Dan Galbraith, sections editor
Dan Galbraith, sections editor

It’s easy to take a first glance at any of our Year in Produce top 10 story lists from over the years and say, sarcastically, “Yep, surprise, surprise! Bad news dominated The Packer again!”

But while 2014 was no different from years past in that stories with negative spin occupy many of the spots in the list, it’s also important to point out that it could have been much worse.

Sure, the top two stories as voted by staffers at The Packer, water woes and immigration frustration, are downers, but the No. 3 story is so positive the program associated with it even has an exclamation mark in it!

The Eat Brighter! campaign lifted fresh produce industry spirits — and profits — in 2014 by employing Sesame Street characters for royalty-free marketing efforts. Eat Brighter! was not only a good idea in theory but actually worked.

Other stories on this year’s list also were positive or neutral in their undertones.

The Chiquita/Fyffes merger saga provided plenty of ongoing news coverage throughout the year with stories that didn’t have anything to do with anyone going to prison, dying in an E. coli or salmonella outbreak or losing millions of dollars due to a natural disaster — types of stories that typically rule Top 10 year-in-review story lists. Not only for the produce industry, but for mainstream news in general.

And while fresh produce enjoyed success with the No. 3 story in our countdown, foodservice also found a win in our No. 5 story, centering on fresh fruits and vegetables becoming the new darlings of menu offerings at fast-food giants like McDonald’s and Wendy’s.

Among the other trends I noticed while doing research for this year’s Year in Produce section is that several topics keep coming up year after year.

Some of the most pervasive “deja vu” topics in recent years are immigration reform and Wal-Mart’s impact on the industry. Both immigration and the Bentonville, Ark., retailer have been on three of The Packer’s most-recent four Top 10 countdowns, missing out only in 2012. And remember that was a year particularly dominated by outbreaks, limiting room for much else, as cantaloupes, mangoes and sprouts all took big food safety hits.

Obviously, Wal-Mart’s influence on industry standards and the effects changing immigration law has on the Mexican-dominant farm worker base in not only Mexico, but growing regions in California, Arizona and Texas, to name just a few, will be issues we’ll continue to pursue in 2015.

Another recurring topic is the foodservice angle for fresh produce, highlighted by McDonald’s use of fruits in Happy Meals and Wendy’s vegetables in salads. In fact, it’s interesting to note that McDonald’s has crept into our Top 10 list in three of the past four countdowns as well, missing out in 2013.

The produce industry survived through some suffering in 2014 with food safety scares and lack of government cooperation in many aspects, but in analyzing our Top 10 stories from the previous three years, I found a few positive aspects about 2014:

  • Cantaloupe-tastrophe trend breaks. Stories about cantaloupe outbreaks and the fallout from such not only dominated news headlines in 2011, 2012 and 2013, but also occupied the top spot in our countdowns three straight times. This year lacked the deaths and repercussions from deaths from produce-related outbreaks that marred previous years’ lists.
  • Mother Nature’s wrath eases. Has anyone noticed it’s been several years since the fresh produce industry was decimated by a major hurricane, flood or freeze?

Sure, we’ve had some isolated damage from storms, but nothing catastrophic like a Hurricane Andrew or a freeze wiping out 100% of a crop, or anything close to that, for years. In fact, even the last time a freeze made our countdown, it was in 2011 and only ranked as our No. 10 story.

OK, so drought conditions are the top story this year, but, to put a positive spin on the situation, many sources characterized the drought reports as being overblown at times.

Furthermore, there is more hope on the horizon, as many drought-stricken regions have been upgraded by the National Weather Service and government officials showed commitment to drought relief measures in 2014.

  • Fresh produce is going to school. Or, more accurately, schools. Industry lobbying efforts are paying off, as evidenced by the predominance of the topic in our Top 10 lists in recent years.

School nutrition standards, with help from Michelle Obama and government officials, are rising. Plus, more and more schools are getting salad bars and better fresh produce menu options. Children’s waistlines, and produce business bottom lines, are the better for it.

 

The top 10 stories for 2014, based on voting by THE PACKER staff

1. H20 woes: Drought and California groundwater legislation snags threaten fresh produce companies.

2. Immigration frustration: Path to citizenship issues come to forefront for Barack Obama, but Congress doesn’t act and President’s plan doesn’t address produce industry. In 2013, immigration non-action ranked as our No. 10 story.

3. Bert’s beets?: New Eat Brighter! campaign enlists Sesame Street characters, such as Bert and Ernie, along with other kid favorites, to push fruits and veggies.

4. Cavendish collaboration: Banana giant Chiquita’s year proves to be a busy one, with Fyffes merger possibility dominating news headlines.

5. Fast company: Fresh produce becomes best buddies with fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and Wendy’s as McDonald’s adds Cuties to Happy Meals. Last year, the Wonderful Halos’ battle with Cuties emerged as the No. 4 story of the year.

6. Safety saga: Universal food safety rules continue to develop from ongoing debate. Food safety mandates emerged as the No. 2 story of 2013.

7. Outbreak fallout: Jensens avoid prison time for cantaloupe outbreak; lawsuits involving Wal-Mart, Kroger and PrimusLabs ensue.

8. School standards: Improved nutrition standards for U.S. schools continue to evolve.

9. Walton’s world: Retail leader Wal-Mart focuses on reshaping produce sustainability and its own store format philosophy. In 2013, Wal-Mart grabbed the No. 5 spot in our countdown by coming out strongly on local sourcing of produce and PTI.

10. Addressing HLB PDQ: Fresh produce industry accelerates battle against citrus greening.

 

The top 10 stories for 2013, based on voting by THE PACKER staff

1. Cantaloupe calamity: The producers of listeria-tainted cantaloupes face the possibility of jail time and an auditing company faces lawsuits for giving the operation high safety marks.

2. Safety shaping: Enacting food safety regulation promises to change how the industry supplies consumers with fresh produce.

3. Merge surge: An improving economy fuels company consolidations and mergers.

4. Clem clash: Wonderful Halos take on Cuties-brand clementines in bitter branding battle.

5. Wal-Mart’s will: Retail giant puts its shoulder into more locally sourced produce and gets behind the Produce Traceability Initiative.

6. Tomato tussle: Florida grower-shippers lob charges of dumping and unfair prices at Mexican importers.

7. Produce prison?: Adams Produce officials face time behind bars in federal government fraud case.

8. Salad bar surplus: Salad bar donations to schools boom despite some backlash.

9. Farm bill fail: Congress again fails to pass a farm bill.

10. Immigration ineptitude: Lack of immigration reform raises industry ire.

 

The top 10 stories for 2012, based on voting by THE PACKER staff

1. Can’t escape cantaloupe outbreaks: Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe outbreak kills three and shakes up industry, causing, among other things, a push for new certification standards in California.

2. Food safety inaction: Officials make little progress on Food Safety Modernization Act.

3. Tomato tumult: Florida and Mexico wage war of words regarding differences of opinion on tomato regulations.

4. Merger, schmerger: Much talk about consolidation of the two major fresh produce industry groups, United Fresh and PMA, ends with a failed merger effort.

5. Mango madness: Tainted mangoes cause widespread illnesses.

6. Apple anomaly: Michigan apple crop is devastated, and other regions pick up the slack.

7. Sproutbreak: Illnesses involving fresh sprouts force national restaurant chains into menu changes and a new alliance.

8. Fast-fresh?: McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other fast-food chains make fresh produce more of a priority, using growers in TV ads, and adding berries and avocados to menu offerings.

9. Pupil produce: School meals include more fresh fruits and vegetables.

10. Location, location, location: Locally grown produce movement continues to build.

 

The top 10 stories for 2011, based on voting by THE PACKER staff

1. Cataclysmic cantaloupes: Cantaloupes shipped by Jensen Farms linked to deadly listeria outbreak in 17 states.

2. Produce plate: Government groups release new MyPlate dietary guidelines, urging Americans to “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.”

3. Slicing into childhood obesity: McDonald’s moves to automatically include apple slices in addition to french fries in its Happy Meals, starting a chain reaction.

4. New buzzwords: “Local” and “locally grown” become red-hot, particularly regarding fresh produce in foodservice.

5. Deducted duties: Agreement to resolve the cross-border trucking issue between the U.S. and Mexico results in the latter removing half the retaliatory duties it had applied to $2.4 billion worth of U.S. exports, including fresh produce.

6. School standards: School cafeteria food standards updated.

7. Immigration issues: Labor shortage in Washington, E-Verify and state immigration laws dog fresh produce industry officials.

8. Taking a stand: Club-store giant Costco mandates its suppliers test fresh produce to ensure food safety for its customers.

9. Wal-Mart’s ways: Retail leader works to eliminate middlemen, buying more fresh produce directly from growers and increases its presence in large cities.

10. February freeze: Surprisingly low temperatures in Mexico shorten supplies of some fresh produce items.

dgalbraith@thepacker.com