As we typically do this time of year, we wanted to devote a full Pundit to some of the intriguing speakers who will be at The New York Produce Show and Conference and its co-located events beginning next week.
The program starts out on Tuesday, December 10, with the Foundational Excellence Program, which we do jointly with Cornell University.
Here is an article we used to explain the program.
You can see the Foundational Excellence website here.
On Wednesday, December 11th, the Global Trade Symposium will commence. You can see a brief video of reactions to the content here:
You can then see the Global Trade Symposium website here.
Wednesday night is the Opening Cocktail Reception, a great way to break the ice, renew old friendships while making new ones:
Thursday we kick off the main trade show day at 7:00 AM at the New York Hilton with the Perishable Pundit’s Thought Leader Breakfast. We will be unveiling this year’s panel shortly, but here are the panelists from previous years:
After breakfast, we zoom over to the Javits Center (free shuttle service provided from the Hilton) for Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at 10:00 AM!
The trade show includes the “Connect with Fresh” Media Program, the University Student Mentorship Program, Educational Micro-sessions, chef demos and much more.
Also, this day we have a fantastic Spouse Program, which you can learn about here.
The website for the show is here.
That night after the trade show is free to enjoy New York!
On Friday, December 13th, there are two big options.
We have the fantastic Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, which you can learn about here.
Or you have choice of industry tours
Manhatan Retail Tour
Brooklyn Retail Tour
Hunts Point Terminal Market
New Jersey Retail Tour
Philadelphia Produce Market Tour
This year’s New York Produce Show and Conference is going to be a fantastic event. Our social media hashtag is #Celebrating Fresh and the whole event is exactly about that! So come and learn, network, do some business and position yourself for success in 2020!
You can register right here!
See you in New York
We have been fortunate to have Cornell’s Brad Rickard participate in every New York Produce Show and Conference since the beginning. His talks at our events in the US and Europe have included subjects such as these:
Cornell and Washington State University Team Up On New Research Interactive Presentation At New York Produce Show Gives Industry Buyers A Chance To Weigh In On What They Prefer
Cornell Professor Brad Rickard Returns To London To Unveil New Study: QUANTITY, VALUE AND DIVERSITY — The 10-Year Evolution Of Consumer Purchase Preferences For Packaged Produce
Is Zero Waste The Optimal Standard?
Cornell’s Brad Rickard To Present New Research At The London Produce Show And Conference
What’s in A Word? Sell By, Use By, Best By And Fresh By.. Can A Word Alter Food Waste Significantly? Cornell’s Brad Rickard Speaks Out
Cornell’s Brad Rickard Returns To The New York Produce Show And Conference: Will 'GMO Free' Be The New Organic?
What’s In A Name? Professor Brad Rickard Of Cornell Produces New Research That Indicates Shakespeare May Have Been In Error… On Apples At Least
Cornell’s Brad Rickard To Unveil Generic Produce Promotion Research Done By Cornell And Arizona State University At New York Produce Show And Conference
In recent years, in addition to presenting important research results on the main show day, Professor Rickard has been an important part of the Foundational Excellence program that we present jointly with Cornell University. His role is to get attendees thinking about key issues in the produce industry and he does it by giving riveting, rapid fire summaries of key research he has been conducting related to the industry.
So we were very excited when we learned what he planned for the Foundational Excellence program this year. We asked Pundit investigator and special projects editor Mira Slott to get us a sneak preview.
Ruth and William Morgan
in Applied Economics and Management
Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Ithaca, New York
Q: Since the pioneering Foundational Excellence program launched, your unique, rapid-fire presentation condenses your extensive research studies into an invaluable capsule for attendees. It complements talks by your Cornell colleagues, spurring dynamic, interactive discussion on your findings. You point out the cyclical value. How this often leads to follow up questions and further research long after the NYPS concludes, providing more material for next year’s show! [Editor’s note: you can view the 2019 agenda and a video about last year’s program here]
You’ll be doing a doubleheader this year, also sharing the stage for an Educational Micro-Session on the show floor with Aaron Adalja [Assistant Professor of Food and Beverage Management at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business].
Let’s first discuss some highlights of your Foundational Excellence talk, and then we can do a separate piece in which we bring in Aaron Adalja for a sneak preview of your joint presentation.
A: That’s a good plan. This Foundational Excellence program is a great opportunity for people relatively new to the industry, whether younger people recently out of school or senior people, experienced in areas such as marketing, food safety or management, but relatively new to the produce industry to gain an overview of key issues, and give them a chance to network with folks they may not have met before, but are working in the same industry, and in other parts of the U.S. or around the world. That’s always a big plus.
Then there’s this opportunity to listen to this group of professors from Cornell talk about these various topics. Another nice benefit is it’s a very informal program. We try to encourage participants to stop the presenters and ask questions. Just that process of exchanging information. It’s kind of like being back in school, but you really don’t have to go back to school; you just get to go for a day. We try to tailor the program so that it will have topics of interest for people in the early stages of their career or in some cases, executives who have switched careers and are new to produce. In some cases, people have been in the industry, and they just want to come back and reflect.
Q: Participants say they are amazed at the amount of vital information crammed into this one-day event. It’s a lot to absorb. Can you address that aspect?
A: It’s definitely a very intensive day. There’s a lot of information. I’m grateful to be presenting earlier in the day rather than later in day! But the people at Cornell and Jim (Prevor) spent time organizing the day to create flow from one session to the next, and then leave this time at the end of the day for a Q&A session and suggestions for further professional development, which is moderated by Jim with all the Cornell professors — because sometimes it takes a few hours for some of these ideas to sink in and develop your questions. It allows people to ask questions that cut across these different presentations and brainstorm together.
In some cases, it gives you just little nuggets of information to start thinking about some of these topics. There are always people who follow up with one or more of us after the program is over to learn more about a specific topic. I think that general breadth is a good thing. It’s a selling feature. If you’re not interested in a particular topic, then in 30 or 40 minutes there will be a new topic.
Q: It’s admirable that there is an opportunity for people to follow up with you and that you’re available and welcoming to them...
A: In some cases, maybe they’ll get to participate in one of these Executive Programs that Cornell does a few years down the road, and it will be a similar cast of characters who do the teaching, but those programs are often a week long, so they have more time to go in-depth with many of these topics.
TEACHING THE TEACHERS
Q: During our video interview at last year’s Foundational Excellence program, you shared how you benefit from the back-and-forth information exchange with attendees as well, and it gets you inspired for new projects...
A: A lot of times I do. I get ideas from people. I tell them what I’m working on and they tell me related ideas they’ve been thinking about, and often it’s something that requires research...
Most of the things I talk about at the Foundational program are things that industry folks brought to my attention, and then I did some research, and this is a way of sharing and communicating my results back to people in the industry. It’s circular in that way, which is nice.
Q: Let’s give attendees a preview of the issues you’ll be covering for a head start on the Q&A part!
A: My presentation is different than others in the program, because I’m sharing the results of different research projects that I’ve been doing related to the produce industry, whereas my colleagues’ talks are more overview summaries with pertinent details of issues facing the produce industry. I think it’s a nice balance.
I picked three controversial topics of interest to people who work in the produce industry, where I have done extensive research:
First, examining advertising efforts for fruits and vegetables, what works and what doesn’t; second, issues related to new licensing and patented fruit varieties — how consumers think about that and what it means for the supply chain; and third, consumer response to genetically engineered technologies for fruits and vegetables.
How do we get inside consumers’ heads and understand effects of various labels on fruits and vegetables, looking at local, organic, sustainable, Fair Trade, and GM on purchase decisions? It’s more of a session on my research results, but hopefully, it provokes some thoughts and challenging questions from the audience.
Q: Attendees always appreciate your engaging and contemplative responses...
A: This presentation is essentially broken up into three parts. For the advertising section, I spend some time getting the audience to think about the best way to advertise and promote fruits and vegetables… who should pay for the promotion, what’s the objective, etc. I contrast collective promotion efforts in various parts of the world (Canada, UK, Australia and the US) as compared to advertising an individual fruit and vegetable or a small bundle of say stone fruit... how consumers respond to those kinds of messages.
Q: Do you analyze the interactive impacts of produce department sales and the bottom line? For instance, if the objective is to increase produce consumption, would a stone fruit promotion just redistribute sales of the department from one type of fruit to another... or would it create excitement to drive consumers to produce and boost traffic and purchases overall?
Over the years, industry organizations have tried numerous collective, generic campaigns. Why has produce consumption in the US generally remained stagnant over the years, despite all these different approaches?
A: We have pretty strong evidence that broad collective efforts tend to be the ones that boost demand the most, but then we talk about the complications — that it doesn’t boost all fruits and vegetables necessarily the same, some fair better than others. Then there’s this question of how do you pay for it?
In the US, these generic programs can operate on a modest budget funded by license fees for promotional materials and by voluntary contributions from producers, food and farm associations, food distributors, and agricultural companies...
How do you organize an effort promoting baskets of produce, which could encompass 300 to 400 different product choices? There are so many logistical details, and that’s probably why we don’t have one of these programs in any significant way in the US.
Still, we do have some evidence from our research that it’s the best way to increase demand for fruits and vegetables in general.
Q: Did you have a chance to see the PRODUCE BUSINESS October issue with the cover story on the Plant-Forward Movement. The Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) recently launched the Have A Plant campaign, aimed at Millennials and Gen Z consumers, in a move to rebrand the produce industry’s identity.
Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and CEO, argues that Have a Plant moves away from finger-wagging and ‘should’ language of earlier campaigns that have been ineffective in encouraging produce consumption.
A: That’s right. I’ve got your cover story here on my desk, and wow, it’s substantial. I’m still absorbing all the information. We have not seen a significant increase, or really any increase in consumption, especially with certain demographics and age categories. So, we’re looking for new ways to promote fruits and vegetables to try to increase demand.
There are other countries in the world that have done this, and have seen some success, places like Australia, Canada and France, where they have these broad message campaigns. It’s not the silver bullet, but there’s been some progress in certain cases.
Q: Freshfel Europe is pursuing an EU-wide Follow Me To Be Healthy campaign targeted at young Europeans [See Produce Business European Market columns here and here on the Freshfel campaign.]
A: There’s also the question of whether the promotion should be more about the health benefits, or the taste and the quality of the produce, and these are a lot of the more subtle issues that need to be explored. Part of the purpose of my presentation is to open discussion with the audience and find out what kinds of questions and ideas they have.
The second part of my presentation will then shift gears to the rise of patented or club varieties being introduced in the US, New Zealand, and Europe, developed by private breeders typically, and sometimes a private/public arrangement, often with selective, high quality fruits, and in some cases vegetables. There are many questions on how they should be introduced to supermarkets and consumers, and what price they should be posted at. And as you work up the supply chain, how do these new varieties get distributed to growers and handlers. Should it be a very exclusive arrangement or more open?
Industry players are struggling with this, and what kind of impacts these varieties could have on demand for fruits and vegetables more generally, especially as more are coming out every year around the world. Some are very exciting. Some consumer demographics are very interested in these new cultivars.
We’ll explore some of these issues around consumers, how some of these varieties should be introduced to the consumer, at what price, what kind of promotional strategy. Then there are the supply chain questions, which I’ve been working on more recently.
I’ll have new research to discuss here on how these varieties should be distributed through the supply chain to generate the most interest.
Q: What did you discover?
A: On the consumer side, we’ve done some fun experiments… we find a new variety that has great taste, great color and flavor can do well in the market place, but there are some simple ways it is introduced to consumers that can make a big impact. Even the name you use to describe the new cultivar, for example, can have a pretty big impact on consumer demand for the product. Even when people think the name is not so important, it turns out that it is.
Q: Your Foundational Excellence presentation is a snapshot of what NYPS attendees experience each year with your more in-depth educational sessions on the main trade show day. You were surprising attendees early on with your research on the powerful impact of a varietal name on consumer demand...
What’s In A Name? Professor Brad Rickard Of Cornell Produces New Research That Indicates Shakespeare May Have Been In Error… On Apples At Least
Q: These topic summaries at Foundational Excellence help the group think about these issues for further exploration...
There’s a lot of controversy about who gets access to these varieties, and there are some substantial economic questions surrounding that too. We have some evidence to suggest the way these new varieties are licensed to growers and handlers can have a pretty big economic impact on new releases.
A: There is some evidence — and industry support as well — to have licenses that are less exclusive, inviting more growers to grow the varieties, which seems to be the preference of the grower community. However, when you think about the overall cost and the overall economic impact of the variety itself, other evidence suggests a more exclusive strategy might be preferable.
So, you can imagine there is tension between the groups. People spend a lot of time building contracts and trying to establish these relationships. I will be able to share some results and get the audience to understand the tension and balancing act.
Q: How does this play from a retailer’s perspective, for those retail executives in the audience? Is there a goal to get as many of these new varieties into the supermarket, or to develop exclusive arrangements? Does inundation of varietal options create complications, and is there a risk of losing quality control when a variety becomes more widespread?
A: I think it’s the same story whether you’re a grower, a handler or retailer. This question about exclusivity creates the same type of tension. When things become more exclusive, it’s good for those that have these exclusive rights. On the other hand, it might not have the financial benefit to the variety given more general access. It’s a trade-off.
Q: On the consumer side, does this mean more people will have access to a new variety at a cheaper price?
A: Yes, but at some point, as these things become less exclusive and these varieties become more readily availability, then quality problems occur. It’s finding the right amount of balance and exclusivity.
Q: And there’s still one more area of research you’re looking to cover?
A: Yes, and my presentation is only an hour long!
My last research piece will build upon introductory and summary thoughts by other program speakers, about how we’re inundated with all these labels and messaging on food products. I have done some research specifically looking at consumer response to GMO and non-GMO labels on produce compared to other categories.
Q: Your work in this area has been quite extensive over the years.
Cornell’s Brad Rickard Returns To The New York Produce Show And Conference:
Will 'GMO Free' Be The New Organic?
Your colleague Miguel Gómez will be doing an educational micro-session on his new, just-published research: Signaling Impacts of Mandatory GMO Labeling on Fruit and Vegetable Demand. In addition, Ben Campbell [Assistant Professor, Agricultural & Applied Economics, University of Georgia Extension] will be taking a different research angle during his micro-session, also sparked by the new federal labeling laws taking effect January 2020.
Both Miguel and Ben referenced your fascinating research in preview Q&A’s for their talks. [Editor’s note: you can read Miguel’s preview Q&A here, and Ben’s preview Q&A here.
A: I’ll be sure to mention this to people at the Foundational Excellence Program so that they can attend those presentations. There’s evidence that the words you choose to describe these new technologies, the ways you educate consumers matters in how they accept them, the number of positive and negative and neutral words you use. We’re doing a related study with grape varieties, some of which might be using these different technologies. There are many interesting questions within that space.
Q: You’ll be teaming up with Aaron Adalja to present new research on another eye-opening topic during the main trade show day at the Jacob Javits Center. Attendees will be excited to learn what you have in store after last year’s intriguing session. [Editor’s note: Aaron joins Brad in his office for a sneak preview Q&A, which will be published in an upcoming Perishable Pundit]
It is interesting to think about the interactions between the discussion topics Professor Rickard will raise via his choice of research to present.
1. Generic advertising
2. The growth of Club varieties or proprietary produce
3. Consumer acceptance of GMO and GMO-free labeling and products.
Of course, if a company is spending millions to differentiate itself with a Club variety or via labeling about its status related to GMOs or other issues — this will probably make the company hesitant to support generic advertising that implies that “apples” or “grapes” or “produce” is some undifferentiated mass that can and should be promoted together.
We know, for example, that organic producers have specifically petitioned to either be exempt from required assessments or that the funds go into a separate pool to promote just organic produce.
Years ago, when there was talk of a California Navel Orange Board, Sunkist, which at the time was the only shipper that did consumer advertising, was willing to go along — provided there was a credit on the assessment for those who spent money on their own consumer advertising.
There has been a lot of research done on generic advertising in produce, but most of it was done before anything like Cotton Candy grapes were commercialized. Does the win for this proprietary product come from spending money to promote its unique attributes or from pooling together with a broader industry promotion? Maybe that will be Professor Rickard’s next research project!
If you or a team member would like to be part of the Foundational Excellence program presented jointly by PRODUCE BUSINESS and Cornell University, you can register right here.
If you need help getting hotel rooms, let us know here.
And, of course, you can register for the overall NY Produce Show and Conference at this link.
Few trends are more important to the future of the produce industry than the growth of proprietary produce. At the center of this is breeding, and at the center of breeding in the world of apples is Cornell’s Susan Brown. We were excited that she was willing to be a part of this year’s Global Trade Symposium, co-located with the New York Produce Show and Conference, and asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to talk with Professor Brown and see what her thoughts are on breeding, marketing and the changes rolling through the produce industry:
Herman M. Cohn Professor of
Agriculture and Life Science
School of Integrative Plant Science
Ithaca, New York
Q: I had a thoughtful conversation with Jim Prevor about his enthusiasm and vision for you sharing your invaluable insights and expertise at The New York Produce Show. Since your topic has a global component and the issues are far-reaching in scope, The Global Trade Symposium will be an excellent forum for you to speak and interact with Jim in a Q&A-style discussion, as well as with a diverse international audience of produce executives. Let’s give attendees a preview of your impressive wheelhouse to help the industry reach new plateaus... To start, could you share some of your background and biographical story and how that has led to what you are doing today?
A: I have had a fascination with science since I was a young child, and my Mom had an amazing “green thumb,” so I was exposed to many different flowering plants in the house and garden at an early age. My father bred racing pigeons, so breeding was also introduced. I was hooked with my first Botany course at the University of Connecticut… I decided to pursue plants, and my first breeding course explained that in breeding you can produce plants that no one else had ever seen. I was set. I then went to Rutgers and was trained in fruit breeding and then to UC Davis for doctoral training in quantitative genetics.
Q: Jim has a recollection of first meeting you 10 to 15 years ago, when there was a change in the law allowing land grant universities to make money from varieties by licensing or selling them. Cornell was looking at how it might develop a licensing model, and he remembers your important, high-caliber role and expertise. Are you able to shed light on what was happening at that time and the evolution from there?
A: This was just after SweeTango, and NBT (Next Big Thing) offered club membership to some growers in New York, but not others, which caused concern, and also that many “managed varieties” were going to Washington, and New York had no access. We wanted to offer every New York grower the opportunity to join a club to promote two new varieties for Cornell, but we needed a new organization to manage this. Our growers mobilized to form New York apple growers, which is now Crunch Time Apple Growers.
We studied licenses across the world and reached out to Jim and other industry members for their advice and insight. Jim asked why I was restricting it to New York, and the rationale was to give my local industry, which provided much of the funding, a way to benefit from their investment but we also planned for future expansion. We are now licensing these varieties internationally, to those who appreciate the fine work Crunch Time has done in establishing a market, which they will benefit from.
Q: The Cornell program has an international licensing component... Could you explain more about the program’s expansion?
A: Let me give a little background… In the past, we didn’t patent varieties; then legislation occurred, and universities started to patent to recoup expenses. The first variety I think Cornell patented was in 1983 with Freedom, but some of the well-known varieties from my predecessors, such as Empire and Jonagold, became world favorites, and those were not patented and were, and are, freely accessible.
When I started with the program, we did some patented varieties, and then did some that were not patented because we weren’t sure demand would be enough to recoup the patent costs, which can be substantial. I don’t want to get into the weeds, but essentially, when we decided to manage SnapDragon and RubyFrost, we knew that we would have to patent but also trademark the names, because a trademark extends protection of that variety past its patent life.
So, we entered into an arrangement, as I explained, that unlike other programs, we allowed every grower in New York state big or small to join this partnership. We decided at that point to share equally the risks and rewards. So, there is a tree patent, a production royalty, and a stipulation that a certain portion of the money received by Crunch Time needs to go back to marketing.
This eludes to the program’s future, and to the question of how do you get a variety going, and how do you decide what to pursue? In the past, we could have an excellent variety, but growers would only be interested in planting a few trees. It was a bit of Catch-22 as the grocery stores weren't interested in it unless they had enough volumne. So now we’re talking 200-400 thousand boxes. With Crunch Time Apple Growers, it has allowed us to bring together a big enough group to provide for the production we would need to make it to marketing, to have enough marketing dollars to allow us to grab attention while it was growing. Crunch Time has also done a wonderful job with social media.
For international licenses, we are working with PVM (Proprietary Variety Management). Interestingly, it is the same group that is commercializing Cosmic Crisp for Washington as well as internationally. We do a specific series of licensing with a group affiliated with international nurseries.
I’m friends with the vast majority of apple breeders in the U.S. and North America, and we do have a great relationship internationally. We meet together as a group at different times. But I think because of intellectual property rights protections, we don’t share information like we used to. That’s understandable. We share data, like with ROsBreed, which was a big cooperative project. We share data on the sugars and acids, or certain genes in apples to make our data set bigger and more informative, so we collaborate to that extent, but less so with the sharing of materials because now you could use someone’s material and get an advantage from their program. We’re good collaborators, so it works out really well.
Q: Could you talk about the nature of breeding, and what this may mean, especially with a few issues: The first issue, GMO’s and whether breeding will move in that direction.
A: There is a lot of confusion about GMOS (where the controversy is typically regarding genetically modified organism with non-native genes) and traditional breeding, which is genetic modification, but it is analogous to humans having children. If you have children/offspring, then you have done genetic modification, shuffling of your and your partner’s genes.
I am an advocate of both approaches, but I also stress that transparency is important. We are learning more about trait improvement with their use, but it is not yet, what was often referred to as “precision breeding”.
Q: Related to that, how about new technologies like CRISPR?
A: CRISPR can do some things and not others, and varieties modified with this approach still need to be tested for a period of time to ensure that there are no “off target” effects. CRISPR allows us to target traits without foreign DNA. It may be more acceptable to consumers, but that remains to be seen. In the EU, this is still deemed transgenic.
Q: Many non-GMO technologies can cause mutations if they keep growing, also doing other things to seeds like using radiation and different chemicals. Is it clear consumers would understand these processes, and if so, would they find these better than GMO’s?
A: In tree fruits and many other crops, the use of radiation or chemical mutagenesis had a peak in the 1960s and 1970s, but these processes were largely abandoned because too many mutations were formed and plants were weakened or required too much time to evaluate for hidden mutations. So CRISPR may be easier to understand because it is being used widely and there are many efforts at public education.
Q: There are many items such as soybeans and processed corn that are genetically modified in the U.S. Does it make a difference for consumers what types of products are GMO, such as fresh produce versus processed foods? Does it matter to the consumer if the GM item has certain qualities/benefits, such as the Arctic apple that doesn’t brown, improves taste, reduces the item price, averts disease? Vitamin A golden rice, etc.?
A: The traits modified to date have mostly benefitted the grower, not the consumer. I do not believe any have reduced price. Taste is too complex to improve. Individual traits are easier, but which traits? With citrus and papaya, the choice is easy — transgenic/GMO or no options. Disease resistance is currently a target across many crops.
Q: An off shoot of the GMO/CRISPR discussion: In theory, you can do a lot with totally different varieties and breeding. For example, the papayas in Hawaii that used GMO techniques to make trees resistant to a virus that was killing them all.
Similarly, citrus greening in Florida has become a problem. Varieties now are being modified with a spinach gene that makes them resistant to the problem. There was sensitivity to what genes they could use for Public Relations purposes — who would care if it’s a spinach gene? How can breeding be used to save an industry like papayas and Florida oranges?
A: These two cases are where GMO technology stands out, with an important caveat that the GMO fruit be of the type that is of demand by consumers. I think consumers will accept a GMO orange, lemon or lime if the alternative is no citrus.
Q: The second Issue is the general direction of breeding. Could you talk about the evolution and future? Is it fair to say that breeding for many decades focused on horticulture advancements, such as higher yields or transporting more easily, with the farmer as the direct beneficiary — ‘buy our new variety because you’ll yield a higher amount, ship more easily, product will last longer.’ Then there was a refocus on consumer-centric characteristics, such as flavor and taste.
A: Taste and quality have always been targets, but productivity has been a priority. Current breeders are emphasizing quality and new tools from large projects such as RosBREED offered us new tools to understand and mark traits of interest.
A variety has to be profitable for a grower. You can have the best apple in the world, but if it’s not making the industry any money, then why bother? So, of course, it has to be productive, but literally there’s hundreds of things that are evaluated that most people wouldn’t even think about.
For example, if you have an apple in your office now, turn it over to look at the base. If the cavity was too open, it could allow diseases to get in, but no one would think about that. There are all sorts of little traits, but cumulatively there can’t be any fatal flaw, and there could be minor deficiencies, but as long as the consumer is getting good product, and the growers are not losing their shirts and are making some money, then that’s how we do it now.
We’re not a commodity like soy or corn. Instead of getting paid on acreage or dry weight, apples have a lot of different markets. That’s why quality becomes more important with specialty crops like apples.
Q: Are these new tools transformational?
A: When I started as an apple breeder, there were only 12-20 genes known. Apples actually have more genes than humans do. Those 12-20 genes still remain active, but now if I’m looking at acidity, where there are 17 chromosomes, but we might think we only need a marker for one.
RosBreed tells us other markers are important in understanding apple acidity. It took us from using our eyes to using a hand lens or microscope of getting to the fine details of what was controlling a trait. There’s still much more to be done. We’ve scratched the surface of how genes interact, and new genes. Sometimes, in the grocery store you’ll find a Gala apple with a really strong stripe of red because that gene has been enhanced. When I talk to non-scientists, I give the example of Indian corn, where kernels are different colors, related to the turning on and turning off of genes. Barbara McClintock, a scientist at Cornell, discovered this “jumping genes” phenomenon.
Q: Do you think a consumer might see such an apple as a problem?
A: Maybe… or many will think it’s neat. It happens in all types of crops, such as African violets. It’s all around us, we usually don’t think about it.
Q: Could you share your thoughts about items like Cotton Candy grapes that bring higher premiums in the market, even if you get lower yield. Doesn’t’ this type of product development require a different type of mindset and market?
A: Yes, a different mindset is needed. I believe that if such products resonate with the current younger generation, you are building consumers for life.
Q: How do you develop, market and promote variety for consumer taste but ensure it is still financially viable, resists disease, etc. How do you prioritize and balance the different variables?
A: That is the million-dollar question, and one that keeps us busy. Any fatal flaw will kill even the most promising of varieties. We realize that if a variety causes variability in any factor — taste, yield, disease — it can lead to a catastrophic loss to a producer. So, testing across years, locations and seasons is crucial, and no shortcut is possible.
Q: How do you accommodate different people’s tastes and cultural differences in flavor profiles and preferences in the U.S. and in different countries? You’ve had amazing success with two varieties you developed, SnapDragon and Ruby Frost. In an article, you said your breeding objective is to produce high-quality varieties and characteristic crispness. “People vary in [preferences for] tastes and flavors, but nobody wants a soft mushy apple.” SnapDragon is a high-quality variety with great consumer acceptance and demand. RubyFrost is a high-vitamin C apple with excellent resistance to flesh browning.
A: We studied all the literature on consumer preferences, and also our preferences. Crispness is key. Some flavors, such as anise, are polarizing with about 50% hating it and 50% loving it.
Q: Interesting. Any other examples? Are these preferences for New York consumers, U.S. consumers, segmented by demographics...?
A: That’s a really good question. I’ll give a simple example first. We know recently there’s been a new resurrection of new varieties that tend to be fairly sweet. They’re sweet, but they’re crisp, and consumers are liking them. Honey Crisp was an example where the texture was different. People embraced Honey Crisp because of the crisp juicy texture. Honey Crisp is sweet, but it also has an acid balance.
It’s interesting that if you survey people — and I kind of found this out the hard way — if you ask people do you like a sweet apple, one with more acid, or something in the middle, everyone says something in the middle. Everybody. Then I’d start to ask what’s your favorite apple. And they’d say Fuji. Well, if you like a Fuji, you don’t like an acid apple because it has very little acidity.
Some of the studies discovered that 70 percent of American consumers (I’m not sure of percentages globally) like a sweeter apple — think Golden Delicious, or Fuji. Then 30 percent like an apple that has more acidity, so your Empire, Granny Smith, your Jazz. Both of these consumer preferences should be met.
So, for us, SnapDragon resonates with a crowd that likes sweeter, crisp apples. RubyFrost is for those that want more acidity. Both of them are important but that sweet market is driving things, although that may change.
In terms of flavors, in the past, we’ve played it safe with breeding in general. If you have an apple with notes of anise, that is polarizing — you’re cutting your consumer base by 50 percent, and some people are reluctant to do it. My view is consumers are ready to take a chance on bolder flavors. And we’re going to be giving you some of those bolder flavors. It will be interesting to see how that goes.
There was a time when people thought no one liked small fruit and there wasn’t a market for it, until Rockit came out. There are many instances where consumer perceptions may be one thing, but we have to make sure we’re not chasing something else.
Q: Those smaller fruits and vegetables, quite popular in Europe, are being marketed to kids, and the apples capitalize on convenience trends. To your point on consumer perceptions, people may not know if they like or dislike a bolder or unique flavor if they haven’t tried it, or in a greater sense, if it hasn’t been invented yet...
A: Another fascinating point… you tend to like the apple you grew up with. Toddlers don’t like to try new foods, and a segment of the adult population has a fear of new foods, which makes it hard to get a new variety going. If you grow up with Macintosh, you buy Macintosh. Now people are starting to try different varieties. Just because you like Golden Delicious doesn’t mean your children are necessarily going to like It. Do a taste test and see. There are families that buy one apple for the husband, another for the wife and different ones for the kids.
With the anise flavor, it’s not subtle at all. You either love it or absolutely hate it. In consumer panels, the skin thickness causes a reaction. When I eat an apple with thick skin, my mouth is left with skin. Apples with tough skin protect the apple, and it stores better, but women in general find thicker skin objectionable. Some people like floral notes, others find them unpleasant. There are so many factors to consider. There have been a lot of good studies that look to explain what people like, why they like it and why they don’t.
A lot of literature shows Americans buy with their eyes, which tends to be size and color, but in Europe, especially places like Germany, they don’t care what an apple looks like as long as it tastes good. With Americans, if there’s a little ding, cut in the skin or bruise in the apple, it’s contributing to waste, because people say they won’t spend the money if it’s not perfect. It’s hard to find perfect fruit. I’m guilty of it too. You go to a big grocery store and look to get the most perfect fruit. And that’s asking a lot of the industry.
Q: Aren’t we past those days long ago where apples were beautifully shiny and waxy on the outside, but tasted like cardboard? At the same time, imperfect, ugly fruit type programs to combat food waste have had mixed results for retailers’ bottom line, despite enthusiasm and creative marketing campaigns...
A: When we’re breeding, we do consider the visual side, but less so than before. For example, one of the apples I’m naming this coming year is unusual in appearance, and not shiny at all. It has a dull finish. Once people try it, they don’t care about the appearance, but it will be a setback until they try it.
Now we’re trying to have something be distinctive. It’s difficult to understand but I use this analogy of families, where your children may look like one parent or the other. With an apple breeding program, we want our apples to be better than either parent, but not look like them. If I have an apple that looks like Honey Crisp, then how do I differentiate it?
Q: Could you talk more about the future of breeding. Is it related to superior flavor, developing a new white grape variety that’s better tasting than a Thompson seedless, or a bigger size berry...?
A: Improving quality is a focus. Consistency of a quality eating experience is key.
Q: How do you define quality? In relation to consistency, is this in the growing process, where it’s grown? There are so many variables for consistency...
A: You’re asking smart questions. Quality means a lot of things to a lot people. For most consumers, quality it all about crispness or firmness, and there are other characteristics that influence that. Studies have shown that if an apple is 13-pounds pressure in firmness, and you increase the sugar, people who like sweet apples like it more. But if it is softer than 13 pounds firmness, you could increase sweetness markedly and people aren’t going to like it, because the most important factor is the firmness. Then the other qualities follow.
The other thing too… if you like an acid apple, you’re only able to perceive a small scale in difference, but if you have a soft apple, those other factors become less important. So, the quality is crispness, juiciness, sugar and acid and the balance of those traits. Then there are things like the smells of an apple that you may not even think you’re perceiving.
And the problem is people perceive them differently. It’s like people who bathe themselves in perfume and think they smell fine, and the rest of us are cringing. Taste buds are volatile. So, some people may pick up a taste, and there are a lot of different variables. Quality also means not having the apple fall apart on your desk or after storage not having the same eating experience.
Consistency also is dependent on where it’s grown… does it taste the same or is not as good if it comes from Western New York or the Champlain region? Will you get an apple of comparable quality? That happens with Honey Crisp, where growers are growing it in areas not ideal for it, and then consumers are confused. Sometimes they liked it; sometimes they didn’t.
Q: That seems problematic since a consumer could then be turned off from buying Honey Crisp forever...
A: The other issue is with consistency… if you’re used to an apple with 16-pounds pressure, if you buy one not as firm, that impacts other qualities. Some fascinating studies suggest if you have a bad apple (bad pun), an apple you didn’t like, you remember it as worse than it was — I had a really crappy apple, I’m going to have a banana or clementine instead, and I won’t be eating apples for a while.
But if you have a really good apple, you remember it as better than it was. So, you can’t win, because your next apple won’t be as good as the last one. So, I think there is a bit of inconsistency in the market. That’s why my breeding program has really stressed that we want it to be quality, but we want it to be the same as much as possible.
Q: That connects to another conversation of managed licenses to control quality and consistency...
A: Yes. We know Northern Europe will produce similar quality because it’s the same latitude as us, and a lot of the climatic conditions are the same. That’s why Jonagolds did so well there because the growing conditions are similar enough to get the same quality in these locations.
Q: Do you find consumers are loyal to particular varieties? How important is it for a retailer to know their customer preferences to that specificity?
A: I think it’s a strength that our apples are sold by varietal name. I tell the story of a friend of mine’s little boy, who was five years old, and he asked for a SnapDragon apple while they were at the supermarket. His mom laughed, because when she was five, she would just ask for an apple. She found out they ran out of SnapDragon’s at the store, and he said, “Mom why can’t people share.” Here you have a loyal customer!
Selling by varietal name is different than what occurs with many other commodities, like peaches, and until recently, grapes, where you bought Thompson seedless or Globe...
In Europe, they tried to do this with apples; there were some marketers that wanted to sell a red sweet apple, and a red sour apple, and the growers and breeders went nuts because that meant, if you wanted sweet, you could get Fuji and you could get Evercrisp and Gala. They are not alike. We have variety names for a reason because people care about the apple that they’re eating.
Q: Brad Rickard has done interesting research on the importance the name of an apple can have on consumers’ willingness to purchase it.
A: Yes. That’s true. I’m aware of an apple that had four names until they found one that worked.
Q: Do you see opportunity for creating new markets with breeding? For instance, a unique item like Cotton Candy grapes, emulating a particular flavor, rather than say here’s a white grape that’s better than the one you’re growing?
A: Both these scenarios are important. The grape industry has been responsive to the need for new products, offering unique flavors, shapes and improved firmness and flavor.
Q: Can we develop specific tastes and flavors that might actually boost consumption? For example, in the apple category, Grapples, an apple that is grape-flavored. In this case, a Gala or Fuji is bathed in grape juice as an apple, not intrinsic to the variety like Cotton Candy grapes.
A: I respect the inventors and marketers of Grapples, but I’m not a fan of the approach. There is enough variation in apple flavors, that concord grape flavor isn’t needed as an additive. I think consumers will be surprised by the next generation of apples, offering new tastes and complexity of taste.
Q: What other research are you working on now?
A: Even better quality. Enhanced nutritional components, some which are involved in glucose and diabetes control. Higher vitamin C and reduced flesh browning after cutting. Unique and distinctive apples.
Q: The mushroom industry faced challenges in marketing Vitamin D mushrooms. In this case, the mushrooms are the same, but infused with Vitamin D involving special equipment, lights and facilities, which requires a financial investment. It was hard to get buy-in from retailers because of the higher price, and questions whether consumers saw the increased value. In the case of breeding, is there the advantage that it doesn’t cost more once the product is developed?
A: The simpler the approach, the better.
Q: Do you push your imagination when forecasting trends and futuristic possibilities? Now seedless watermelons are ubiquitous. Do you predict certain traits as ubiquitous in the future? What is your vision 5-10 years down the line...and decades ahead?
A: Great question. As breeders, we’re always looking toward the future because the process takes so long, and we want to make sure we’re breeding for tomorrow’s consumers as well.
One thing that isn’t really consumer-driven, but we will have to look at climate change because that’s influencing our production. That’s a real-life need, rather than consumer-driven, but we have to make sure we’re addressing that. We know that a lot of new varieties are making it on quality, which is great, and the rest is convenience. There’s a lot more emphasis on pre-sliced, pre-packaged, and that requires non-browning and high vitamin C characteristics. We will have less pesticides and availability of materials to spray. We know disease-resistance is going to be more important.
In my mind, for what I’m looking for in the future, quality will increase beyond anything anyone has seen to date. It’s a tough call, but I think we will have things that will really surprise people. Even though we have wonderful apples, the eating experience will reach heightened levels.
When my husband’s parents were still alive, they would be upset with me because they had liked apples they bought at the supermarket until they tasted some of the new varieties I was bringing home!
What I’m not going to do: college students and my kids want me to come up with a seedless coreless apple, and I’m sorry, but I’m not interested. In 1915, there was a company that was trying to do it, and said it was going to revolutionize the world. They weren’t able to do it, and I’m not either.
The other trend you see is red flushed apples, where you cut it open and it’s red inside like a beet. While I know there are good growers in the industry, I’m not sure that’s a trend that brings the best quality. It may add more nutrition, and we’re going to do things in that regard too.
Q: You’re saying it’s difficult to produce a red flush apple?
A: It’s difficult to produce without the acidity and astringency beyond what most people like. It’s not something I think is worth pursuing.
Q: Maybe it’s gimmicky or niche?
A: I was going to say that it’s more of a niche. I also said Rocket apples weren’t going to succeed because who would buy small apples in a tennis ball container. The minute I said that, they got $10 million in orders. Maybe that’s why I’m better as a breeder than a marketer!
Q: Could you talk about the issue of speed with the breeding process, from planting the seed to seeing the product on the retail shelf? You point out that breeding superior apples involves many years of research and testing. The SnapDragon took 11 years and the RubyFrost took 17 years from first making the crosses to commercialization, and many new apple varieties take 20 to 40 years.
A: I believe we can release varieties sooner due to cultural changes, but grower trials and collaboration with my wonderful Cornell colleagues is key. I believe SnapDragon was one of the fastest varietal releases, due to early grower testing.
Q: Would some of these GMO and CRISPR techniques speed up breeding in general and have more taste?
A: There are over 57,000 genes in an apple, and these interact for traits such as flavor. Currently key genes can be targeted in GMO and CRISPR technology but not several genes and not their interactions. This technology is likely to be great for resistance to diseases, but not for complex traits such as taste. We may get there in the future, but not at the present time. Again, I support GMO and CRISPR research, but stress that it does not improve the speed of variety release. It may in the future, but only for some traits.
Q: With consumers expecting year-round supply, does it make a difference that apples are a storage crop so you can keep it fresh for many months, extending the season? Growing in different parts of the world increases licenses. How is global competition impacting strategies?
A: Dual hemisphere production is allowing full-year production, but consistency of quality must be the same.
Q: How does this coincide with the different models that exist with licensing arrangements, from Driscoll’s model — tightly controlled with their own exclusive varieties — to a Sun World model that develops and tests varieties and grants limited licenses, to a free distribution model? What are the issues involved from economics to quality control? Do you have a view on what type of model is best for the industry?
A: Marketing dollars are key, so a license that provides for marketing funds is crucial. I’ve done open releases and controlled releases, and my experiences across many varieties is that a managed variety provides more income back for program support. They also allow quality standards.
I continue to release some open varieties — 3 coming this year —so that growers in states that do not have breeding programs have access to new varieties that have been tested.
Q: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities going forward?
A: Labor/immigration, climate change, government regulations and trade tariffs, not in any particular order.
Q: Sounds like we’ll need a few more interviews to cover all that!
A: In my mind, there are not too many varieties (of course!), but we are still growing old commodity apples that for some reason we cannot bring ourselves to walk away from. Statistics show we are still growing way more Delicious than the market can absorb. Why does this continue?
Q: Why do you think this continues? Is there a point of saturation with all these different varieties? Is it a matter of replacing one with another or increasing the types and amounts of apples people buy?
A: This is a pet peeve of mine. A lot of the major industry people say, oh, there are too many varieties. And in the past, they would say there are too many apples. Somebody had a great response and said, yeah there are too many apples but not too many good ones!
Yes, we have new varieties and they are causing competition I’d say, rather than more confusion in the marketplace. Industry people have explained to me, if you’re making any money on Delicious, you’re not going to cut it out because it’s a way to pay your bills, and I get that. I couldn’t understand that at first, but at some point, as an industry, we have to say, if there’s overproduction of some varieties, and those varieties are not of much interest, we need to cut down on them.
Q: Is there a case to be made that new varieties, and an expanse of choices, create excitement in the produce department, providing different uses and eating experiences? The apple category has led the way in this regard. The industry struggles with ways to increase consumption. Doesn’t your work help in this goal?
A: We’re pleased at how things are going. I think the best way we can increase consumption is to get kids to eat a sliced apple. If you have POS materials and samples for people to try for free, that increases sales tremendously. We’re so lucky in the produce industry to have quality products that are good for you, but unless we get them into the hands and mouths of the next generation, we’re not going to increase consumption.
Q: What are the most important lessons or insights you’ve learned in your career that you can pass on to the produce industry more widely?
A: A dear friend was quoted as saying “always buy quality; it only hurts once”. Quality is key to repeat sales and sustainability, and sometimes we forget that. I have the greatest respect for growers and the produce industry, and I can honestly state that I’ve learned more important lessons from the industry than some of my advanced university courses. I’d like to thank the many industry members that shared their views with me.
Q: In what ways do industry members help you and other breeders in your quests?
A: I stress transparency and research, but what I love about the produce industry is you know where you stand. Growers and marketers and managers will say, this is wrong... I’ll say, how come this is still occurring, and they explain it from their vantage point. There are many researchers who don’t necessarily understand the whole real-world perspective, the business issues, turnover and marketing strategies, and things I might not see in my job, whether they be a small retail operation or large chain.
The industry has made it easier for me as an academic to understand the wider issues and meet people on their own turf. The industry is brutally honest, which strengthens my resolve to reach my goals. For the next generation, I’d suggest to never stop asking questions and be sure to show your passion and enthusiasm; it is contagious.
I do private discussions on club varieties in our marketplace, what I think the problems are and what I think the strengths are, to help growers and others consider what varieties to grow and sell. It would be good to broaden the spectrum of people we educate on the different varieties and issues.
Q: Sharing your insights at The New York Produce Show is one great way to do that! We’re so excited to have you at the Show.
A: I love getting Produce Business magazine and reading the Perishable Pundit and the editorials. I can’t wait to see you guys there, and thanks again.
Breeding gets a lot of attention but the business model by which breeding innovations are brought to consumers may be even more important. One can appreciate Professor Brown’s big heart and response to political realities in wanting to allow all New York State growers to participate in new releases or even to help out growers in other states. The problem is that, as Professor Brown mentions, not all locations are created equal. In fact it goes beyond that. Not all growers are equally good. And, even if all the locations are appropriate and all the growers are great, that does not necessarily keep a limit on production.
It is easier to see in row crops but growers are often their own worst enemy. When the Pundit was selling Caribbean melons he would get very worried when we would have a year with record prices — why? — because it meant every grower would plant to the end of their credit line next year and prices would collapse due to oversupply.
The purpose of proprietary produce is really four fold:
To keep production down so that it is always a little bit below demand so that producers can make a living.
To restrict growing to places where the terroir and climate produce optimum flavor — so the consumer gets a consistently delicious piece of fruit.
To ensure that only high quality growers — who know how to grow and are committed to the effort required to produce great fruit — can produce the fruit, thus ensuring the best possible quality.
Controlling the marketing channels so that fruit is sold quickly — thus maintaining quality — and in a way that maximizes grower returns.
Of course marketing is important, but it can, surprisingly, be divorced from breeding. Think about Pink Lady apples which are just a Cripps Pink that can be grown by anyone.
Producing lots of great varieties may mean little if we don’t give growers the business model to make them a success.
Please join us at the Global Trade Symposium as Professor Brown and this Pundit sit down to talk apples, genetics, marketing and the future of the produce industry.
You can book the Global Trade Symposium here.
The whole New York Produce Show and Conference here.
If you need a hotel room let us know here.
We look forward to seeing you in New York.
Professor Miguel Gómez has presented on a plethora of topics at our industry events:
Cornell Professor Miguel Gómez Reveals How Omni-Channel Retailing Creates Challenges And Opportunities For The Produce Supply Chain. Exclusive Presentation At The Amsterdam Produce Summit This November
Veteran Speaker At The New York Produce Show, Cornell’s Professor Miguel Gómez Speaks On The Promise Of Cold-Climate/Controlled Environment Agriculture
Cornell’s Miguel Gómez Goes Double Duty At New York Produce Show: Gives Micro-Session On Northeast Greenhouse Potential And Teaches Foundational Excellence ‘Students’ About Global Trade
How New Trade Agreements May Set The Stage For A Produce Industry Boom, But Will The People And The Politicians Let It Happen?
Miguel Gómez Of Cornell To Present The Facts And Moderate The Discussion At The London Produce Show And Conference
How To Capitalize On An Age Of Global Trade: Miguel Gómez Of Cornell University At The Foundational Excellence Program
UNIVERSITY HEAVYWEIGHT PUTS SCIENCE BEHIND OPTIMIZED GLEANING SCHEDULES: Cornell’s Miguel Gómez Talks About How The Produce Industry Can Put Itself On The Side Of The Angels By Reducing Food Waste While Helping The Hungry
The Renaissance Of The Wholesale Sector — Why Those Who Support 'Locally Grown' Should Support Investment In Market Intermediaries. Cornell University Professor Miguel Gómez Reveals Research Findings At The London Produce Show And Conference
A New Hypothesis On Local: To Boost Sales, Sell It Through Supermarkets … Cornell’s Miguel Gómez Previews His Upcoming Talk At The New York Produce Show And Conference
Cornell Professors To Present At The New York Produce Show And Conference: New Ways of Thinking About Local: Can The East Coast Develop A Broccoli Industry?
Cornell Professor Miguel Gómez To Speak At New York Produce Show And Conference On Fruit & Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corporation
Professor Miguel Gómez Returns To The New York Produce Show And Conference To Unveil A New Study That Points Out A Path For Getting More Produce Into Hospitals
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slot to find out what he has in store for us in New York this year:
Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Ithaca, New York
David R. Atkinson Center for a
School of Management
Universidad de Los Andes, Bogota
Q: Miguel, you captivate attendees each year with your in-depth research and invaluable analyses ranging from critical global trade issues to innovative domestic growing projects.
We’re excited you will be unveiling the findings of your ultra-timely research at The New York Produce Show; just being published in a peer-reviewed journal:
Signaling Impacts of Mandatory GMO Labeling on Fruit and Vegetable Demand
A: Yes, officially GMO foods will soon require mandatory labels starting January 2020, indicating foods with GMO ingredients. Although the “mandatory compliance date” is January 1, 2022. There is discussion on what is the shape of these labels… how is this going to be communicated to consumers? New federal law allows several alternative options for labels: symbols, electronic links, and QR codes.
Q: I imagine the type of label would be important on assessing impacts...
A: That’s true. This study focuses only on direct text disclosure. It sheds light on part of, but not complete, provisions of the new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS).
Q: GM labeling laws are ripe with controversy, prompted in part by vocal anti-GMO activists...
A: We are in an age of increasing consumer demand for transparency from how food is produced, processed and distributed, including production processes such as GMO’s. Proponents of the GMO labeling believe consumers have the right to know, and companies should disclose the information. Arguments against are that mandatory labeling will increase costs to business and prices to consumers and lead to unintended consequences. The concerns are that consumers misinterpret GM labels as warning GM food is higher risk.
Q: Did you have a hypothesis going into your research? Maybe you could start with the abstract, and the key issues you were exploring...
A: We know in produce, there has been work on developing GM fruits and vegetables -- in particular, potatoes, apples and strawberries. Our main motivation was recognizing these GM labels have two inferences, one is to provide information, but they also signal subjective qualities of a product and influence consumer demand.
So, we wanted to examine in fresh produce the signaling effect of three different direct-text labeling on consumer choices to buy strawberries, apples and potatoes when the product had a GM label, a GM-free label, and no label. And we examined the effect of that product labeling on consumer demand to purchase competing products.
We wanted to know if the introduction of new GM labels had any influence on the demand for fruits and vegetables.
Most labeling studies assume that food labels are identifiers for certain product attributes that consumers wouldn’t be able to discern themselves, such as free-range eggs, or shade-grown coffee... The majority of food labeling studies estimates consumer willingness-to-pay (WTP) for a given label or a labeled attribute. Assuming that consumers perceive labels only as a source of information and have different preferences for the labeled attributes.
Consumer demand reflects both preferences and subjective beliefs. Several behavior studies have shown that consumers sometimes infer subjective beliefs from the exposure to certain food labels creating a “halo effect.”
Q: Could you provide some examples?
A: There are studies that show food labels can induce a cognitive bias… for instance consumers perceiving organic labeled products as higher quality or healthier, or fair-trade labels as lower calories.
Previous research in milk and oil products indicate if you introduce “absence claim” labels, then you can stigmatize the unlabeled products.
Let me give you an example: When certain milk products were labeled free-of-rBST, a synthetically produced natural hormone, other unlabeled milk product was stigmatized as more dangerous, even though the FDA said rBST was not harmful to human health. Regardless, all the businesses that produced conventional milk without the hormone were stigmatized by consumers, and it negatively affected demand. So, all those companies had to put an rBST-free label on their products.
In the same way, the “dolphin-safe” label implicitly suggests that unlabeled conventional seafood products are produced with harm to wildlife.
Q: Will GM labeling also have a halo effect?
A: We know GM produce is being introduced to the market, and companies will be required to label it as such. Our question was: Will the produce industry need to put GM-free labels on the rest of their products.
Q: Could the category of fresh produce be a salient exception to this phenomenon as it relates to GMOs? After all, fresh produce already has a glowing healthy halo over it. There are only a handful of GM fresh produce items anyway, and it’s not clear how many GM items actually will make it to retail shelves...Do you think consumers already assume fresh fruits and vegetables are non-GMO?
A: What we learned is that investing in that absence-claim label is not going to help produce companies with their bottom line. First, because the label is costly, but more important, because people perceive fresh fruits and vegetables as non-GM, and there is very little GM produce in the market.
What is interesting about our research findings… we are finding that the GM-labeled product is going to be stigmatized. If you have to label a potato, strawberry, or apple as a GM product, what’s going to happen is the produce industry will have very little incentive to launch GM product in the market, because they are going to be penalized by consumers.
On the other hand, if GM labels are included on fresh produce, the demand for unlabeled product will increase. It will stimulate sales of alternatives.
Q: It won’t have the effect that occurred with the milk...
A: No, because all the producers of milk had to run and get their rBST-free labels, and I don’t think that is going to happen for fresh produce.
Q: For the reasons we discussed?
A: The results were surprising to us because we were kind of expecting to find the stigmatization of the unlabeled products, and we didn’t.
In assessing the reasons, we came to the conclusion that because of the characteristics of fresh produce, there are very few GM products in the market, and consumers see unlabeled products as safe and GM-free.
Q: Do you think that when this federal mandate comes into effect, and there’s more labeling of GM products throughout the supermarket, it could help the produce department? It would be a contrast where the produce department doesn’t have any of those labels...
A: I think that’s exactly right. In the food category, we know there is much more GM-processed food in other segments. It may work to the benefit of the produce industry. As long as we don’t have too many GMO produce items, it will enhance unlabeled produce.
Q: And based on your study, it doesn’t pay for produce companies to go crazy trying to label products GMO-free because it’s not going to make a difference in consumers desire to purchase them?
A: I’d be a little more nuanced in what our study indicates. You need to think about it carefully. We interviewed 1,300 consumers in the US -- a national panel. We had a good sample, so I am pretty confident of our findings. Taking into account these results, the produce industry may not need to go crazy rushing into not-GM labels.
Q: When you were doing the study, did you ask the consumers their views of GMO’s, reasons why they would purchase or not purchase GM products?
A: No. We didn’t. The only information we had was expressed in the choice to buy or not buy the product. The way the experiment worked, the consumer saw a picture of an apple. It was the same apple, the same price, and the only manipulation was either unlabeled, non-GM, or GM product. We wanted to simulate an introduction of the product in the market to the same person exposed to three types of apples based on these labels, and to see how it affected their decision to buy or not. The only thing we manipulated was the order in which we presented the choices.
Q: Let’s say it was a lot less money for the GM product, did you explore that impact?
A: We didn’t adjust for that in this study, but these results indicate GM products need to be sold at a lower price point than unlabeled to capture market share in the category.
Q: Would it also make a difference if the GM product had unique attributes, such as the Arctic apple that withstands browning, or perhaps a sustainability characteristic...
A: That’s an excellent point. Businesses that want to introduce a GM apple or GM potato need to be sure the benefit of being GM, like avoiding rapid browning in the apple, is of enough value to consumers that it can offset the penalty for being GM. This has to be part of the communication and marketing strategy.
Q: The first obstacle is getting retailer buy-in. In some respects, it comes down to what retailers are willing to put on the shelves. Perhaps there’s concern of an anti-GMO group protesting with picket signs outside their stores...
A: I think that’s a possibility, but the US consumer is more open to GM than in Europe and other places. I’m sure there will be retailers that don’t want to do GMOs, but that will be difficult because there are so many, and they can be sold at a lower price or market benefits. Some may adopt that GMO-free policy, but I think most retailers will accept having GMO products and let consumers decide.
Some consumers don’t care whether it’s GM.
Q: But I thought your study showed they do care, and will gravitate to the unlabeled alternative items...Can you provide more detail on what you learned? Is it less black and white, and more of a sliding scale?
A: Absolutely. Demand will shift, not that GM product demand will go to zero. I will show charts demonstrating this. Demand is reduced, but still 40 percent of consumers in our survey were OK in purchasing GM product.
Q: That’s a notable finding. It will be exciting to learn more during your presentation. I was revisiting research your colleague Brad Rickard presented at The New York Produce Show a few years ago. He looked at consumer acceptance of GM fresh and processed varieties. What he found was the closer to fresh the product was, the less desirable from the consumer’s perspective for the product to be GM. There was more comfort the more processed it was...
A: The results in our study are consistent with that. When you look at demand, when the product is unlabeled or GM-free, the demand is 60 to 70 percent. Once the product is labeled GM, the demand goes down to 40 percent. You see a drop in demand, but that doesn’t mean the demand is zero. If you want to increase demand of GM, you’re going to have to lower the price.
Q: But the difference in demand between unlabeled or GM-free labeling was insignificant?
A: That’s right. Participants were 12 percent more likely to purchase unlabeled products when the unlabeled products were shown after the GM labeled products. Here the signaling effect of the GM label boosts the demand for the unlabeled products. However, there was no evidence of negative effects of the non-GM label on the unlabeled, conventional products.
Q: What are the caveats in this study or other areas you want to explore further? For example, you noted that you only focused on one type of GM label in this research...
A: We did an experiment on willingness to buy, but we need to conduct a study in an actual shopping setting to see how consumers choose labels on the shelf in the supermarket.
Q: What are some of the pivotal things that could change results?
A: In the supermarket, you are presented with all the other options. You will see the attributes of the products, and the prices. I still suspect we’ll discover similar findings. But in the supermarket, you can manipulate other things, such as pricing and information to consumers, and you can play with the displays...
The other aspect we need to understand is the type of label. How is this claim going to be presented? Is it going to be a sticker that says this is a GM product, or QR code you check, and it tells you the characteristics including that it is a GMO? It depends on how it is going to be implemented.
Q: If you see an image of a skeleton on the package, that’s a big difference from a code that a consumer scans...
A: Few people will scan and check for this information.
Q: I was going to ask you about the demographic side, and any points of interest there.
A: We tried to capture the demographics of the typical shopper, and we didn’t find a lot of differences between the treatments on any sociodemographic or behavioral variables.
Female shoppers tend to be more conscious of the GM labels than males do, and, of course, people who purchase more organic foods were much more sensitive to the GM label and would tend to buy less, and people concerned about food safety and pesticide residues appear to respond much more negatively to GM.
Q: That just shows the importance of knowing who your customers are... I also wanted to clarify one other point: You focused on GM labeling for strawberries, apples and potatoes, and the signaling effect on competing products. Did you delineate between conventional, organic, local, etc...?
A: We didn’t control for those attributes of the product. On purpose, we eliminated those attributes.
Q: Do you think your research could provide lessons on the impacts of labels more broadly? I go back to studies you referenced earlier where consumer signaling effects with organic labels could negatively influence consumer demand of conventional produce...
A: That’s an interesting question. That’s why everyone who participates in organic labels it with the organic certifications, or they’re missing the boat. GM is a negative connotation of a product. If you have product labeled as local, it may stigmatize the unlabeled product, even if that other product is also local, because people prefer local.
As GM labeling laws go into effect, it’s important for produce business executives to pay attention, because GM labels are going to influence consumer perceptions of your products. Taking the results of our study, produce companies do not need to invest in GM-free labels when deciding how to market. In the long run, I believe we will see more GM products in certain produce categories when the GM benefit is significant. It will be product by product. We cannot make general statements. Demand will be interdependent on whether the GM benefit is super important to consumers and offsets the negative connotation.
There is little question that the requirement to label GMO produce is going to be a negative. The reason has nothing to do with GMOs but with our society’s conventions on labeling. The key thing is that we don’t generally require labeling of things that are harmless. So in giving in to the lobby seeking that GMO foods be labeled, for better or worse, Congress allowed a kind of Scarlett Letter to be attached to the product.
However, the impact may be mitigated by the options the law provides. Product can be labeled with an electronic or digital link that can be scanned which, surely, not one consumer in a thousand will actually do on every product so labeled.
One other variable from the study is that the vast, vast majority of processed foods already contain GMO soybeans and things such as that. We have no experience to know how consumers when confronted with a shopping environment in which so much of the food supply is labeled as containing GMOs will react. It is entirely possible that consumers who when offered one product decline to purchase product might throw in the hat and just accept it when they realize that half their favorite processed foods contain such items.
And there is a price question. The issue is rarely going to be whether a consumer will buy a GMO product or not. All Certified organic product is GMO-free, for example. So the question is more likely to be: Is a consumer willing to pay more to get GMO-free product. If GMO product is higher yielding it will typically drive out of business most of the conventional growers who refuse to use the technology.
Of course, direct-to-consumer benefits are a game-changer. A recent National Geographic piece included this paragraph:
In the brave new world of genetic engineering, Dean DellaPenna envisions this cornucopia: tomatoes and broccoli bursting with cancer-fighting chemicals and vitamin-enhanced crops of rice, sweet potatoes, and cassava to help nourish the poor. He sees wheat, soy, and peanuts free of allergens; bananas that deliver vaccines; and vegetable oils so loaded with therapeutic ingredients that doctors "prescribe" them for patients at risk for cancer and heart disease. A plant biochemist at Michigan State University, DellaPenna believes that genetically engineered foods are the key to the next wave of advances in agriculture and health.
As a parent of children with peanut allergies, we can state that it is very unlikely we would worry about hypothetical long term impacts from consuming GMOs when we can avoid immediate anaphylactic reactions that can result in death.
Now, of course, whether current innovations, say reducing browning on a cut apple, as the Arctic apple promises, are sufficient to lead consumers to ignore their concerns about GMOs is another matter entirely.
It is also true that much may depend on advocacy groups. For a retailer, avoiding protestors and picket lines can lead to a decision not to buy products, irrespective of whether consumers might accept them or not.
In any case it’s a brave new industry and the winners of tomorrow will be thinking about issues such as this today.
This research was done jointly by Miguel Gomez, Harry Kaiser and Adeleine Yeh, all of Cornell. And Ms. Yeh will be doing the presentation and leading the discussion.
Please register to attend the show and participate in the discussion right here.
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We look forward to seeing you in New York!
When Ben Campbell started out with The New York Produce Show and Conference, he was a professor at the University of Connecticut. During the event, Ben and his students participated in our University Interchange program, which provides a forum for university professors to share cutting-edge research with the trade and thus help fulfill their mission to disseminate knowledge, while also providing an educational and mentorship program for students. He found the program so valuable, that when he moved on to the University of Georgia he asked if we would expand the program. Which we did.
Professor Campbell has presented on a number of important topics, including these:
Setting Producers Free — Production Agriculture And The Regulatory Burden: Can States Help Northeast Production Thrive? Are They Inclined To Do So?
Perceptions And Misperceptions: Consumer Attitudes On Organic And Local — University Of Connecticut Study To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show and Conference
Connecticut Professor Ben Campbell Comes Back To The New York Produce Show With Seminal Work On Consumer Reaction To The Marketing Of Locally Grown Produce
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects editor Mira Slott to see what the good professor has in store for attendees this year:
Department of Agricultural and
University of Georgia
New York Produce Show attendees await your thought-provoking consumer research, measuring how different variables influence and impact produce shoppers’ perceptions and purchasing decisions.
In 2018, you delved into the multitude of ways consumers can access information to understand how various generations are getting information about produce, while also analyzing how these methods are impacting purchasing. You also have presented on organic and local. What do you have planned for this year?
A: This year, my research examines how giving consumers information about GMO’s, CRISPR, organic and pesticides impacts their likelihood of purchasing different products.
Q: That’s a hot topic with the new federal and state labeling laws, increased pesticide restrictions, and the influence on retail buying...
A: The emphasis is very much the new labeling laws coming into place with GMOs, and new technologies, and a lot of retail policies banning particular production methods. For instance, you see neonicotinoids being banned in Maryland, and these pollinators being phased out in Home Depot and Lowes of a lot or all of their plant stock. There are new pesticide bans in homes in Ontario, and within school grounds in Connecticut and New York. When looking at produce, there are issues with GMO’s and pesticides in the production process as well.
We see bans of products in different areas, and a lot of misinformation about products. People often don’t understand GMOs, but they are very much not in favor of them. So, you’re against something but you don’t know what it is. You see this phenomenon across the board in relation to different chemicals and pesticides too. And even with organic, misinformation abounds. There’s strong lobbying against something or for it and mixed messaging.
Q: How do you set out to understand the impacts of that cacophonous messaging?
A: I was interested in discovering if we gave people fact-based information about what these production methods are, how would that effect their perceptions or influence their potential purchase of these foods, plants and turf, which use these production practices.
Can information impact the role of production practices on the decision to purchase, and more specifically the type of message and source of message.
One of our objectives was the premise that consumer sentiment drives policy changes at the federal, state and local levels, and at retail, and how these decisions could translate into policy implications.
Q: Could you describe the study methodology. What types of production practices were included and what products? What information did you provide participants?
A: We gave participants different treatments and defined the technology of each, looking at three segments: food, plants and turf. The production practices included insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, CRISPR, GMO and organic. Here’s the meaning of what this is and the information on how this production practice works.
Q: Were these scientific definitions? How detailed or complex were the descriptions? Were they consumer-friendly?
A: We purposefully adhered to scientific information for the different treatments, though at a level that non-scientists can understand.
Editor’s note: here are the definitions provided to participants:
*CRISPR: a new biotechnology that allows scientists to directly edit an organisms’ genetic material (DNA). This does not require transferring DNA from one organism to another.
*Genetically-Modified Organism (GMO): an organism in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered through the use of modern biotechnologies. The alteration typically involves transferring DNA from one organism to another.
*Insecticide: a pesticide that is used to eliminate or repel insects.
*Fungicide: a pesticide that is used to eliminate or prevent the growth of fungi, molds, and their spores.
*Herbicide: a pesticide that is used to eliminate or prevent the growth of plants
*Organic: the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm-resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality, conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife and forbidding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering.
Q: These scientific definitions aren’t really that appealing when talking about food! Did people understand these terms, or want further explanation or context on usage? The GMO and CRISPR definitions don’t seem likely to allay a consumer’s pre-disposed concern about the effect these technologies could have on a food item. Although, I could see the draw of wanting to purchase produce void of insects, fungi and mold...
A: Some people got it. Some people didn’t. Most people have never heard of CRISPR. We divvied people into groups to determine how likely they would be to buy the product based on the information we provided them on the production practices of that product.
Q: How were the groups formed?
A: Respondents were randomly divided into the treatment groups. After being randomly placed into a treatment group, they were given the information treatment associated with that treatment group.
We had a control group that didn’t receive any information, we just said CRISPR or GMO...
Q: Who participated in the study, the numbers, demographics, how did you glean people’s preferences, etc.
A: We did an online survey of 2,500 respondents in the spring/summer of 2019. It included Southeastern US residents in nine states with 10-20 percent of participants per state. The average age was 44 and the average income was $50,000. We had 64 percent female and 71 percent Caucasian.
Q: Did you assess the participant’s knowledge, or perceived knowledge, of each practice going into the study for a relative comparison? Did you break down the sample further to determine, for example, if some consumers were more prone to buy organic...
A: Not exactly in that way, but we asked about knowledge level, how knowledgeable are you about organic...and I will show the effects of that in our model.
Q: So, this is the knowledge level that is perceived by the participant, not necessarily the correct knowledge?
A: Yes, that’s an important point. We know the odds are that consumers are not correct in their knowledge of the production practices, but perception is the reality. We wanted to find out their perceived knowledge of the different production practices. With 0 = No Knowledge; 50 = Somewhat Knowledgeable; and 100 = Extremely Knowledgeable.
Organic was the highest rated. People said they had the most knowledge of it at 64 for food, 62 for plants, and 60 for turf. Organic stood out relative to all the other practices, where there was much less fluctuation. This compared to both GMO and CRISPR at 44 for food, 44 for plants, and 45 for turf. Insecticides 42 for food, 47 for plants and 48 for turf; herbicide 45 for food, 47 for plants, and 48 for turf; and fungicide, 43 for food, 45 for plants and 48 for turf.
Q: What can be learned from this?
A: Interestingly, people indicated they were more knowledgeable about pesticides as they are applied to turf but less knowledgeable as they are applied to their food, though we see moves to eliminate pesticides on food even though people say they are not that knowledgeable. From a produce standpoint, this is informative, first because consumers are not knowledgeable, and second because consumers who are not knowledgeable are making demands on produce production methods or are not able to knowledgably engage with activists in the discussion.
Q: Since you’ll be presenting this information to executives in the fresh produce industry, what was included in the food category? Did you distinguish between fresh produce and processed items?
A: In looking at the food category as a whole, by and large it’s going to be an ingredient, a GMO or CRISPR is going to be applied at the production level, so it’s not directly targeting produce.
Q: The reason I ask, Brad Rickard of Cornell, a veteran like you at our New York Produce Shows, has presented fascinating research related to this topic. In one study he conducted, consumer acceptance of GMO’s changed based on the food category (grain crop, fruit or beef) and the level of processing. For instance, consumers showed more willingness to buy the GM processed products relative to their GM fresh versions.
A: In our study, we’re focused on the impact of messaging. So, in this case, if you’re more accepting of a treatment in processed food, would knowledge of the treatment push you to be more accepting? Similarly, if you’re less accepting of a treatment in fresh produce, will knowledge make you more accepting. Conversely, will more information about insecticides, herbicides, and fungicide usage on conventional produce increase acceptance, and could that lessen acceptance of organic, which restricts that use?
Q: So, the scale of acceptance might change on processed versus fresh, but that’s not what you’re measuring in this study...
A: We’re interested to see if our messaging is going to nudge a consumer’s acceptance and willingness to purchase one way or the other; that’s what we’re focused on in this study.
Q: That’s interesting, because now you’re looking at a domino effect of how knowledge of one type of production practice could change acceptance of products in several categories...
A: What we found, in fact, is if we showed participants information about pesticides — the message that pesticides are used to eliminate insects — or fungicides — and the growth of fungi, molds, and their spores — or herbicides to get rid of the problem plant… if you got that message, you rated organic lower.
If it’s an apple or a processed apple, I don’t think the differences will be that big. The result is still moving in the same direction. Receiving the information on pesticides nudges the participants on likeliness to purchase conventional over organic.
Q: How are you defining nudge? Could there be a noticeable change in purchasing choices if consumers received such messaging?
A: Messaging can have marginal impacts. The lesson here is around the messaging and consumer knowledge — actually, perceived knowledge. If I think I know more about CRISPR, I’m more accepting of buying that product. So, this is about getting the information out there. That information impacts how we view these things.
If someone views pesticides as bad, providing an explanation negates some of the mysteries of pesticides — I understand why they’re using it, and I’m less likely to buy organic and more likely to buy something produced with insecticides. We see this movement here. This messaging can impact the perceived value of different products, and the effects on each other.
Q: Doesn’t it get complicated, though, since there are so many different types of pesticides, and regulations, safe levels of use, etc., and sometimes frightening media reports can lump them all together?
A: Organic is often viewed as less risky for that reason.
Q: If someone is a diehard organic shopper, they might not be as flexible to change...
A: You’re not changing people on the endpoints, you’re changing people in the middle. We’re looking at the average person, not those on the extremes. You’re not changing the person who is diehard organic, or diehard anti-organic. Their minds are set. You’re shifting perceptions of those in the middle.
Q: How important is pricing in this equation? Did you consider this? For example, isn’t there a correlation of organic produce purchases increasing when the pricing is more on par with the conventional counterpart?
A: Yes, pricing certainly could have an impact. For this study, we wanted everything else to be constant, to control for what the message was when consumers were considering acceptance of the different treatments. If an herbicide is used or an insecticide is used, what is the effect of that on consumer purchase decisions?
We chose to give participants a scientific definition instead of doing something more general. The reason we did this is, in the marketplace you see a lot of different labels, and best practice claims, both good and bad. We wanted to see if we gave consumers fact-based information, might that affect their views on these foods that have these different characteristics?
Q: Did you consider homing in on particular products, such as an Arctic apple, where the genetically engineered practice prevents browning, and how that quality might change a consumer’s likelihood of purchasing it? Also, what if you used a more consumer-friendly description of the production process with clever marketing as can be found on the Arctic apple website?
A: These variables certainly could play a role... We intentionally kept the definitions scientific to alleviate the positive and negative biases.
Q: You note the broad scope of labeling, certifications and product claims vying for consumer attention. You’ve done other studies analyzing consumer acceptance and perceptions or misperceptions of these various labels (environmental labeling, local, organic, natural, bee-friendly, etc.). For instance, I remember in one study, you found that some consumers thought that local and organic were interchangeable. Are you taking these types of influences into account when you’re conducting your analysis?
A: We touch on them, and will discuss them in our presentation, but by and large, we’re going to stick with the production processes and focus on the ones coming under threat, like GMO, and CRISPR. Local is not one of those, because it’s here to stay. With respect to environmentally friendly labels, those are out there, but we can see that insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, GMO, and CRISPR are the ones really on the forefront now of consumer protests and where people have strong opinions.
Q: Based on your study parameters and methodology, what did you learn? What is most illuminating for produce executives?
A: I can give you some examples from the charts I’ll be presenting...
With no information, the likeliness to purchase organic was 60, but when given information about pesticides, your score for organic went down to 57. That’s a 3 percent drop in your likeliness to purchase a product, so that’s what we’re seeing.
We see that giving consumers information about pesticides had a small effect on their likeliness to purchase organic. When you hear messaging now, you hear that organic is better because no pesticides are used. But we know that consumers indicate they are not knowledgeable about pesticides. When we give them minimal information about pesticides, they move slightly away from organics.
That example was for turf. For food, it went from 64 to 62.
Q: Is that statistically relevant?
A: A two percent shift doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’re seeing these differences here, which could move people in the middle. Though it sounds marginal, we know that for many consumers, production method makes up a small part of their purchasing decision. If you weaken the case for organic, then it will decrease the likelihood of paying a higher price for organic and thereby lower the probability of purchasing organic.
Q: What movement occurs when you introduce CRISPR and GMO information?
A: For CRISPR and GMO, showing CRISPR info moved the rating from 44 (no info) to 46 (CRISPR info); for GMO: 44 (no info) to 42 (CRSPR info); GMO: 44 (no info) to 41 (GMO info). This indicates that providing GMO info hurts GMO purchasing; GMO: 44 ( no info) to 46 (all info) –this implies when looking at all the different methods, GMO is not seen as bad; CRISPR: 44 (no info) to 46 (CRISPR info) -providing CRISPR info helps with purchasing; CRISPR: 44 (no info) to 40 (GMO info) – GMO info causes a negative reaction to CRISPR.
Q: If you add in other variables of shopping in a grocery store, the changes could be much more significant...
A: That’s right. Two years ago, we examined price premiums and how pricing could impact the market. Once you start adding or subtracting premiums or discounts, that makes a difference. Even if you’re at a higher price, I can generate or negate that price premium, through messaging impacts.
We had five percent of the group that would not purchase food with insecticides. These were diehards on the endpoints. And when we gave the group the information on insecticides, that 5 percent of diehards dropped to 2 percent that would not purchase the product. We are talking a 3 percent swing, or getting them from, “I’m not buying,” to being open to buying now.
Q: Did you break down the results by demographics?
A: There are things going on demographic-wise. We see with GMOs, older people are less likely to buy GMOs. People in rural areas didn’t like GMOs as much, but by and large, the big thing is, the more people perceive they know about these production practices, the more likely they are to consider buying these products with these practices.
Q: But you can’t really control people’s perceptions, or whether they grasped the scientific definition you provided... The type of information and the way it’s communicated seems to be very important.
A: Yes. It depends on what you want to do. If you’re selling organic, you don’t want to give people the scientific information on pesticides. If you’re selling something traditional, non-organic, providing information about production practices and why you’re doing it can be a way to counter organics.
It’s the same with CRISPR and GMO, in terms of how consumers perceive your product, and in turn other products in a different way.
Q: This goes back to all the information out there that is not always scientific and scares people... Some of that information can be quite impressionable. One of the issues magnified by vocal GMO opponents is the unknowns, or the long-term potential negative effects of consumption of GMOs... Your definition of CRISPR and GMO outlines scientifically how the practice works, but doesn’t address the impacts these alterations could have, either positive or negative. For instance, there is no mention of the positive attributes of the Arctic apple non-browning trait.
A: The key is the information you give will be a nudge to the average consumer, more so than those on the endpoints. The information you give can be powerful. It can have a meaningful effect on those people in the middle who may have strong opinions but can be influenced.
Q: To clarify, you just asked consumers about food, in general, without segmenting food categories, like fruits and vegetables, and you didn’t give them examples?
A: No, we didn’t. The problem is there are so many examples and categories. If the notion is your likeliness to buy a GMO apple is less than a GMO Pop Tart, the nudge to change that likeliness is what we’re interested in measuring based on receiving information on the production practice of GMO. You’ll see that nudge going in the same direction with either one. I can spin it toward produce or food, in general, but the message stays the same; it’s just the starting point differs, as Brad Rickard showed in his study that you referenced earlier. Could we ask about produce directly, yes, but then you lose the process we set for this study.
Q: Miguel Gómez of Cornell will be revealing his latest peer-reviewed research, which will be hot off the press, at the NYPS, related to potential impacts of new GMO labeling requirements and non-GMO labeling counter-plays. It specifically targets strawberries, potatoes and apples. [Editor’s note, a sneak preview Q&A piece is here].
A: I’m looking forward to seeing his presentation. I have a study, now in review, looking at tomatoes and tomato plants with GMO and non-GMO labels, and no labels, and those differences, and as a plant or as the product you buy at the supermarket to eat. The differences of how consumers perceive these things is there.
Labeling and how you message matters… how you message can impact how consumers feel about your products and other’s products. So, if you’re giving people good information about pesticide usage, it could have a positive impact on people’s views of your product if you’re using those practices, and a detrimental impact on organic purchases. If you provide information de-mystifying GMO or CRISPR, it could have a negative effect on purchases of non-GMO, or non-CRISPR products. That’s the point I’m trying to get across.
This messaging is interdependent. If you put a GMO label on one thing, it could have a detrimental impact on something else.
Q: Are you interested in extending this study in anyway? For instance, taking it from surveys to an actual supermarket setting, or as you’ve done in other instances, arrange scenarios where you’re interviewing consumers in person and presenting them with actual products...
A: That’s always the ideal, but it’s challenging to conduct studies like that. The problem is getting access to stores to do it. Retailers sometimes don’t like you telling consumers about the products in the stores and giving them different messages about pesticides, GMOs, and CRISPR. That can be tricky, so a lot of times we stick to the online surveys or conducting our research outside of stores. I would love to go into stores and change prices of organic products and see how demand changes...
Where we go from here — the next step… I’m working on a study looking at plants and the media message, what’s the source of the information, and how that impacts consumer perceptions. I would love to understand if the information is from a producer versus a retailer versus an association, versus a mass media outlet. What would happen if each of these players told you the same message, how would that influence the different choices? If an ag group told you about GMOs versus a retailer telling you about GMOs, would that impact the message and your purchasing decision?
Q: That research sounds fascinating...
A: My hypothesis would be if the information was coming from an activist group, the consumer would take the information more seriously... generally people trust universities; they don’t trust the government that much. They trust activists, they don’t trust retailers as much; they don’t trust industry associations as much. You have these different groups that are vying for power and influence, in respect to getting information out.
Q: It’s an interesting hypothesis to test. Will consumers be more accepting of a scientific-based, academic study debunking the EWG Dirty Dozen claims than if they are warned to stay away from produce on the Dirty Dozen list on the Today Show or Dr. Oz? Further, if the messenger of that scientific-based study is the Alliance for Food and Farming, an industry organization, will that influence the consumers’ perception of its accuracy? We’ve been reporting on these issues for many years.
A: At the NYPS, I’ll talk about the production-practices messaging study we did, and the next steps...
If you put a government GMO label on a product, it may have a detrimental impact on the consumer’s desire to purchase that product. But what we found in this study was if the GMO label also comes with good information describing what it is, the consumers could be nudged toward that GM product, and affect how they view other products. In the same way, pesticides are not all bad when you tell consumers what they are, and why they’re used. They may move incrementally toward the pesticide group, especially with plants, and away from the organic alternative. When people understand what it is, they are less likely to fear it and thereby say they are more likely to buy it.
Q: Did any of the results surprise you?
A: I expected if you provided pesticide information, it was only going to have an impact on pesticide products. I wasn’t expecting to see so much cross effect on the other products, in respect to pesticides impacting organic, and GMO’s impacting CRISPR and organic.
Q: What are the main issues you’d like produce suppliers and retailers to ponder? Is it fair to say — based on the parameters of this study, that on average the data indicated little or marginal impact on respondents’ opinions and decisions to purchase...?
A: I would say it differently: Some messaging had small impacts… though small, it could be the difference between purchasing and not purchasing if the product is similar in price, appearance, etc. There are cross effects for many of the messages, in that a message effects views of other production methods.
Messaging can have a marginal impact, but given the cross effects, produce producers and retailers need to be careful that promoting one message does not detrimentally impact another production method used.
For all the talk about people really wanting to know their farmers and to know where their food comes from, there is actually precious little evidence that consumers at your typical Walmart are anxious to extend their shopping trip to allow for in-depth information to be exchanged about products and their origins and impact on people and the world.
For at least the past 15 years, the industry has been on an all out effort to educate consumers about the Dirty Dozen report issued each year. What success the effort has had is more with journalists to, in some cases, hold back on reflexively promoting the report as meaningfully scientific.
So the question is not only what knowledge might get consumers to act differently, but how we can actually get consumers to absorb that knowledge.
With an explosion of new technology and new labeling rules, this is an important issue for industry discussion.
Come and join the discussion. Hear Professor Campbell’s report and engage in the topic afterwards.
You can register to attend The New York Produce Show and Conference here.
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Join us at the New York Produce Show and Conference and be part of the discussion that moves the industry ahead!
Markon’s Tim York To Speak In Amsterdam: How To Profit From Omni-Channel Proficiency… Foodservice, Retail And The Produce Supply Chain
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Tim York Recognized For Food Safety Leadership
Dangers And Broader Implications Of Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index
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A Call For An Industrywide Sustainability And Social Responsibility Initiative
Markon and Pundit sister publication, Produce Business, were both launched in 1985, and Tim York and the Pundit have had a friendship pretty much ever since. It was the Spinach Crisis of 2006 that led to a much closer working relationship — as we focused on finding ways to advance food safety in an industry that had, for most of history, been thought to be exempt from most food safety problems.
The traditional idea was that produce would get rotten before it became dangerous. But industry advancements, such as modified atmosphere packaging — which meant produce would look good longer — and the growth of blends — where a small amount of a contaminated item could contaminate a large amount of blended product — had started to make the old rules ancient history. Then the industry had Osama Bin Laden to thank. The terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 made the government concerned about food security, so it flooded state departments of health with money for upgrades in both testing equipment and in communications networks. Soon after, our ability to trace illnesses was much improved.
Tim, though already deep in the woods on food safety, always saw our industry’s efforts as part of an overall approach to boost consumption. After all, consumer confidence in the product was prerequisite to getting consumers to buy more. So with the shared goal to increase produce consumption at restaurants, he joined us when we launched the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference. This year that event, held on Friday, December 13, is focused on menu-planning, and we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects editor Mira Slott to talk with Tim, who recently announced plans to leave Markon, and find out more about this moment in his life:
Markon Cooperative, Inc.
Q: Your powerful industry leadership in ground-breaking food safety and sustainability initiatives has been profound. You’ve never shied away from complex issues, rousing our readers, and Produce Show attendees in New York, London and Amsterdam with your extensive foodservice background and produce expertise on our global thought-leader panels.
You also facilitate a popular highlight of the New York Produce Show’s unique Foodservice Ideation Forum—a dynamic breakout luncheon enjoining culinary students and foodservice executives across the supply chain in a solution-driven discussion.
A: New York is an amazing show, as well as London and Amsterdam. The content is so rich because you bring in so many expert speakers. Your targeted grape and cherry summits, and unique themed events are strong formats too. I was honored to be included among the distinguished line-up of top retailers and thought-leaders to present my perspective at the Amsterdam Produce Summit on strategies for seizing success in the omni-channel future. All these diverse programs have a dedicated following.
Q: You have built a long, distinguished career at Markon and as an industry advocate on which to share your perspective. What are your plans moving forward?
A: I expect to be here at Markon through June, 2020. Then to parts unknown but still in the industry. We have not yet identified a successor — the board has an executive search underway.
I had originally been planning to stay at Markon until 2023, but you know it just seemed like the right time for me to begin thinking of doing something else. I’m really in the early stages of looking and seeing what might be of interest to me.
I’ve been at Markon for 34 years. It’s a little bit daunting to be thinking of leaving and where I go next. But at the same time, Markon has provided such a great opportunity to meet people all around this business and around the world. I’m just going to watch and listen. I certainly intend to stay in this business. I love the business, and I love the people. We have great products to sell and a great story to tell about them, so I want to continue with that.
I remarried here a few months ago. My wife Kim and I are wide open to new adventures and new places. I’m committed to the produce industry and want to take advantage of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom and hopefully bring that value to another company or new entity, whatever that may be.
Q: Can you tell us about your experience at Markon and what you take with you? What are some of your most memorable moments...
A: Starting when we were formed in 1985, it was a brand new concept for foodservice distributors buying direct and managing their own packs and products and sourcing. It’s great fun to be part of building something, and especially something that is brand new and learning along the way.
I didn’t know when I came to work for Markon what the foodservice business really was. The buyer needs were different than for regular buyers. I was learning along the way too. We started with innovation as the foundation for what we were doing — the whole idea being innovative. We really worked to continue that tradition.
When we said we wanted to eliminate all iced products, that required experiments with new technologies and new films to be able to ship broccoli, for example, with no ice. We said staples in cartons are a problem in a foodservice operation… in following the product, people cut themselves on the staples, so we wanted all boxes staples-free.
Early on, we also wanted everything fully recyclable. We did that before anyone, including us, heard the word sustainability. I wish I had records of all these things. We did that no less than 25 years ago. We said we wanted everything fully recyclable, particularly companies serving major metro areas like New York City, where waste disposable was a big issue.
We standardized our pallets because we had automated warehouses that required good solid wood platforms. So, we standardized pallets with structural integrity around those. Food safety was another area where we tried to lead.
Q: You were progressive on several fronts... You personally took a particularly aggressive stance on food safety issues, instrumental in the formation of the Center for Produce Safety in 2007, which you chaired for many years... Was this triggered by the infamous spinach crisis?
A: The spinach crisis overwhelmed the industry in 2006.
Q: I can attest to that. Our in-depth coverage was extensive...
A: We had launched our food safety programs back in 1998. The incredible thing is, when you think about this, we required at minimum a third-party audited food safety program. That was the very first step we took.
Q: Was that unusual at that time?
A: Believe it or not, we eliminated 25 percent of our supplier base because they did not have a third-party audited food safety program. It tells you how far we’ve come as an industry in 21 years.
So, we had been working on food safety, and we saw an opportunity in 2006 to make a difference. We worked with Dave Corsi at Wegmans and used our contacts and relationships through PMA to try to move the industry forward together.
Those are highlights from my time at Markon.
Q: I wanted to ask you about one more innovation that Markon fostered for foodservice, fresh-cut produce items...
A: Fresh Express was already doing fresh-cut for retail. You know, when we started in fresh-cut, it just wasn’t a very good product. We went through quite a learning curve, along with our suppliers, Dole and Fresh Express, in those days. First off, learning how to sell those products from our end, but also from the supplier side, learning more about breathable films and respiration rates for products. We launched our own brand of pre-cut items in 1996, and that’s what we call Ready Set Serve. Those are our ready-to-use items, and that accounts for over 40 percent of our total volume.
Q: That’s a transformation. Markon has been quite a trendsetter in the industry... Did you always have the support and buy-in from your members? You work with some major industry players in your cooperative...
A: Yes, what’s really fun is to be a part of that. It’s been great. And it happened because we have members that believe in the mission and support those ideals. When we say we’re going to do something, we had the trust that our members were going to support us and be behind the decisions we were making. That’s important, and a big part of why this all happened because they supported our efforts.
Q: Let’s transition now to the New York Produce Show’s Foodservice Forum on Friday, Dec. 13, and the value of the Ideation Breakout Luncheon you facilitate... Do you have some words of inspiration for someone who hasn’t attended before? This year the theme is Produce R&D: Deconstructing The Menu Playbook...the forum is intended to stimulate thought and open dialogue among the foodservice industry’s leaders from all aspects of the supply chain.
A: Several things stand out to me. You have industry specialists revealing important insights, such as Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef from Gordon Food Service. He talks about food trends and exclusive research he’s conducting. The first time I heard the term “veg-centric menus” was from Gerry at this conference. Experts from outside the confines of the produce industry, such as Chandra Ram, editor of Plate Magazine or Cathy Holly, publisher and editor-in-chief of Flavor and the Menu, bring another perspective around trends.
This is the best place I know of to find out what the menu trends are relative to fresh produce and help us begin to imagine what the opportunities may be, and how we can help operators be successful. For example, Gerry Ludwig describes aggressive cooking techniques, much like you would use in meat products — grilling, brazing or charring and doing that with fruits or vegetables — and how delicious they can be. Just hearing that helps encapsulate for me how we have to keep thinking about helping operators with ideas to make produce more interesting, instead of just putting broccoli on the plate with butter on top.
The food trends are one thing. It’s a small enough group, it’s an intimate enough group, that there’s a great exchange of ideas. People are talking openly and honestly as a group, which I find nice. It’s not a big auditorium or something of that nature with hundreds and hundreds of people. This is a couple hundred, a very comfortable size.
Q: Can you talk about the mix of stakeholders from different parts of the supply chain?
A: Yes. You have distributors like us represented, key foodservice operators, growers/shippers, commodity boards, chefs and culinary students also. So you’ve really got the beginning, the middle and the end of supply chain there, I always find it valuable hearing others ideas and inputs, whether about trends, challenges, about product, how it’s packed, labor challenges and how we can help address them...any of those things because you’ve got such a wide-ranging audience there that’s what makes the Show so valuable.
Q: From your vantage point and knowledge, what are the biggest challenges or disrupters with a successful new menu rollout?
A: It’s always challenging. It’s one thing to have a good idea or new product and another to see it implemented through the supply chain. First you may have to convince a grower/shipper to plant that seed of a product in the ground. And convince distributors this is an item or an idea worth pursuing, and then they need to sell it through to the operator, and sometimes doing that direct. You must equip the distributors that work with that operator to show why this is different and why they should include this on their menu. That’s no small challenge.
For an operator, it means changing up the menu and training people how to prepare that. For distributors, it means training employees and what needs to be done in the warehouse. For growers there’s risk of putting that crop in the ground. I think of a conductor in an orchestra, trying to get everyone thinking and moving in harmony. That’s what is required for good execution of new products and innovation, interconnecting the people that are similarly committed to it.
Q: I wasn’t expecting you to start all the way back to the origins of planting the seed in the ground, when talking logistical obstacles to menu development, although it analogizes the distance from planting the seed of an idea to bringing that idea to fruition!
In another sense, translating an idea or new menu item to a large QSR or national fast food chain, as opposed to an independent local restaurant, creates additional complexities and limitations...
A: There’s a reason McDonald’s is not the first restaurant to introduce a mixed green salad. When a restaurant has 14,000 units in this country, it’s difficult to execute certain items over a large operation, across an entire supply chain. So, it’s no small feat, as you point out, for the larger operators to be able to pull that off.
Q: Will you be eliciting industry solutions to these challenges during the interactive Foodservice Forum session? How would you describe the IDEATION Luncheon for newcomers?
A: What we do at lunch time is give people an overall menu challenge, which varies based on the table they are sitting at. Culinary students lead each table’s session to create a menu that meets the challenge. One year, for instance, the overall challenge was to come up with produce-centric dishes that would cater to different patrons… one table’s menu was for a baseball stadium, where convenience would be necessary, another for a fast-casual “meat and potato” style restaurant in the mid-west, etc.
It could be a challenge around a new leaf lettuce item, for example, and this operator wants to use it for a sandwich. What are the steps we have to do to take it from a concept to execution? It could be a grower/shipper that has a new variety of extra sweet and juicy cantaloupe. How do we translate that down to a consumer who orders melon for breakfast? How do we communicate to the consumer that this cantaloupe is different from what they typically get down the street?
There are all sorts of challenges that get thrown at us. This is an enjoyable way to talk out these ideas as we’re sitting down together eating a delicious meal. There’s a great cross-section of people to hear from, and exchange experiences, and make some new friends.
I’ve been participating in the Ideation Luncheon for several years now, and it’s a lot of fun. The students at the culinary schools are enthusiastic about it, furiously jotting down their table’s menu concepts on white boards, to share with the entire group. We also can impress upon the culinary students, not only the importance of fruits and vegetables on the menu, but the opportunity they represent for menu specialization and differentiation. We can be infectious with these students by how we approach that time together. Different foodservice panels require different approaches, and you have to think that through, what works for a fast-casual restaurant won’t be the same as what works for a university.
Q: What do you gain personally? Have there been moments where a lightbulb goes off, sparking a new idea for your company, or is it more of a chance to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a long time...
A: It’s many things. We all need a little shot of adrenalin. It’s one of those few events where I really feel that way. I’ve gotten an injection of enthusiasm or interest around the opportunities that we have in this business.
A great food town like New York City does that too. The setting itself and being there during the holiday season with the lights and decorations, there’s a certain feeling around the Show that makes it special.
Q: I’m in agreement with you, there’s a palpable energy and excitement in the air throughout the Show.
A: And despite the winter chill, a genuine feeling of warmth that it generates! On Tuesday, you have the Foundational Excellence Program focused on new people in the business, on Wednesday, you have the Global Trade Symposium, on Thursday the main trade show day filled with activities, and then on Friday, concurrently the Foodservice Forum, or a choice of several different retail tours. It’s four days of different looks at our business.
Even with my 40 plus years in the produce industry, I always get fresh ideas and fresh insight. It’s an exhausting full four days, but it’s the best investment I could ask for. I find all four days invaluable.
What makes Tim exceptional is that he has always seen the path to success for his own company as being commensurate with raising the standards of the whole industry. That led to his efforts on food safety and sustainability. It also led to him to engaging in industry association work, becoming chairman of PMA in 2002. It led him to working with yours truly on so many projects. Much of his work is public, but we know how much he also weighed in behind the scenes.
Foodservice was always ahead of retail on food safety. This is mostly due to the laws that hold restaurants responsible for creating food in a way that retailers are not. So, at the exact moment the industry was most in need, opportunity met preparation, and Tim moved the industry forward.
Now, soon, we will experience the next chapter in his life, but wherever and whatever it may be, we can be certain Tim will move the industry forward with a broad scope and great passion. We are lucky to have him in the industry.
This year Tim will be on the industry panel in the Foundational Excellence Program, Part of the Thought Leader’s Panel on the amin show and part of the Foodservice Forum.
You can sign up for Foundational Excellence here
The Foodservice Forum here
The New York Produce Show and Conference here
If you need a hotel let us know here.
We look forward to having you be a part of this important event.