NAPLES, Fla.—The Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee has partnered with the state-run Fresh From Florida program.

What form the arrangement ultimately will take is still being discussed, says Reggie Brown, committee manager.

“Fresh From Florida obviously is the brand for fresh Florida-grown produce,” he says. “Based on that presence in the market, surveys have shown consumer preference for both U.S.-grown and Florida product. Our biggest challenge is getting the shelf space to begin with.”

Brown points to Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets Inc. as a strong supporter of the Florida-grown program and for its use of shelf stickers and point-of-sale materials to identify locally grown product.

His comments came after his state of the industry presentation at the Florida Tomato Institute, Sept. 3, in Naples.

Fresh From Florida, managed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is designed to identify and promote all of the state's 300 different commodities, says Chris Green, assistant director of FDACS' Division of Marketing and Development in Tallahassee.

Producers, foodservice providers and retailers pay a nominal annual fee that allows them to use Fresh From Florida logos on their containers and marketing materials.

In addition, the department has partnered in the past with individual commodity groups, such as the Florida Sweet Corn Exchange Inc., on special programs, he says.

“We helped them to research specific markets and to see what could be done to help promote their commodity in certain areas when it's in season,” Green says of the sweet corn group.

Florida tomato growers get 'fresh' with partnershipFresh From Florida also has a component that provides incentives to retailers along the East Coast and Canada who carry and/or promote Florida-grown produce, he says.

Promotions could include advertising Fresh from Florida products in weekly advertising circulars, in-store coupons and sampling.


Domestically grown vs. imports

U.S.- and Florida-grown tomatoes carry weight with consumers, based on a preference study conducted by Zhengfei Guan, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma.

This spring, Guan conducted the study in Tampa, Dallas and Baltimore with consumers who were the households' main shoppers, had bought tomatoes within the past few months and were 18 years or older.

Each sample group of about 200 participants were given baskets of tomatoes that were exactly the same except for country-of-origin stickers and asked which ones they were more inclined to purchase.

Scenario one involved tomatoes with stickers that said either “U.S. grown” or “Mexico grown.”

The second scenario involved tomatoes with stickers that said either “Florida grown” or Mexico grown.” And the third set involved tomatoes with U.S.-grown stickers and a point-of-purchase sign that stated “Florida grown” compared with tomatoes with Mexico-grown stickers.

Regardless of the message, roughly 58 percent of participants said they favored the U.S.- or Florida-grown product compared with about 28 percent who favored Mexican-grown tomatoes, Guan says.

But the preferences did vary among cities, with the largest preference for Mexican tomatoes in Dallas, with nearly 33 percent of participants favoring that country of origin. About 25 percent of both Baltimore and Tampa shoppers favored Mexican tomatoes. In Baltimore, nearly 60 percent of participants preferred U.S.- or Florida-grown tomatoes, followed by both Dallas and Tampa participants with about 56 percent each.

“If consumers are aware of country-of-origin information, they're more likely to purchase Florida or U.S. tomatoes,” Guan says. “Overall consumers are willing to pay a premium for Florida tomatoes over Mexican tomatoes under all country-of-origin scenarios.”

That having been said, he says that only 35 percent of participants from Baltimore said they noticed the country-of-origin labels on the tomatoes, compared to nearly 43 percent in Dallas and 54 percent in Tampa.

“We also found that Florida consumers are more aware about the origin of tomatoes,” he says.

In general, though, about one-third of participants say they typically don't look at labels on fresh produce.

For those who do, they say they focus on organic information, followed by brand, country of origin and nutritional information, Guan says.