Borrowing a page from the medical profession, pundits will tell you that one of the first rules of crisis communications is to do no harm — that is, don’t risk making a situation worse.

The best defense requires a good offense

Bryan Silbermann
Produce Marketing Association

For that reason, they also typically advise against proactively raising an issue oneself.

That said, there are times where those typical axioms can and must get turned on their heads. In particular, where consumers’ confidence in the safety or wholesomeness of fresh produce is threatened, PMA believes we must respond aggressively to restore their confidence and to increase their consumption.

This month, the Alliance for Food and Farming is launching a campaign to counter misleading claims by activist groups about pesticide residues on produce — the so-called “Dirty Dozen” list, for example.

PMA has supported the alliance’s project since its inception, and we funded the campaign’s consumer website.

To date, without sound science in hand, our industry hasn’t been able to effectively contest those scare tactics with facts. To close that gap, the alliance commissioned an expert panel whose members hail from various scientific disciplines to review of the Dirty Dozen report.

On all fronts, the science panel found the Dirty Dozen claims to be without merit. Industry now has the factual tools needed to set the record straight for the good of our consumers.

Why engage this debate now?

Because it is clear that, as passionately as we tried in the past, our industry’s voice simply wasn’t being heard. To compound matters, recently we have seen more than the usual media coverage on the topic — including during this spring’s high-profile television “sweeps” period when broadcasters go all out for ratings.

Meanwhile, new research indicates that negative attention is taking a toll on consumer confidence in all fresh produce, not just the commodities being singled out.

During a recent survey by the alliance, more than 90% of consumers report that they are somewhat to very concerned about pesticide residues on food. (There also has been an alarming increase in consumers reporting they are avoiding certain fruits or vegetables.)

The alliance’s three-year campaign includes reaching out to consumer media and health professionals, and ultimately driving consumers to the public website for more information.

Alliance members will also have access to communications tools they can use to help tell this story. With additional support, the alliance hopes to be able to visit key consumer media outlets, and to hire a high-profile spokesperson.

To learn how to assist in and support the alliance campaign, visit its website.

In addition to working to safeguard our industry and its products from disparagement, one of PMA’s goals in supporting the alliance’s campaign is to provide venues for our members to tell their good news stories to consumers.

I believe one of the reasons our industry faces lagging consumer confidence on the issue of pesticide residues is because over the years we have lost part of our connection with our end customers.

To win back consumers and restore their confidence in us and the products we serve, our best defense is in fact a really good offense.

To this point, the media and special interest groups have effectively owned this story — and now we must make our voice heard. To win consumers back, we must tell them our stories with the same passion and conviction that we display to each other when we talk about why we do what we do.

I am sure I am not alone in looking forward to having an opportunity to take off the pads and put on the gloves for a change.

At the end of the day, consumers will come out the big winners by being able to enjoy more fresh produce with more confidence — every bite, every time.

Bryan Silbermann is president and chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. This is a series of monthly columns written by PMA staff on important industry issues.

How do you work to educate consumers about food safety realities? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.