Confidence Rising, Caution Necessary

Confidence in the safety of fresh produce was at its highest level last November since Produce Marketing Association (PMA) began polling consumers on the subject in September 2006. On a 7-point scale, we earned a mean score of five, the highest we’ve seen since that fall’s foodborne illness outbreaks. Sixty-eight percent of consumers report they are confident in the safety of fresh produce, up from 61 percent just two months ago.

Consumers may be rising above the noise of negative headlines and hearing our assertive messages about the industry’s expanded commitment to produce safety. As consumer confidence is regained in the segment hurt most by these outbreaks — fresh-cuts — trust in our industry’s ability to dependably deliver safe, fresh fruits and vegetables can be restored — and sales with it. Our latest research hints this is taking place, yet we cannot ever get overconfident.

PMA had Opinion Dynamics Corporation conduct a national telephone survey of 1,000 primary-shopper consumers Nov. 26-29, 2007. In addition to checking their confidence in produce safety, we also asked them about packaged fresh-cut produce.

While confidence overall has improved, fresh-cut sales are still feeling the effects. Retail data indicate the fresh-cut category has stabilized and recovered, though not to the level we would like. The consumers we surveyed report a substantial drop in the percentage consuming fresh-cut compared to our 2005 survey. Three years ago, nearly eight in 10 made fresh-cut purchases; today the number is six in 10. Among the 40 percent saying they do not buy fresh-cut produce, 11 percent cite concern with food safety, whereas no consumers gave this reason in 2005. So the sting of the spinach crisis is still being felt by at least some of the consuming public.

This latest research indicates packaged fresh-cut produce remains a significant part of many consumers’ everyday lives, primarily because these foods combine the convenience they demand with the health benefits they need. Almost half (46 percent) of the 60 percent of surveyed consumers who buy packaged fresh-cut produce buy it about once a week; they name quality, convenience, and price as the top reasons for their purchases. Another 33 percent buy about once a month.

Basic home-meal use tops the list for 57 percent of those surveyed. This tells us that today’s busy consumers value the everyday convenience of fresh-cut. Another 42 percent of shoppers use fresh-cut fruits and vegetables to ease the strain of holiday cooking and entertaining, suggesting our industry has an opportunity to better position the category as a holiday entertaining solution.

High quality is a must for any fresh-cut consumer. Four of 10 shoppers mention quality as the most important factor for buying packaged fresh-cuts, followed by convenience for 21 percent and price for another 17 percent of respondents.

And what about the four in 10 shoppers who say they aren’t buying fresh-cut produce at all: what keeps them away?

Concern for quality is the primary reason among 18 percent of respondents; cost and preferences for bulk rank second and third respectively, less so than in our 2005 survey. That year, 24 percent reported cost concerns compared to 16 percent of November’s respondents. In ’05, 25 percent told us they prefer to prepare cuts from bulk versus 15 percent now reporting bulk preferences. And as mentioned previously, 11 percent name food safety concerns as the reason for not buying packaged fresh-cut — a stark but not surprising contrast to zero responses in 2005.

These data remind us of how critical consumer confidence is to our industry’s health, and how quickly it can change. Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time, so our vigilance and direct consumer communications surrounding matters of produce safety can never cease. Our commitment to proving competence with enhanced produce handling procedures and to working on continuous improvement and verification will earn back the cautious consumer’s trust.

While 2007 saw a dip in retail sales of packaged salads for the first time in eight years, in today’s produce marketing environment what matters most is not where we are now but how far we have come and where we need to go. So while we have some good news, our industry’s work is by no means done. We must never lose sight of the importance of the many fundamental steps we must take a day in and day out to uphold consumer trust in the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Recognizing that food safety is a reality of today’s produce industry, PMA recently hired our first chief scientific officer, Dr. Robert Whitaker. Bob will direct creation of PMA’s new science-based programs and services at a time when food safety, traceability, sustainability and other science-based issues are taking immediacy in our industry. He brings the rare combination of a brilliant scientific mind and feet firmly planted in the field, packinghouse or processing facility — he knows how to transfer sound science into sensible business practices. Bob’s hiring is good news, indeed, for the entire produce supply chain’s future. Please join me in welcoming him.