As is the case so many times, some of the produce industry’s top stories for the year are more about what didn’t happen than what did.

Case in point: 2009 had the makings to be a monumental year for marketing, with discussion of a national promotion board, and Produce for Better Health perhaps playing a major role with that.

#8 story of 2009: PBH dumps talk of national promotion board

But the next step toward a national fruit and vegetable research and promotion board — if there is one — won’t be taken with PBH, the industry learned in November.

The executive committee for Wilmington, Del.-based PBH concluded any decisions should be made by those most affected by the potential board.

From April to October, the foundation had sought feedback from the fruit and vegetable industry about the potential of a national promotion board, organized with U.S. Department of Agriculture oversight and funded with mandatory assessments.

After a variety of outreach efforts to the industry, PBH officials say their role is over.

PBH chairman Paul Klutes, director of brand sales for C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn., said the group acted as a catalyst to spark the discussion for and against the promotion board, but the ultimate responsibility lies with those who would be assessed.

Klutes said some industry leaders want to continue the conversation, but he did not say who those individuals or groups might be.

He said PBH is finding new and effective ways to promote the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters message.

Elizabeth Pivonka, PBH president and chief executive officer, said she  doesn’t know if the discussion about the generic promotion board will continue.

“I have talked to some members of the industry who are interested generally in the concept,” she said. “We’re willing to share information with any of those folks, but it is their responsibility now.”

Pivonka said she has no regrets about the process of the PBH involvement in exploring the issue.

“We just thought it was important to raise the question and have the dialogue,” Pivonka said.

She said discussion of the generic promotion board by PBH has had a mixed effect on fundraising.

“I think it is probably a wash,” Pivonka said, with about $20,000 withheld by contributors who didn’t like PBH’s role in the dialogue and another $20,000 that came in to the group because contributors appreciated the service PBH was doing for the industry.

An Oct. 3 Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit town hall meeting on the proposed national generic promotion plan, moderated by The Packer’s Tom Karst,  focused on the pros and cons of a national promotion board.

Panelist Rick Antle, chief executive officer and president of Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, Calif., correctly stated the plan hasn’t come close to majority support so far.

PBH had reported in June that the largest pool of people who were sent an electronic survey (about 45%) were unaware of the promotion board concept before the survey. (About 10% of the more than 3,000 people who received the survey responded.)

“Clearly, there is a lot more education and dialogue that needs to take place,” Klutes said.

A national promotion board would come at an estimated price tag of  $30 million, making it a hot topic, particularly during a year marked by economic recession.

At another major industry conference in April (the United Fresh Produce Association convention in Las Vegas), growers and commodity commission leaders expressed reservations about a proposed national generic promotion board for fruits and vegetables, although attendance at the town-hall meeting was sparse.

As proposed, the plan would have generated about $30 million per year from mandatory assessments on first handlers and importers of fresh and most processed fruits and vegetables through a 0.046% assessment of the f.o.b. market value of all first handlers and importers.

In April, industry leaders had rallied support for the concept, although the idea hadn’t been pursued seriously in the past 20 years, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce and outgoing chairman of the Produce for Better Health Foundation.

“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,” Munger said.