(Dec. 31, NATIONAL EDITOR'S COLUMN) In a recent Fresh Talk poll (link at www.thepacker.com), I asked readers this question: “Would the industry benefit from a USDA generic promotion order, with mandatory assessments, for fresh produce?”

The answers were: no (52%); yes ( 42%); and unsure (6%).

I wrote then that the poll may have closed, but the case was not closed for a generic promotion order for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry. Consider the myriad of promotion schemes in the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry, and ask yourself if there is a better way.

For one thing, the strategy of region/country-based generic promotions is fascinating and a little puzzling to me.

Why should California, Mexico or Chile run their own separate promotions of hass avocados, for example, as opposed to a unified generic hass promotion? Wouldn’t buyers prefer dealing with one promotion department rather than several?

The answer is undoubtedly linked to control of the message, decisions with mandatory assessment dollars and pride in a particular growing region. That reality for avocado promotion is not going away, and in fact, one source tells me the regional focus may increase in the future.

This, of course, is not unique to the Hass Avocado Board and all the accompanying associations and commissions, which handle avocados from California, Chile and Mexico.

Promotions for potatoes, onions, apples, grapefruit and countless other fresh commodities argue for the fruit of a particular region or state. Perhaps that is why so many in the industry have rejected the idea of a mandatory assessment to fund generic promotions of fresh fruits and vegetables.

How can you unify marketers of dozens of commodities when there is no unity within a commodity? That is not to mention the cross purposes of brand marketers, who seek to promote their own label over a generic image.

Despite — or because of — the history of fragmentation of efforts, I think the industry may benefit from a national promotion order for fresh produce. A promotion order would undoubtedly give the industry more clout at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Given the fact that the Produce for Better Health Foundation promotes the “all forms count” message, such an effort would not be redundant. Perhaps the promotion order could specify that mandatory assessments be used for fresh “More Matters” promotions exclusively by PBH.

To truly set fresh apart, perhaps a new “fresh-first oriented message” apart from PBH is in order.

While processed fruit and vegetable marketers pressure to elbow their way into the USDA fruit and vegetable snack program, the industry needs a well-funded promotion arm that will make the case for fresh and fresh alone.

Could a promotion order be combined with a scheme for food safety oversight? From comments on the Fresh Talk blog, I appreciate the input from those who find the idea less than stellar.

Some believe relying on the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service would be a mistake, while others believe the market will provide a solution. My response is that the industry would be using the tools of AMS as a platform for a consumer message, but the success or failure of the messaging would ultimately lie with the industry.

Others say that mandatory assessments have been tested in courts and found wanting. From my understanding of the Wileman Brothers decision relating to generic promotions of peaches, nectarines and plums, the court held that generic advertising programs paid for by mandatory assessments did not infringe on the First Amendment based on three principles:

1. That the generic advertising programs impose no restraint on the freedom of any producer to communicate any message to any audience;

2. That generic advertising programs do not compel any person to engage in actual or symbolic speech because they don’t require speech by any person, but merely are requiring contributions for advertising; and

3. That generic programs do not compel the producers to finance or endorse any political or ideological view.

While there will undoubtedly be objections to mandatory assessments for a national promotion order, the industry needs to grapple with the importance of raising the profile of consumer messaging.

Too few resources are spent promoting fresh fruits and vegetables. It is the difference between the mere millions that the Produce for Better Health Foundation receives from voluntary contributions and the tens of millions that would be available under a national promotion order.

The self-interest of the industry to promote fresh produce needs to come to the forefront.

In same way Whole Foods has marketed organic produce over what it considers its pedestrian competition, fresh asparagus must count for more than canned asparagus. Fresh pears must count more than canned pears.

If consumers don’t believe that, the bloom is off the rose of fresh produce.