I read Jim Prevor’s analysis of the national generic promotion board debate in his recent edition of the Pundit.  It was a fair treatment of the issue, though it was overlong and leaning a little too much toward (surprise!) self congratulatory back-patting.

Clearly, the debate over the national generic promotion board is over for the foreseeable future. Although I was a proponent of the board and the modest $30 million investment in generic promotion, I respect the process and the arguments against the board. Talking with Rick Antle the other day, I commented that the concept “was not meant to be” this time.

“I don’t think it was meant to be this time and I don’t think it (will be) meant to be next time,” he said. “You’ve got too many diverse groups all fighting for the same stomach share with significantly different margins,” Rick said.

“How can the avocado guys advertise and have as many promotions as they do if they didn’t have a bigger margin than the lettuce business, where there is no promotions?” Rick commented.

Rick and other industry leaders are looking at what the government could provide to the industry’s efforts.

“You look at how many billions of dollars are in the farm bill, subsidizing and propping up our whole corn diet and you got to wonder, what good is that? Look at obesity and everything else.”

Antle said the government has the opportunity to promote health and wellness – pharmaceuticals spelled with an “f” – and they turn a blind eye to the industry.

“Threaten to take away a dollar from the corn and milk subsidies and you’ve got a riot,” he said.  Antle said he appreciates the fruit and vegetable gains in the WIC program and other feeding programs, but said it doesn’t nearly equal the support given to program crops.

Antle raised the issue of the Canadian fruit and vegetable promotion effort in relation to the effectiveness of the Produce for Better Health Foundation campaign. “What is it that’s going on in Canada?” he asked. How are they able to leverage what little dollars they collect?”

“It seems like the amount of support for the Canadian effort – there is a lot to be learned, I think.”

Putting aside the issue of Canadian generic promotion (and the U.S.  industry’s long running envy of Canada’s inexplicable higher reported produce consumption levels), what is to be learned from the process?

One thing we learned is that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Having the integrity of PBH challenged because of their efforts to start a conversation about the national promotion board was a low blow. And is it any wonder that industry leaders hesitated to voice their support for the concept when we remember words by the Pundit about Mike O’Brien?

"We should start out by saying that Mike O’Brien is an honest and good man who has long toiled to advance the industry."

 When you read that sentence, you know what is coming next, and it isn’t pretty.

Here are more questions that confront the industry:

How much will the PBH voluntary campaign be hurt? Given the fact that industry support has been uneven already, this is difficult to say.

The Perishable Pundit said this on June 4:

"Look, charity is charity and many in the industry support PBH when
they have funds available to do so. We suspect that a completely
different mindset — one rigorously focused on maximizing return on
investment — will be applied to a mandatory program, which means they
have to pay whether they have spare cash or not."

Thinking of the role of PBH as a “charity” may represent the core of the problem that industry-wide generic promotion efforts face. PBH If voluntary donations to PBH are considered more charity than an investment in building demand, then industry belief in the value of generic promotion and the work of PBH is weak indeed.

Another question; does the fresh produce industry believe in generic promotion?

Some among us most assuredly do. The Hass Avocado Board alone took in nearly $28 million in assessments in the 14-month period ending Dec. 31 of last year, using those funds largely to fuel avocado demand in the U.S. Whether the industry believes in collective generic promotion is the real question, and that answer appears to be “not much.” The net result is that fresh produce marketers are fighting among themselves for “share of stomach” rather than building overall demand. And that’s disheartening.

Did PMA, United and other trade groups miss a “rising tide lifts all boats” opportunity to elevate the industry’s profile by failing to lend vocal support to the concept?
 I think both United and PMA boards could have advocated on behalf of the promotion board and it would have made a difference.
 In fact, just two individuals acting in concert arguably could have created a successful outcome for the promotion board.
In Bryan Silbermann and Tom Stenzel we have the twin pillars of industry expertise, knowledge and strategic thinking. Stenzel led the way toward the industry’s unprecedented request for strong federal oversight of produce safety and Silbermann has been a key voice in convincing the industry of the value of the not inexpensive Produce Traceability Initiative. Tell me that a national promotion board was beyond their powers of persuasion and I’d beg to differ.

Well, all that is water under the bridge for now.

Perhaps the focus on building consumption will return with force to the industry’s forefront in a few years, when the issues of food safety and traceability have been dealt with decisively.

Perhaps then the industry will be more “charitable” toward the concept of mandatory generic promotion.