Moving The Public Opinion Mountain

Their patience exhausted, the Greek gods punished Sisyphus for his abuses by making him roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down each time. For his perceived hubris, he lost his lofty position and was doomed to an eternity of frustration.

Our industry’s “gods” — consumers, buyers, and regulators — are concerned about produce safety after a recent series of deadly foodborne illness outbreaks involving leafy greens in particular. The latest Produce Marketing Association research indicates consumers lay the blame squarely on processing facilities and growers — and look primarily to us for solutions and reassurance.

Consumer confidence has started to tick upward since the outbreaks began with spinach last September, but the situation is not rosy. About one-third of consumers surveyed for PMA by Opinion Dynamics Corporation in March 2007 reported they have the highest confidence in the overall safety of fresh produce, compared to 25 percent in February 2007; two-thirds report less than highest confidence, 17 percent no confidence.

While a majority’s produce purchases held steady compared to last year, 41 percent are avoiding some fresh fruits and vegetables, predominantly leafy greens and specifically spinach. Perishables Group pegs the drop in retail spinach sales at 54 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times. Other bagged produce including lettuce is suffering by association, with sales down an estimated 6 to 8 percent.

Recognizing what’s at stake in both consumer confidence and sales, the industry has responded quickly. Produce Business readers will know a group of major retailers and foodservice distributors called for new produce safety standards last October. Western Growers Association launched an initiative that created a Marketing Agreement to cover handlers of lettuce and leafy greens through enhanced Good Agricultural Practices and a system of state verification. United Fresh Produce Association has determined mandatory federal regulation should be a goal. Clearly, change isn’t coming — change is here.

The way public officials view us has also changed. State and federal regulators and elected officials have cast votes of no confidence in our industry’s ability to self-manage. It is no longer a question of whether produce safety will be regulated, but rather by whom and how soon.

Status quo is not an option. It doesn’t matter that our industry doesn’t intend to cause harm. Whereas Sisyphus’ acts were intentional, the perception and outcome are the same. How we respond will determine whether we can direct our own future or will face a Sisyphean destiny of never-ending oversight.

PMA, with our association and government partners, is working hard to help the industry direct its destiny. The PMA Board has committed $2.75 million through 2008 to a multi-faceted approach, combining research, supply chain training and education, industry verification and public communications to help rebuild confidence in produce.

The largest component is a $2 million commitment to jump-start a research program to identify science-based produce safety solutions. The Center for Produce Safety will bring together industry, government, and academia to focus worldwide attention on finding the causes and solutions to microbiological contamination of produce items most at risk.

To reach tomorrow’s produce purchasers, PMA has funded a $500,000, 4-year campaign through Produce for Better Health Foundation and Scholastic Inc. to reach out to 70,000 teachers and more than 2 million third- and fourth-graders and their parents with healthful eating and food safety messages.

Our industry simply must take on this responsibility, because the public expects it of us and looks to us for guidance.

The consumers surveyed in March look to farmers and regulators first and foremost to enhance produce safety in the future. The path PMA and our allies are forging mirrors those expectations: we have to create new partnerships willing to take proactive steps to improve consumer confidence.

When asked in their own words what the food chain needed to do to ensure produce safety, 41 percent of consumers said higher safety standards and 22 percent said better quality control, testing, and inspections. They think farmers are the most credible spokespersons on food safety issues — more than their own physicians — and that, after themselves, they look to farmers before any others for food safety information.

This is why we are committing $500,000 to fund improved communications outreach — to help industry find its voice. We have to get rid of the bunker mentality that has so often marked our past. We must be proud to tell the story of produce farmers’ commitment to safety, nutrition, and health in every bite of our products. To paraphrase Churchill, it’s far better to make the news than receive it, far better to be an author than a critic.

It’s now up to us to decide how to restore and safeguard the trust consumers put in us and to earn their business again. We can either work proactively to identify and implement meaningful solutions that we can live with and that work with consumers, or we can have others force their opinions upon us and face the risk of never being able to restore consumer confidence.

I don’t think any of us want to join Sisyphus in his never-ending labor. We have to keep the boulder we’re pushing up the hill at the summit — by our real commitment to research, communication, and training.