Key to Moving Needle on Consumption

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of Thought

Originally printed in the August 2022 issue of Produce Business.

The case of consumer consumption of produce poses a bit of a quandary. It reminds one of Winston Churchill speaking of the future of Russia: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

So with produce, it is extremely difficult to project how consumers will change their consumption patterns: new varieties, new fresh-cut items, availability throughout the year, the rise of certain cuisines, items being named to the list of Super Foods or other such lists. All this, and more, can change consumer habits.

One has to assume consumers act in what they believe to be their own interest. So it goes with the industry. For decades, the produce industry has sought to boost per capita consumption: The Fresh Approach… Five a Day… Five a Day the Color Way… More Matters… Have a Plant… and more.

Yet, since most produce items became mostly year-round product offerings, produce consumption has been flat. Sure, some items have become more popular — think of an item such as kale or easy-peeling citrus or consider berries of all sorts. Yet dietary habits have not changed in some dramatic pro-consumption way. Individual items may boom, but overall produce consumption remains flat.

Breeders need retail support for more innovative and flavorful varieties. Then growers, if persuaded that retailers will buy it, might accept breeding that biases toward consumer-loved traits.

An often-neglected consideration is that, in produce, generally speaking, this equation rules: Production = Consumption. So, in the short term, overall consumption cannot increase. It takes sustained consumer demand, which drives up prices, which motivates production. Typically, even this pattern results in growers simply tearing out old varieties or items and replacing them with newer produce items.

To actually see higher consumption levels, we need new items or varieties that are planted on additional acres that do not offset other produce items, or we need to present expanded yields on existing acreage.

To drive consumption increases of individual items, we need the following:

1) Supply side push — year-round, higher yield, better taste, better quality

2) Super Food — publicity pushing and praising items for their nutritional values

3) New packaging and fresh-cut/value-added applications

4) Culinary trends — growth in Mexican or Asian cuisines, for example

5) Increase in production, which might mean taking short-term losses.

To increase overall consumption, though, we need a different approach:

1) Culinary Changes — switch in eating habits to, say, stir-fry. Protein as a flavoring to produce.

2) Dietary Change — reduce consumption of meat, dairy, breads and other foods, calories cut or redirected to produce.

3) Broader Use of diverse produce in foodservice — no more 80% in PLOT (potatoes, lettuce, onions, tomatoes)

4) Skilled Cooking Techniques — Make produce more flavorful with cooking technique, spices, etc.

5) Consumer rejection of meat substitutes. So a Portabella “burger” — not a soy concoction.

The problem, of course, is there is precious little evidence the world is evolving in a way that will increase produce consumption.

We don’t fully know the best models for the industry. In grapes, the model was developed by Sun World to license varieties to growers around the world. Yet Driscoll’s has been the leader in berries and it, mostly, retains the rights to all its varieties and they can only be sold under the Driscoll’s label.

The distribution of production, and even sales, is one issue — but consistency in branding, high quality consumer packaging… this seems to merit more attention.

Though breeding is recognized as important, the bigger question may be breeding for what? Because growers have to select the plants or seeds, there is an incentive to focus on things growers about: yields, water usage, shelf life, harvesting, labor needs, etc.

More than 35 years ago, Abbott & Cobb came to us and asked if we would work with them to reach produce retailers. Why? They had a super sweet corn, which was absolutely delicious, but the seed company was having problems with grower pickup because the seeds were more expensive and yielded less than some competitors. Abbott & Cobb said their goal was to get retailers to know how great their corn tasted so retailers would specify the super sweet variety.

Maybe the implication is that breeders can’t do it on their own. They need retail support for more innovative and flavorful varieties. Then growers, if persuaded that retailers will buy it, might accept breeding that biases toward consumer-loved traits.

Maybe, just maybe, produce that is bred, grown, marketed and properly retailed — because consumers will love it — might move the needle on consumption.