AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — Trying to prevent their commodity from being tied to an overseas outbreak, the National Watermelon Promotion Board focused on crisis training at the commodity’s yearly convention.

Watermelon board highlights crisis planning, increases marketingDuring a Feb. 24 general session at the National Watermelon Association conference, Stephanie Simek, the promotion board’s director of public relations and social media, discussed the group’s upcoming marketing efforts.

She also talked about a salmonella outbreak in the United Kingdom linked to Brazilian watermelons threatened the U.S. industry. Seventeen consumers became sick and a death might be related to the outbreak. The last victim was reported in early February,

Simek said industry took proactive steps to inform consumers the outbreak didn’t involve U.S. product and said growers and marketers acted to keep the food safety crisis from landing on U.S. shores.

“We had a near-crisis with it,” Simek said. “It didn’t hurt us but we had some feathers ruffled. We did have some retail accounts that have operations here and there contact some of our board member growers asking if they needed to be worried about it.”

Simek said U.S. marketers haven’t imported Brazil watermelon in two years.

Marketing, promotion

The board increased funding for its marketing and promotional activities 10% from $2.6 million to approx $2.9 million, said Gordon Hunt, director of marketing.

Simek said the board plans to promote watermelon through public relations efforts focusing on a mix of traditional and digital media. She said it issues news releases, works with women’s magazines and is expanding its conference participation to groups including dieticians and school nutritionists, the school foodservice decision makers.

This year’s media kit theme, “Travel the world with the taste of watermelon,” highlights the flexibility of watermelon and how it lends itself to different world flavors.

“As the economy is such, everyone’s looking to see what they can still afford,” Simek said. “Do I have to be rich to eat healthy and fresh? If not, fresh fruits and watermelon are among the best value in the produce aisle.”

The group plans to promote watermelons with a retail display contest during July’s National Watermelon Month and work with food bloggers and consumers in a carving contest, Simek said.