Moderating the Oct. 3 Fresh Summit town hall meeting on the proposed national generic promotion plan left me with the impression that the quietly simmering issue still isn’t settled just yet.

Generic promotion plan shouldn't be shelved just yet

Tom Karst
National Editor

There are critics and opponents of the plan, to be sure.

Panelist Rick Antle, chief executive officer and president of Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, Calif., correctly stated the plan hasn’t come close to majority support so far.

Is it time to pull the plug on the idea? I don’t think so.

I asked Paul Klutes, director of brand sales for C.H. Robinson Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn., about what “failure” would look like in respect to the discussion of the promotion board.

“I think that failure would be failure to put forward the best thinking and failure to have an informed audience that could vote on it,” he said.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation reported in June that the largest pool of people who were sent an electronic survey (about 45%) were unaware of the promotion board concept before the survey. (About 10% of the more than 3,000 people who received the survey responded.)

“Clearly, there is a lot more education and dialogue that needs to take place,” Klutes said, suggesting the plan could be altered as discussions proceed.

Just how the dialogue will continue — and who will sponsor the discussion — hasn’t yet been made clear by the Produce for Better Health executive committee.

One of the predictable yet somewhat disconcerting consequences of the debate over the concept of a national promotion board for fruits and vegetables has been soul-searching about the effectiveness of the foundation’s efforts since its inception in 1991.

In the process of evaluating whether a $30 million promotion board concept should receive industry approval, there have been open questions about whether all the toil and effort of PBH has accomplished anything.

After all, some point to reports such as the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that states that less than 10% of U.S. high school students are eating the combined recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables.

According to the USDA, fruit and vegetable consumption (both fresh and processed) hasn’t increased significantly since PBH began its mission.

Yet is precisely news like this that should cause the industry to rally for better-funded promotion efforts. It is well documented that the tens of millions spent by other commodity boards dwarfs the modest voluntary industry donations that PBH has received.

In my thinking, the fruit and vegetable industry is at a competitive disadvantage compared with other foods such as beef, pork and dairy, whose producers fund generic promotion efforts with mandatory assessments. Doesn’t it make sense that everybody should pay their “fair share” to fund generic fruit and vegetable promotions rather than sap the resources of PBH staff to constantly raise funds?

Klutes is correct. The idea of a promotion board concept does need more time to permeate the industry consciousness before final judgment is passed.

But whatever the outcome of the debate about mandatory assessments, the produce industry must continue to fly its banner of faith with conviction.

The creed of belief shouldn’t be discarded just because of difficulty and unmet expectations. As I used to kiddingly remind my kids when they complained to me about something: Come now, did George Washington call off crossing the ice-swollen Delaware River in 1776 just because conditions were miserable?

We believe in fruits and vegetables, the power of fresh produce and the saving power of the Good News if consumers will only believe and eat 5 (to 9) a day. We are fruits and vegetables, the Rx for what ails the modern world.

I think some in the industry believe “the message” is so powerful that it doesn’t need any help. Their thinking goes something like this: Everyone knows fruits and vegetables are good for you, so why bother? The government will do the heavy lifting for us.

It might be preferable if the USDA would give the industry $30 million a year for generic promotion, but that won’t happen. As Klutes suggests, the industry is expected to make its own down payment to own the message.

The industry can’t lose faith in its unifying message and the banner that it marches under. If that banner is trampled on and discarded, what else will be left that unites the industry?

E-mail and follow him on Twitter @tckarst.

What's your take on efforts toward a generic promotion board? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.