(Dec. 19) The U.S. may be an international superpower, but when it comes to produce consumption, the country’s weakness shows.

Meanwhile, its neighbor to the north, while maintaining a low profile on the world stage, seems to be winning the fight to encourage consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables.

The Canadian Produce Marketing Association, Ottawa, estimates that Canadian consumers eat six or seven servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

In the U.S., the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del., says Americans eat 3.6 servings a day, based on 1997 figures, which are the latest available.

CPMA bases its consumption estimate on “disappearance” and includes shrink at retail and consumer level, says Ron Lemaire, the association’s executive vice president and director of marketing.

PBH bases its estimate on surveys of what consumers say they actually put into their mouths, says president Elizabeth Pivonka. But Pivonka admits that, even with the difference in methodology, Canadians likely consume more produce than Americans. In fact, a recent independent study says U.S. produce consumption is declining, though Pivonka says it’s likely holding steady.

This issue raises two questions: Why is consumption so low, and what can be done to improve it?

The “why” question has several answers.

For one thing, Canada has been promoting the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables on a national level for about three decades. PBH wasn’t created until 1991.

Another reason for the success of the Canadian program is an extensive media outreach effort. According to a survey conducted in June, 64 percent of those who were familiar with the 5 to 10 a Day campaign heard about it on television. Both the Canadian and U.S. programs rely on unpaid public service announcements, but Pivonka says there simply aren’t nearly as many empty commercial slots on U.S. TV as there are in Canada. Lemaire says competition is tight is Canada, as well, but 5 to 10 a Day has partnered with broadcast companies, and that can facilitate free air time.

GOOD QUESTION

Consider what some Canadian retailers are doing to promote produce consumption.

The Barn Market, a nine-store division of A&P Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, promotes produce consumption outside the store, as well as inside.

The company paid to have a city bus painted with pictures of fruits and vegetables along with The Barn Market logo and the 5 to 10 a Day logo to promote the opening of two new stores.

Gordon Love, vice president of produce standards for the Barn Market, says 5 to 10 a Day posters and logos are prominently featured throughout the produce department, during special promotions and in the chain’s advertising.

The stores promote consumption by highlighting a produce item on the third page of its weekly flier, Love says. The write-up includes availability, nutrition and serving information and storage, care and handling tips.

Love encourages produce staff members to get involved and try featured items so they can answer consumer questions with information gained firsthand.

The stores conduct weekly demonstrations that show consumers how to use new or exotic items. Whenever possible, demos feature more than one item, like including pomegranates in a salad or combining mandarins with spring mix. Demo personnel also might show shoppers how to select a pineapple or melon and offer new ways to use common items, like preparing fruits on the barbecue.

Stores have a fruit and vegetable salad bar or self-help ice bar where the produce manager can introduce new items and offer precut product, making it easier for consumers to get their five to 10 servings a day.

LONGTIME BOOSTER

Tom Corah, produce director for Calgary Co-operative Association Ltd., a chain of 18 stores based in Calgary, Alberta, says the chain has been involved in the 5 to 10 a Day campaign for at least nine years.

The chain displays posters and other materials from CPMA and uses handouts as bag stuffers at the checkout. Corah includes the 5 to 10 a Day logo in the stores’ fliers, in their weekly ads and on bags in produce.

Calgary Co-op even impresses the message on children in the Kiddies Korral, a place where parents drop off their youngsters while parents shop. The center has a supply of CPMA’s Freggie Tales newsletters that have pictures children can color and that offer facts about produce.

Corah says increases in produce sales continue to outpace increases in meat and grocery increases, and he attributes at least some of that success to the 5 to 10 a Day campaign.

“Getting support Canadawide on a program makes my job easier, especially when you have the heart and stroke foundations and the cancer society supporting it,” he says.

Sobeys Inc., the 1,343-store chain based in Stellarton, Nova Scotia, recently introduced an integrated marketing program for its Sobeys and Price Chopper banners and plans to do the same with its IGA stores early this year, says Wayne McKnight, vice president of produce, floral and national procurement.

As part of that effort, the chain has “simplified and focused all the consumer messages,” McKnight says. “We are now looking to re-incorporate the 5 to 10 messages in our banners in the right fashion.”

The company previously incorporated 5 to 10 a day into fliers, shelf-talkers and in-store signs, McKnight says.

“We certainly endorse the program,” he says. “It’s a great thing for the consumer.”

In the U.S., Steve Junqueiro, director of produce and floral for Save Mart Supermarkets, a chain of 97 stores based in Modesto, Calif., is a 5 a Day expert. He and the chain have been involved with 5 a Day since it originated in California and have won national awards for promotions. Junqueiro serves on the PBH board and has worked on several PBH committees.

He uses the 5 a Day logo in advertising, point-of-sale materials and fliers and even has 5 a Day materials stuffed into employees’ paychecks.

Junqueiro says 5 a Day is one of the few incentive programs that is a win-win for all concerned.

“There is no downside,” he says.

COLOR CAMPAIGN

The best 5 a Day news to come along in a while is the new 5 a Day color campaign that will encourage consumers to eat up to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, Junqueiro says.

The 5 a Day the Color Way campaign and its colorful logo were launched at the PMA convention in October and will be the central identity of the 5 a Day program for the next several years, says Lori Baer, director of public relations and production for PBH.

The campaign encourages consumers to eat a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables daily to fight cancer, heart disease and the effects of aging. The old 5 a Day logo will continue to be used, as well.

Major materials promoting the campaign include a 5 a Day guide, a pocket-size accordion-fold piece with basic information about the program, and a 44-page plan book that augments the guide with more detailed information and recipes.

A major boost to the campaign will be a paid TV commercial being prepared through grants from Florida, Arizona and California.

Meanwhile, Pivonka says, PBH will weigh in to encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase its produce consumption recommendation to five to 10 a day when the department starts its review of dietary guidelines this year. The review is conducted every five years and is scheduled to be completed in 2005.

PBH could recommend eating 10 servings a day without government endorsement, but the foundation follows federal dietary guidelines in order to ensure support from its government partners. However, even if USDA increases its produce consumption recommendation, Pivonka says it is not likely that PBH will push consumers too hard too soon.

Eating up to 10 servings a day “will be daunting to some folks not eating five a day,” she says.

Pivonka says PBH retailers and suppliers seem especially excited about the new color program in part because, for the first time, 5 a Day will expand into other supermarket departments and encourage consumption of canned and frozen produce and juices.

Although it may be a long way off, Pivonka and Lemaire of CPMA would like the U.S. and Canada to conduct combined promotions.

The two organizations are not likely to do that until the two governments coordinate labeling requirements, dietary guidelines and other details because neither CPMA nor PBH wants to jeopardize its relationships with government partners.

“If it were just the two of us, and no government partners, we would probably have done it long ago,” Pivonka says.