Time for Unified Action

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Originally printed in the June 2020 issue of Produce Business.

We are all facing monumental challenges during this pandemic, but life goes on in retail boardrooms. As the world begins to loosen restrictions and reopen commerce, upper management seems to be focusing on ways to gain advantage from the situation. There certainly is plenty discussion in the boardrooms of retail grocery chains as to what they should do to announce what they are doing to make it “safe” to shop in their stores. While it is a good thing to inform the customers of these actions, there is a danger in this type of advertising that management doesn’t always recognize. So, even in times of crisis, there are occasions when upper management “just doesn’t get it!”

The danger in these types of claims is that it might be inferred that the rest of an industry is not doing as much as the advertising company is to keep the consumer safe, thus casting doubt on the entire industry. We have seen a similar type of situation in the produce industry back in the 90s when the question of chemical and pesticide residues was being discussed by media, environmentalists and other self-proclaimed “experts.” At that time, some companies chose to promote their produce by saying they didn’t do what others were doing — i.e., spraying chemicals on product irresponsibly and selling them to the public.

During this period, the produce industry realized that these types of comparisons were not advancing the perception of “fresh” that it deserved and was instead casting aspersions on others and ultimately the entire produce industry. Eventually, pressure from everyone throughout the industry convinced those engaged in this type of activity to cease and desist. The industry chose to promote its products with a unified voice on what was being done to protect and ensure the safety of fresh produce and guarantee that safety to the public. With this recent surge of advertising, it looks as if were headed down that same destructive path.

We are in a unique position to head off any of this destructive “I’m safer than you are” advertising by providing the consumer with a unified position of the concern for safety throughout the entire distribution chain.

As one of the industries that was determined to be essential, produce has been in a unique position to combat this crisis. The benefits of consuming fresh produce are undeniable. We are in a unique position to head off any of this destructive “I’m safer than you are” advertising by providing the consumer with a unified position of the concern for safety throughout the entire distribution chain. By providing this united front to the consumer, we can promote the benefits and value of fresh produce to the world, while showing them the real concern that the entire industry has for delivering safe, wholesome product for their use.

To accomplish this task, it will take a tremendous effort by all segments of the supply chain to prepare programs and guidance to all segments of the industry, as well as the consumer, as to the steps we are taking to provide for safe delivery and safety of the employees working with in the industry. The start of this blueprint is available by using all the recommendations from the CDC and the major health organizations as to the science and actions necessary to be successful in challenging this crisis. All we need to do is to get all the various, but interconnected segments of the industry to agree and formulate a uniform policy throughout the supply chain.

It would seem the solution to the formulation of a unified produce policy would be a natural undertaking for the key organizations that represent the produce industry. Organizations such as PMA, United, Western Growers, and all the commodity boards and grower organizations should be leading this charge and integrating key input from every produce segment and logistics concerns, including warehousing and transportation, to formulate a complete protocol that covers the total produce industry “from field to fork”.

By initiating such a policy, it can be approved and edited by all participants and then sent to the CDC and other government health agencies for approval. Once it received the approval, it can be broadcast to consumers across the country as an informative PSA from an entire industry. This type of PSA is a type of broad message from a key industry that it would be sure to be picked up and broadcast cross the country.

I’m sure this type of action would be welcomed and supported by other parts of the government including the USDA and FDA as evidence of the efforts being taken to ensure the safety of the food supply and all the people who are a part of the agricultural fresh Produce supply chain.

This type of unilateral cooperation and action by every part of the industry would allow the produce industry to get out “in front of the curve” by giving consumers the confidence to continue purchasing fresh produce knowing that they are buying food for their family from a safe and sustainable food chain. With the fast-changing nature of this pandemic and its economic impact, as well as the challenges of reopening economic activity, the time for this sort of action is now.

Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to editor@producebusiness.com.