18-19, after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory, and again Oct. 10-12. The studies consisted of 1,000 telephone interviews with a national sample of household primary food shoppers. Also in October, PMA commissioned a survey of 100 opinion leaders in its membership in the grower/shipper, processor, retailer, and foodservice sectors.

Some of the key findings were:

• After FDA removed the health advisory on spinach, the perceived safety of bagged spinach rebounded strongly among previous purchasers of spinach. The mean score for “very safe” on a scale of 1-7 had improved from 2.7 in September to 4.7 in October.

• Spinach purchasers positively rated the industry’s handling of the incident; 64 percent rated the response as excellent or good. Industry opinion leaders rated it higher, with 81 percent saying it was excellent or good.

• The October follow-up with consumers showed a good proportion of spinach purchasers were ready to return to the product either immediately or within a few weeks; almost half said they had already purchased spinach again or would do so within weeks.

• Consumer confidence in the overall safety of the nation’s fresh produce supply showed a slight decline from a mean of 4.87 in September to 4.69 in October (where 7 is “extremely confident”). PMA will continue to track and report on this important measure because it gives insight into consumer perceptions across the entire produce category.

• Consumers and industry perceive FDA’s handling of the spinach crisis differently. Two-thirds of consumers gain confidence in knowing FDA monitors the safety of the food supply and advises consumers quickly about potential health risks. When asked to rank FDA’s effort, 61 percent of industry respondents gave the agency only a “fair” or “poor” rating for its handling of the crisis.

• The October follow-up allowed us to question consumers about a major California shipper’s voluntary green leaf lettuce recall in late September. Almost three-quarters of shoppers knew of this precautionary recall. It gave more than three-quarters of them greater confidence in the safety of the produce supply because it had been done voluntarily. The lesson from this measure and the ongoing precautionary recalls taken in recent months is that the public expects and approves of a company’s vigilance and commitment to withdraw the product from the supply chain when a potential for contamination is identified.

Our industry and its leaders are taking steps to bolster customer confidence in our industry and our foods and, in the process, minimize potential marketplace and regulatory impacts on our businesses. How well we succeed will depend upon our industry’s fortitude for making the hard, but right, choices for public health and our future.

Leadership is needed — and PMA and its allies have already moved to provide that leadership. On Oct. 20, PMA’s Board of Directors approved at least $1 million in new funding through 2007 to support a multi-pronged effort to reinforce the existing — and determine additional — industry standards needed for food safety that extends from field to fork.

Those funds are being used in such areas as development of enhanced Good Agricultural Practices and a communications campaign to rebuild consumer confidence. Research and industry education and training will feature strongly throughout the supply chain. These activities will also help our proactive communications with state and federal government regulators as they consider their response.

I believe our industry is at a tipping point. Our customers and government will judge us by how much we do to strengthen our supply chain in the future. We must rise to the challenge; our future depends upon it.