Before the PMA show, I had the chance on Oct. 8 to chat with Bryan Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
1:45 p.m. Tom Karst: I wanted to get your reaction to the dustup again with the Environmental Working Group. They put out a press release and a letter (objecting to) to the specialty crop block grant California awarded to the Alliance for Food and Farming. What was your initial take when you saw that?
1:46 p.m. Bryan Silbermann: I think EWG stands for Everything We Give you. Everything we give is fine and nothing that anybody else gives you is fine. I would characterize EWG’s communication as disingenuous and hypocritical and I say that because what they want is for consumers to have only the EWG information and they don’t in fact even submit their own so-called scientific information for peer review and publication. Whereas what the Alliance for Food and Farming has done is to have respected scientists develop a study that is publically available, presented first in a Webinar and also at Fresh Summit next week. I think it is disingenuous and hypocritical of EWG.
Having said that, let’s turn for a second to look at the alliance’s grant is from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. CDFA’s role is to support and promote the role of agriculture in California. It has given this grant through the same application process as every other grant. The CDFA has given this grant to the alliance to encourage consumption of produce, organic and conventional. EWG can turn around and say that this is anti-organic, but that is nonsense. It will get more information out to consumers, not less.
Last time I looked, EWG is the organization that is saying ‘Our information is accurate and we don’t have to have other people peer review our information.’ Really? What is this, George Orwell all over again? The other thing is that I’m aware of some information that will be in my state of the industry presentation talking about the data we have from the latest consumer surveys shows that there is rising concern about pesticides in produce. That rising concern, I think, is in part because of this irresponsible that EWG has mounted over the years that some people take as gospel and repeat as gospel. I think it is absolutely time for public and private entities to stand up and say to organizations like EWG that ‘You are being irresponsible, you are being hypocritical and we need to set the record straight’ . I think that is absolutely the role of organizations like the alliance and organizations like PMA.
I think it is absolutely the role of the Department of Food and Agriculture to be providing consumers with balance and scientifically reviewed information.
1:50 p.m. Karst: Is there a double- edged sword in trying to point out the hypocrisy, so to speak, in what EWG is saying? Is there a danger in that it seems the media isn’t perhaps interested in the campaign as the conflict?
1:51: p.m. Silbermann: I think if we bury our heads in the sand as an industry and as public agencies and we say we are not going to set the record straight because we fear it is going to attract attention and controversy, and then we never ever get a chance to set the record straight. That’s going to be one of the themes I am going to talk about in my state of the industry remarks. I feel very strongly about it and I will have more to say about it because that’s typically the way that production agriculture has chosen not to respond to this kind of attack.
It takes me back to 1985, PMA Fresh Summit in San Francisco and I remember Bruce Obbink, was outgoing PMA chairman at the time. Bruce was president of the California Table Grape Commission and stood up and said the industry was going to have to wake up to the concern about pesticides that is growing around the country. That was 1985 and nothing was being said about it. It wasn’t so much that Bruce was legitimizing the issue of pesticide residues, what he is saying was, ‘We as production agriculture want to be on the farm, want to do our own thing, we don’t’ really want to engage in consumer debate. We want to be left alone basically. That’s the nature of farmers and farming. I would say to you that the Alliance for Food and Farming and the work that organizations like Western Growers and ourselves are doing with the alliance is exactly the antidote that is required to that traditional approach, which is hunker down, don’t get involved, don’t try to set the record straight. I think the time for doing that is long gone.
1:55 p.m. Karst: We’ll look forward to hearing more about what you will say in your State of the Industry address. What are you most excited about for the upcoming PMA?
1:57 p.m. Silbermann: It is always a great opportunity to get together with 15,000 plus of your closest friends. For PMA, the show is sold out and we squeezed about a dozen additional booths on to the floor because of the demand so we are busting at the seams. Preregistration numbers are really great and buyer numbers are way up in all categories - retail, foodservice operators, distributors, wholesalers, you name it. So numbers are great, booths are great, and PMA’s international attendance is looking really strong. We have a partnership with the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and we have buyer delegations from more than two dozen countries, everything from Argentina, Brazil, Switzerland, Venezuela and Viet Nam. These are official delegations and we have people from a whole bunch of other countries.
The other thing I wanted to touch on in the State of the Industry is that although we are still in a turnaround phase in the economy, I see some signs of tremendous brilliance coming down the pike in the marketing efforts of some of the organizations in industry and I’m going to be highlighting those. I think there are some segments of our industry and some organizations that have really started to get it and are doing much more to sell their product and less to tell people why they should be eating their products. We have done a helluva lot of telling in our industry for a long time – you ought to do this – rather than selling why you should do this, why it is easy and fun to do. I just think we have seen some great examples in the last year or so, great marketing campaigns, and I think Fresh Summit provides a wonderful opportunity for folk to take a look at those and learn from those market leaders.
1:59 p.m Karst: Will the trade gain a better understanding of where they stand with PTI?
1:59 p.m. Silbermann: I think the leadership of the PTI is really important. I think the advances that are going to come out of the meeting to do with the voice pick agreement are really important. We said back in April, when we issued a statement from the associations involved, that we were recommitted and reorganized and I really thing that is what you are going to see. There will be greater awareness, more understanding of PTI. I think some of the people who have made the most noise outside of PTI because they haven’t been involved I think getting those folks engaged and understanding the benefits should be a big help.