(April 3, 12:35 p.m.)The time is right for a national promotion board for fruits and vegetables, key leaders of the Produce for Better Health Foundation believe.

The concept of a promotion board hasn’t been sought by the industry in a serious way in the past 20 years, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing at San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce and outgoing chairman of the Produce for Better Health Foundation.

Even with limited funds, the foundation’s succes has been strong, but Munger said the foundation’s mandate is a big one.

“We don’t just want people to be aware of the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters brand, but we are really asking for a change in behavior,” he said. “If we want to see the dial go up, I think the industry has really got to step up and give the program the resources it needs to be effective.”

Foundation president Elizabeth Pivonka said the proposed promotion order’s connection with existing commodity boards and commissions is important.

She said members of regional commodity boards may vote to pay the assessment on behalf of their first handler members, which would lessen the financial burden to many grower-shippers.

An idea grows

Before a six-member foundation task force researched the campaign in 2008, the idea hadn’t been considered for some time, Pivonka said.

In 1990, the Government Accountability Office studied the feasibility of a generic promotion program for fruits and vegetables, she said. The GAO interviewed about 15 industry members but concluded the industry wouldn’t be interested in such a program.

Issues included the diversity of commodities, the difficulty of identifying importers of fresh produce and the fact that the 5 a Day program was on track for national expansion.

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said the produce industry is a collection of categories that are much more diverse than commodities like dairy, beef or pork.

That fragmentation has led to the development of promotional organizations for numerous fresh produce items, which he said has presented another structural challenge to the development of a national generic program.

Pivonka said PBH assembled a roundtable in 1995 to look at the idea again for a promotion agreement, but still found no real traction among industry leaders.

However, a law passed by Congress in 1996 — the Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996 — allowed any agriculture commodity group to form national promotion board. Before that, a promotion board required specific authorizing language in a farm bill or other legislation.

Still, court challenges stymied the progress and enthusiasm for promotion groups.

Pivonka said a Supreme Court ruling in 2005 involving Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and the Livestock Marketing Association affirmed that generic promotion messages do not violate free speech rights.

That paved the way, Pivonka said, to fewer lawsuits against promotion groups, she said.

Bob Keeney, acting associate administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service fruit and vegetable programs, asked Pivonka at PMA’s 2007 Fresh Summit if it was time to consider a national promotion program, she said. In March 2008, the foundation appointed a task force, which gave a green light to the program.

In its work, the task force said the promotion program should align itself with the goal of PBH, but not necessarily be limited to the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters message, Pivonka said.

The generic promotion message would advocate for all form of fruits and vegetables.

She said the “all forms” message is consistent with Dietary Guidelines and also might be critical if the group was to seek matching funds from the USDA.

“I think frankly it is a waste of energy for the fresh to be opposed to the processed,” Pivonka said. “We all should be working together to increase the whole category.”

The task force also was firmly convinced that the promotion plan should not try to address food safety in its message, Pivonka said.

In the 2008 farm bill, Pivonka said there was effort to try to establish a domestic Market Access Program, where matching funds from the federal government could be joined with industry dollars to expand domestic demand for fruits and vegetables.

That didn’t succeed, but Pivonka said advocates are pointing to the next farm bill as another opportunity to pursue that idea of fruit and vegetable promotion with federal budget dollars.

Pivonka said economic research indicates promotion boards are effective in building demand.

“Most studies show that producers could have profitably invested more in promotion rather than less,” she said.

In 2006, research showed that dairy returns were 8.2% higher with promotions than they would have been without generic promotion.

A generic promotion campaign in Western Australia from 2002 to 2005 resulted in a 19% increase in vegetable consumption among adults, Pivonka said. Converted to the American market, a media consulting firm told PBH that a similar campaign would cost about $52 million in the U.S.

Promotion board task force member Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., said he sees a need for increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

“Consumption is not high enough in our country for fruits and vegetables,” he said.

Recent research by PBH also reveals that the recession has also hurt consumption.

“It is long-term damage, so I think it is tragic where we are going with consumption in this country and we have to turn it around,” Pepperl said.

Pepperl said he likes the concept of exploring the potential to spur consumption without turning products into only commodities.

“It allows us to operate as separate marketers, marketing our own products, on our own attributes and our own companies’ investments, to have a vehicle like that to drive consumption in general, not as a commodity program,” he said.

Pepperl said one example the task force studied were anti-tobacco and anti-smoking messaging to consumers. “It’s pretty dramatic how they can move the dial,” he said.

“The other thing is the ability long-term to leverage grants from the government on behalf of the industry, he said.

With the obesity crisis and related health issues, Pepperl believes there may be opportunity for assistance with the message from federal agencies.

“We’ve always talked about what it would do to consumption if you could get people to eat one more apple a week,” he said.

Adding two pounds of per capita consumption to the 19-pound average over a whole year only represents about five apples, he said.

Yet without attacking behavior change, moving the demand need that much is extremely difficult, he said.

“The world would be a better place and our industry would be in a much better position if we could move that consumption needle,” Pepperl said.

He said the elephant in the room for the industry is how much the plan will cost individual companies. He said of the assessment, estimated at 1/20 of 1% of the f.o.b. price, “You are talking very very miniscule amounts of money,” he said.

Getting the whole industry to embrace the concept will be difficult, Pepperl said.

“It’s futuristic to think about our industry changing behavior, but others have done it and have done it successfully and to think we can’t do it in produce is pretty foolish,” he said.