What a difference one year — and one huge foodborne illness outbreak — can make.
The positive stories of 2010 — characterized by the continued success of the locally grown produce movement, increased child nutrition efforts and the beginnings of economic recovery from the 2008-09 recession — seem like a distant memory after the Colorado cantaloupe catastrophe dominated fresh produce industry news in 2011.
In fact, half of the respondents to The Packer’s December Produce Pulse survey seeking input on the biggest stories of 2011 and what will be on tap for 2012 said food safety issues will dominate industry headlines next year.
The fallout from the deadly Colorado cantaloupe outbreak, coupled with dozens of fruit and vegetable recalls on a smaller scale resulting from foodborne illnesses or fears of such, also reared its ugly head in the survey’s findings of top stories in 2011.
Food safety focus in 2012
For catch phrases, “The Brady Bunch” had “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” For the produce industry, or at least one member of it who responded to our survey, 2012’s mantra might well be “Food safety! Food safety! Food safety!”
“Without a doubt, (it’s) the issue of highest importance, to all in the industry (for 2012),” the respondent said.
Others wholeheartedly agreed:
“It’s a story that will not go away.”
“It is on everybody’s mind.”
“Just look at the recalls we’ve had in 2011.”
“The cantaloupe recall out of Colorado that has multiple casualties will spur more debate and action.”
Biggest topical story of 2011
Sixty percent of Produce Pulse survey participants ranked the cantaloupe outbreak as the No. 1 topical story affecting the industry this year, with another 15% listing it as the No. 2 story.
The continued presence of the locally grown produce movement ranked as the second biggest topical story, garnering 18% of first-place votes, 38% of second-place votes and 30% of third-place votes.
The end of the retaliatory tariffs on U.S. produce exports to Mexico finished third in the overall voting, with 18% of survey respondents assigning it top billing, 23% saying it was the second-biggest story and 28% saying it was the third-biggest story.
Other important topical stories included a February freeze in Mexico that shortened supplies; economic turmoil in Europe and supply issues darkening profit prospects for large banana companies; and merger talks between the Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh.
The Colorado cantaloupe outbreak also topped a recent food survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers, conducted by independent market research company Wakefield.
The new MyPlate initiative and record food prices ranked second and third, respectively, among topical stories in that survey.
Biggest company story
In a closer vote centering on the biggest company story of the year, Costco’s mandate for fresh produce testing by its suppliers emerged as the most important, as viewed by survey-takers. The story garnered 43% of first-place votes and 28% of second-place votes in the company story division.
Wal-Mart’s movement toward eliminating the middleman and buying more produce directly from growers, along with working to increase its presence in big cities and revisiting its stance on reusable plastic container use in its stores, ranks as the second-biggest company story, taking 35% of first-place votes and 33% of second-place votes.
Wal-Mart’s fresh produce-related news of 2010 had ranked it No. 1 in the company news category in last year’s December Produce Pulse survey.
McDonalds’ move to automatically include apple slices in addition to french fries in Happy Meals finished as the No. 3 company-related fresh produce story for 2011.
Biggest government story
Top billing in the government story division: the mandatory E-Verify bill H.R. 2885 gaining approval, with 40% of first-place votes and 20% of second-place tallies.
New MyPlate dietary guidelines, urging Americans to fill half their plates with produce, occupies the No. 2 spot, followed by national debt issues impeding Capitol Hill lobbying and the future of farm labor; and the cross-border trucking resolution between the U.S. and Mexico.
Biggest people story
Justifying her place in this year’s Packer 25 list of most influential people affecting the fresh produce industry, first lady Michelle Obama also emerged as the winner of the 2011 Year In Produce people-related story.
Obama’s urging that restaurants include more produce on their menus walloped the competition with 68% of the first-place votes in the category.
Retail legend Reggie Griffin’s retirement placed second in the people category, followed by the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s celebration of Danny Dempster’s accomplishments and that association’s transition to Adrian Abbott as its new leader.
Jose Luis Obregon’s decision to leave the Hass Avocado Board’s executive director post also ranked highly among top people-related stories in 2011.
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