Today’s media channels provide consumers with a 24-hour stream of information on every topic, including food.

Silence isn't always golden when it comes to produce

Don Goodwin
Golden Sun Marketing

The overflow of information allows consumers to develop “informed” opinions, influenced by the most persistent voices and compelling stories.

But it’s clear that that the same information meant to inform also puts our industry under siege, and our own compelling story is silent to the masses. 

With issues like food safety, sustainable agriculture and health care front of mind for consumers, now is our opportunity to influence and inform, to shape the debate and tell our own story before the storytellers sensationalize our story and our sales, profits and “good for you” standing become a thing of fiction.

Fresh produce is rarely sexy enough to be a media darling … but it is often evil enough to play the role of the bad guy during food safety scares. Studies continue to show that consumer confidence in the safety of our produce supply chain has declined.

I’m certain this confidence continues to be shaken by the ever present media reports of “yet another” food safety issue of one kind or another.

Just this past Sunday, I woke up to a similar article in my local paper regarding a recent spinach recall. As an industry insider, I thought to myself that this was a small recall and the risk to the public was low.

As a consumer, I looked at this and thought that the journalists were taking a responsible approach to a possible health risk — especially in light of the larger recall of a 2006.

However, the key fact that struck me was the unbalanced nature of the story — not a single word regarding the overall safety of fresh produce or the increasingly stringent food safety controls that have been implemented to protect consumers from similar health risks.

Pop culture concepts?

A popular term for today’s consumers is sustainability, but it’s been flanked with a rapidly emerging threat gaining momentum around the idea that the way we produce commercial food is wholly wrong. 

Recent op-ed pieces by Michael Pollan and the documentary “Food, Inc.” are telling a story that is not favorable to commercial agriculture.

As recently as August, Time magazine published a story on “Getting Real about The High Cost of Cheap Food.”

While much  focuses on the meat industry, produce also took some shots. The article quotes a scientist from the Union of Concerned Scientists as saying, “The way we farm now is destructive to the soil, the environment and us.”

Anti-large farmer messages like this are no doubt fueling the locavore movement and shifting produce dollars to farmers markets, you-pick farms, home gardens and local community supported agriculture.

While I have nothing against buying local and participate often, I am concerned about the residual image impact to large farms. 

It’s clear that commercial production agriculture is under attack, yet little is being said about the importance of efficiency and yield, in balance with sustainability.

These are critical components to the overall cost of food and the ability to supply a growing world population that will demand nearly double the global food production over the next 50 years.  

Nationally, we need to be investing in and promoting large farms and encouraging further research on ways to grow food more efficiently.

Sustainability needs to be front of mind, and we need to balance people, profits and planet as part of a socially responsible solution. Ironically, many large farms are already taking great strides in the areas of sustainability, but their stories aren’t being told … and small boutique operators are getting all the credit. 

Finally, let us examine the health care debate and how it might apply to fresh produce. The only thing that we all seem to agree on is that the current system is not working, and the solutions vary widely.

What flabbergasts me most is the blame game being uttered by our president, holding big business like insurance companies, the legal system, and drug companies responsible for the dilemma, but providing no blame to Americans … and holding us as consumers personally responsible for our choices.

Our eating habits and lack of regular exercise are driving our health care costs off the charts.

Why didn’t the president call for more personal responsibility, more exercise and an increase in the consumption of healthy foods like fresh produce?

Simply put, if all Americans ate four more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, our health care costs would decline.

The reality is we’ve let politicians and outspoken media offer easy-to-digest reasons for one crisis after another and offer up big business as an easy target.  It’s our turn to make public statements, call for the president and each member of Congress to do something and take our case to the American public.

Our trade organizations like PMA and United Fresh work hard to lobby our case in Washington and the Produce for Better Health Foundation is wisely focused on increasing consumption of fresh produce among young mothers and their children.

But we need a new voice, fueled by the same kind of passion and contemporary tactics as our opposition — a voice that is well-funded, more aggressive and consumer focused.

We need to employ more contemporary tactics to be heard.

Imagine for a moment if PETA or Greenpeace were running our campaign, how would they tell our compelling story?

They would no doubt be creating awareness of our strong food safety programs, the commitment of our growers and our connection to the health care debate. They would likely weigh in on health care in ways we have never thought about.

While I find some of their tactics inappropriate, I know we can learn from them and their ability to get publicity. We need to take the gloves off and get in the fight and remember that silence isn’t always golden.

Don Goodwin is the owner of Golden Sun Marketing, a consulting firm specializing in the fresh produce supply chain from seed to retail. E-mail don@goldensunmarketing.com.

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