We announced the Thought Leader Panel at the recently completed edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference with this piece:
As the Industry Transitions from The Great Collaboration to The Great Acceleration:
Announcing the 2021 Perishable Pundit Thought-Leaders at The New York Produce Show And Conference
Then we added some luminaries to the panel with this piece:
Thought Leadership Counts – Broader, Deeper And Rising Higher!
Then, schedules resolved, the stars aligned and last minute we were able to add a superstar from Hunts Point and the wholesale sector:
Executive Vice President
S. Katzman Produce
Stefanie Katzman is Executive Vice President and fourth generation in the family business at
S. Katzman Produce, a leading wholesaler/distributor of produce based in NYC. She works alongside her father, Stephen Katzman, who is President and Owner of the 100+ year old business, which is SQF-certified, sources nationally and internationally, and provides a full range of fruits, vegetables, berries, specialties, services, and offerings throughout the United States. Stefanie is also Co-owner of MamaMia Produce.
It was a pleasure to have Stefanie holding the banner high for the wholesale sector, and, in general, the panel was thought-provoking and insightful. We appreciate the willingness of such industry luminaries to share their knowledge to help make the industry better.
We are lining up the Thought Leader Panel for the London Produce Show and Conference, and it is going to be epic. Get information on attending here.
Interested in Exhibiting or Sponsoring in London? Request info at this link.
Let us get you set up for a booth in the next New York event here.
And put you on the list for attendee information regarding the next New York show right here.
Our gratitude to Stefanie and all our Thought Leaders for helping the industry to move ahead!
Cutting Edge Chefs and Food + Hospitality + Supply Chains + Storytelling = Brave New World of Food Delivery
There’s no denying we’re continuing a new era of food delivery, but how can we do it smarter and in a way that preserves both the brand and the hospitality diners crave? Kristen Barnett, founder and chief executive of Hungry House, Brooklyn, NY, is forging a new model for ghost kitchens, working with chefs to launch their signature menu items on the Hungry House platform, executed in the Hungry House kitchen.
Chefs earn a royalty on all sales of their menu items, while Hungry House takes care of real estate, procurement, labor, technology and operations. She shared her story and spoke about the future of food delivery at the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, a post-show event of the New York Produce Show. Barnett, who is the former chief operating officer of Zuul, a food technology company recently acquired by Kitchen United, spoke with Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, to describe her cutting edge work in what she calls a “second gen ghost kitchen model.”
Founder and Chief Executive
Q. The rise of food delivery has upended much of the restaurant and food industry as business models have shifted. So what DOES the food delivery business model shift mean for operators and menus, and the foodservice industry in general?
A. A lot of people, as delivery just took off, rethought a lot of their operations and menus to better service customers through that channel, given the constraints or considerations you have — from food traveling well, to packaging, to price points, to menu design and then presentation, the logistics and the entire customer interaction as it relates to how it's facilitated with technology. So, it was like a holistic revision of the business that many restaurants had to consider. And part of it, too, was the rise of the dark kitchen model, where you were suddenly able to still interact with customers or sell food, but purely through a digital relationship and then fulfilled from any space that could have a kitchen to cook in. Every single part of the business was rethought and re-engineered to reach customers through this new channel.
Q. So where are we at in that process now?
A. Obviously, a lot of businesses are normalizing and probably handling pent-up demand from customers who are excited to dine in and visit an establishment. But, at the same time, it's very clear the delivery business is not going away, and so it's really understanding how that business looks alongside what might be a core pick-up/walk-in business, or whatever your bread and butter is.
Now, contained within this, I think, is also the realization that not everything as it pertains to ghost kitchens or food delivery is good. I think in the beginning, just any way of being able to sell food or reach customers was a good thing, with things so dire with a pandemic, but as things have played out, I think there's a greater understanding that there are a lot of downsides to the model, especially when you're reliant on third party platforms that inhibit your ability to actually reach customers and communicate to them, access to data, or do they drive any sense of hospitality? Not to mention the economics for many of these platforms that charge 30% commission on those orders.
I think now we’re entering in a phase of a reckoning — OK, this happened, and people use delivery now, and it's widely accepted that it’s a way you can serve your customer. But how can we do it in a smarter way that preserves margins, brands and hospitality? And those are the hardest questions people are trying to answer as we shift into a new normal, and obviously questions that we're trying to answer with Hungry House, as well.
Q. Hungry House literally just opened, and you’ve launched “Season 01” in your ghost kitchen location in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, featuring partnerships with chef-influencers and brands such as Woldy Kusina, The Food Sermon from Rawlston Williams, Apocalypse Burger from Martha Hoover and The Goods Mart. What has the initial response been both from chefs and from patrons?
A. It’s been incredible. We are constantly hitting sales targets in a week that I thought we’d hit in months later, and it's just been amazing. From chefs, the reception has been like, “wow, tell me more.” I think our message is resonating with a really broad culinary audience, just given that we're addressing, head-on, a lot of the drivers of skepticism in the ghost kitchen industry. I definitely have had plenty of conversations with chefs and people in the food industry, reporters or otherwise, that are just skeptical of ghost kitchens, like “does it really help,” and “who does it serve,” “how do the economics work,” “what about quality?”
Hungry House is seeking to flip the ghost kitchen narrative on its head, and help the next generation of chefs and culinary leaders really see that there is a way to leverage this model for good, and to make an impact, and scale your brand. Our strategy is to do that with intentionality, with a focus on supply chain and ultimately great execution — all further enhanced by a native platform, with control, end to end, over the guest experience and a sense of hospitality infused through all of it. Those are a lot of the things that actually matter to chefs. In many other ghost kitchen models, I think there are gaps in some of those key areas. We're hoping that we can target partnerships that maybe otherwise wouldn't think about those kitchens as something that would be a part of their business.
Q. You mentioned the supply chain. Let’s talk about what you’re doing to create partnerships throughout the supply chain.
A. One way to think about our approach to supply chain — and in many things that we do at Hungry House — is looking at the broader ghost kitchen industry and understanding what's been happening there. Many of the virtual brands and kitchen initiatives that have launched recently, are the celebrity-backed brands that are launched across the U.S. in networks of independent restaurants that are looking to partner with an online brand to sell incremental menu items. Many of these brands that a restaurant can choose to partner with are often easy to execute, commoditize — so it might be chicken wings, or french fries, maybe some burgers, and there's no problem with that.
But, from our point of view at Hungry House, it all felt the same. It really wasn't moving the needle forward when it came to leveraging the ghost kitchen models, and push the edge of what's possible in culinary. In our model, we are executing the food and because that is our No. 1 focus, we have a fully staffed culinary team in our restaurants that execute the menu that comes from our partnerships. And not only do we have control then over the quality versus this network of independent restaurants, but we also have control over the supply chain. So, because we don't have to just think about what's the easiest way to execute something, we can really take a dish and and think, OK, what’s the best supplier for this burger? I'm still hitting certain cost targets, but what's going to be right for this brand? We have partnered with this amazing burger concept, the Apocalypse Burger, and we sourced the meat from Happy Valley Meat Company, because it's a really important part of the Apocalypse Burger brand to have that high quality beef. That’s just one example where, because we have that edge over the value chain, you can make decisions that actually enhance each of these brand partnerships and meet their own goals when it comes to quality.
I don't know that a typical chef looking at a ghost kitchen partnership would be able to maybe lean into supply chain, but my background is in supply chain and I love it, and I think it's a really critical part of executing any meal.
Q. What else makes Hungry House unique?
A. There are a lot of ghost kitchens out there, a lot of people cooking other people's brands or menus — we’re not necessarily unique in that regard. But we are very specifically focusing on what has been relatively untouched thus far, and that is unlocking the star power of culinary influencers and chefs who have built really successful followings online. We're really focused on unlocking that pent-up demand for the most exciting food people that are leveraging the internet and media, to tell us stories and get customers really excited about food. We feel this is a very unique slice of the market to focus on and, ultimately, a huge opportunity.
Instagram started, I feel, with people taking photos of food, but there’s never been a way for culinary influencers to monetize it the way that a fashion influencer can slap a logo on a T-shirt. And also the stakes are much higher because you're not eating that T shirt. It takes a certain type of operator and perspective to lean into the power of the creator economy, and I want to see that these new voices — that are clearly capturing the hearts and minds of so many people — are able to scale their businesses and do it in a strategic way with a partner that shares their values and allows them to continue the amazing work they're doing with storytelling, partnerships, pop-ups, or other components of their business. We can be their partner in actually executing the food, setting up the supply chain, raising the capital, building the kitchen, and doing all of those things that if they had to do them alone would take them away from all the amazing work they're doing online or otherwise. That’s really where we see our role and where we see our niche. Our whole operating system and model is designed to support that specific group of people that I truly believe are the future of food.
Q. I can tell you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Why is Hungry House important to you?
A. Food is super powerful, and it’s always been a passion of mine. My entire food career has been organized around the idea of “how do I make good food at scale?” So as I've seen ghost kitchens take off, and food delivery be an integral part of a customer's life, I've been seeing all these virtual concepts scale, and ghost kitchens grow as a model. And I felt like we were leaving behind chefs and ways of doing business when it comes to sourcing and producing food that I truly believe are incredibly important to our future.
I wanted to create a ghost kitchen model that could support high quality ingredients and powerful storytelling as a way of acquiring digital real estate for the future and making sure that when people are interacting with food online and buying food online, they're doing it in a way that supports a great future for all of us, and those critical storytelling and hospitality-driven elements, any experience that you would value with the brands. It’s literally a dream to build this company. I feel so honored to have this shot and work with incredible people that I truly admire.
Q. What do you feel was the big message that you hope the foodservice industry at large will glean from your presentation at the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum?
I'm really interested in the ways in which Hungry House can also support strong storytelling when it comes to the supply chain. I am constantly looking at how to highlight great partners of mine that are doing really incredible work in the supply chain, for example, I'm always highlighting Burlap and Barrel and Happy Valley Meat Company. I think there's a lot of room for really innovative, supply chain partnerships as we move forward, because someone can bring to market a new product with Hungry House. We're so focused on storytelling and content, and we could be a big part of a rollout of something really special. I always ask any audience I speak to, "what’s the coolest thing that you're doing or you’ve heard of” and, “how can Hungry House potentially help you tell that story and increase access to that product or that person?” That's one thing that I think was definitely an exciting thought exercise for this audience, as it is for many of your readers.
So, if you want to feel you haven’t made the most of your life, spend a little time with Kristen Barnett. While in college at Cornell, she served as President of Mountains for Moms and led a 13 person trip to the 19,341-foot high summit of Mount Kilimanjaro while raising money to combat obstetric fistula, a debilitating injury for moms. Shelater founded the Dyson Symposium on Women in Leadership and, in her spare time, was President of Delta Sigma Pi, the business fraternity.
Starting out her career at The Boston Consulting Group, in a profusion of jobs, she quickly wound up as Chief Operating Officer of Zuul, a ghost kitchen operator that was acquired by Kitchen United, and now she is at the intersection of food and technology at her entrepreneurial venture, Hungry House. Just describing the whirlwind that is Kristen Barnett gets us hungry.
If anyone doubts the value of the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, well, what can we say but she gave the group an MBA in food and entrepreneurship in one single session. What a tour de force!
If you want to learn about attending the Foodservice Forum we do in London, or attending the London Produce Show and Conference, please let us know here.
If you are interested in sponsoring or exhibiting in London, just send a note here.
This December’s Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum and New York Produce Show is looking like a big winner, so sign up for attendee information here.
And if exhibiting or sponsoring this year’s New York event sounds intriguing, request more information here.
Many thanks to Kristen Barnett for inspiring us all to step it up a notch… or fifty!
We ran a piece titled, Up On The Roof: An Urban Farm Right Above The New York Produce Show And Conference, which highlighted the fact that The New York Produce Show and Conference, though in the middle of New York City, was now actually taking place right under a farm!
We made a little video to show case what was going on “Up on the Roof”:
Thanks to everyone who joined us at the New York show this year.
It was an incredible reunion for the industry.
This year, the show date is December 1, 2022, and the various workshops, seminars and tours run from November 29 – December 2, 2022.
And with capacity limits hopefully lifted, we hope to provide a rooftop tour for all who want to see the urban farm!
If you would like to be put on the list for information regarding attending the New York show later this year, please let us know here.
If you would like to explore opportunities to exhibit or sponsor, please advise us at this link.
And, of course, please consider extending the learning- and commerce-seeking by attending The London Produce Show and Conference. You can request attendee information here and information on exhibiting and sponsoring right here.
Let us all make 2022 a year “Up on the Rooftop”!!!
If you change one life, generations are touched: The produce industry is uniquely situated to help address global social disparities
Is there more we can do as individuals, farms and companies to make the world a better place — even though that sounds overwhelming? Yes, and it can start with one person, one farm, one company. Sergio Borquez Schwarzbeck, executive vice president of his family’s farming operation, Campos Borquez, headquartered in Sonora, Mexico, emphasized the role the produce industry can play in improving social and environmental sustainability in his presentation at the Global Trade Symposium, a pre-show event of the New York Produce Show.
A return speaker at the New York Produce Show, Borquez recently spoke with Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, to explain how Campos Borquez initiated several projects to improve the communities that are home to the farm’s migrant workers — programs he thinks can be recreated in many forms across the globe.
Sergio Borquez Schwarzbeck
Q. Can you give us a brief introduction of your education and work, and background of your family’s farming operation? What are the primary produce products raised?
A. I grew up a fourth-generation farmer here in the state of Sonora, Mexico, and I loved it since Day One. I’ve been working here full-time since I graduated from Cornell University in upstate New York in 2015 with a degree in business, with concentrations in finance and food industry management, and a minor in viticulture. When I was growing up, I had the privilege of working every position during harvest, as a picker, packer and working my way up to harvest manager. When I graduated, I started in more administrative work. We didn’t have an HR department, so I built one from the ground up, then moved into the finance department, and now I’m the executive vice president.
We grow and ship table grapes, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, and asparagus, with orchards of avocados and mangos that will come into production soon.
Q. Why is the issue of social and economic equality so important to you, to Campos Borquez, and what will you be sharing at the New York show?
A. About five years ago, in 2016, I presented information at the New York Produce Show about a social responsibility program, a water supply project through the Fair Trade USA Certification program that we have worked closely with also for many years. This year, I’m sharing information on this and other projects that Campos Borquez has made or currently operates in collaboration with Whole Foods, Fair Trade USA Certification, and Regenerative Organic Certification.
We operate in northwest Mexico, and we have migrant workers coming from Central and South Mexico temporarily for the harvest seasons, which is three to six months of the year and then they go back to their homes. We try to provide all our services free here — dental, optometry, medical — all that we are able to do. We are able to keep really good retention rates, and we will have people coming back 12 to 18 years in a row.
But five years ago, we started to look at how are their lives proceeded when they were back home. Are their kids going to have more opportunities than they had when they grew up? We started looking at all these indicators and the needs they had back home, and we realized one village of 1,300 people that sent 350 people to work with us every year didn’t have access to potable water. They had to walk every day, three to six hours a day, to bring water back in buckets for their personal use, for cooking, for hygiene, everything. We couldn't believe that reality. We're working to provide the fresh fruits and vegetables to the households with the highest income on average in the world, Whole Foods’ buyers — and the people that are providing that food didn’t have water in their homes.
So we made it our job to correct the situation, and we worked with programs, and got it organized individually, and were able to execute and build an entire water supply system to every single one of the homes in the village.
In the past five years, we really progressed to another level. We’ve not only done the water supply, but we have continued doing ongoing programs in the migrant workers’ community. We’ve helped these people build 130 homes, we build recreational parks, and now we're starting to do a micro-finance organization funded by the Fair Trade program that will help, for example, their wives to do entrepreneurship work in their own homes. And we’ll track how the economics and lifestyle of these people improve year over year, as they continue to come and work with us.
Q. Why are these efforts important to the produce industry, and why did you choose to highlight them in New York?
The reason why we were able to do it, and continue to keep doing it, is because we have a commitment from a buyer, from the retailer or the Fair Trade organization that provided the structure. We believe if we have an industry that is coordinated and committed, that buys into the responsibility that a farming organization has, we can take that impact to another level.
In this industry, we are in touch with life in so many ways: the soil is a living ecosystem; the plants are a living thing; we provide the most essential product of all, food for people, and it's so beautiful how God has connected to people, to life and to the life of the planet itself. When we look at the impact we can have on the planet, improving sustainability in soil, but also to improve socio-economic conditions, living conditions and more. In this industry, we are in contact with all of that, with all of the extremes.
The truth is that if we only put a little bit of conscious commitment and responsibility all through the value chain, not only in the corporation level, we can really make an impact with our efforts. Once you have that level of power, it becomes automatically our responsibility to do it.
I can’t speak for other people, but I believe we focus too much on quick wins, quick returns, and short-term economic growth to keep us moving forward. But when we focus so much on the quick wins, we believe there is little we can do [to make an impact on global social issues]. But if we commit to this, if we dedicate some time to this, I do have to believe that we are able to make a change, and believe that we are in a unique position to do it in the world. Sometimes we think “the world is going to continue to be the world,” and “I do my part from 9 to 5, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.” But if you change one life, it’s one family, and it’s multiple generations, and that one life, it can truly be an infinite amount of impact. It doesn’t matter how much you can do, if you put your heart into it, it becomes inevitable to be part of it.
We have to let ourselves be touched, be in contact with the situation, because we are — even if you don’t want to look at it — we are in contact with it.
We all have ways to do it — it doesn’t have to be exactly like us. We’re just one example that may fit many people.
There are moments filled with difficulty… when you wonder if the industry, if the world, is actually going to make it. Then, if you are lucky, a person such as Sergio Borquez Schwarzbeck comes into your life.
He has had much good fortune in his life, yet when others have given in to arrogance, hedonism or self-centeredness, he has studied, worked hard and always sought to use the blessings that life has given him, in ways honorable and good.
One can always quibble with any specific proposal and question what the best path forward is, but merely knowing Sergio is to know that in our younger generation, there are exceptional people who can illuminate the path ahead and are willing to put in the work necessary to build a future as great as our dreams can imagine.
With COVID and such difficulties, with political discord, andwith an uncertain future, to listen to Sergio speak, generous of heart, yet practical of mind, is a rare and important pleasure.
We thank him very much for joining us in New York.
We are working to build on his content message of using the produce industry to build a better world at The London Produce Show and Conference. If you are interested in attending, please let us know here.
We have fantastic exhibit and sponsorship opportunities in London… please inquire about them here.
For this year’s December’s New York Produce Show and Conference and accompanying Global Trade Symposium attendee information, just ask at this link.
And if you are interested in exhibiting at or sponsoring this December’s Global Trade Symposium and the broader New York Produce Show and Conference, let us know here.
It was a rare privilege to be in the room as Sergio expounded on the idea that the produce industry could help build a better future for the people who toil to keep us all fed. We hope he will join us again soon.
Interest in health and sustainability — and plant-centered foods — will drive consumer behavior post-pandemic.
Consumers aren’t the same people they were pre-pandemic. Foodservice consultant and thought leader Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a consulting firm for foodservice manufacturers and operators, offered insight into how the pandemic fundamentally changed consumer perspectives and behaviors, and that impact on foodservice, at the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, Thursday, Dec. 16, a post-show event of the New York Produce Show and Conference. She recently spoke with Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, to describe that new consumer and the role produce and foodservice will play in the future. One big take away: Sustainability, in its new, broader definition, is huge.
Q. First, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what shaped what you’re doing today. How did you find yourself in the food world with your MBA?
A. While I was getting my master’s (at the University of Illinois-Chicago), I was trying to figure out, what was the next step? Where did I want to head from there? I had always been interested in food, always loved cooking and baking, and while I was in the process of evaluating and investigating different industries, Dave Henkes from Technomic, who was a graduate of the program that I was in, came to campus to recruit. And I thought, well, this seems perfect, right? It's using my business degree; it’s in food; I'll be doing consulting and research, but also be in the industry, even if I'm not cooking or baking. I ended up interviewing and got a job.
After a couple of years of working at Technomic, I ended up moving on to Datassential, but at the same time I was thinking, you know, I love doing this. I love the research and the consulting part, but I still love the cooking and the baking, and want to get more involved in that. So I ended up going back and getting a culinary degree (Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago) while I was working. And I have to say, while I've got 21 years of experience in consulting and research, the culinary degree on its own, helped in my conversation, particularly with R&D and chefs, so I could speak their language and understand what they were talking about in some of their issues.
Q. You actually owned a cafe, too, right?
A. Yes. I ran a cafe in Bennington, VT, for four years, which closed about six months before the pandemic. It used all my skills — all the consulting, all the culinary. Owning that cafe was an experience that completely reshaped the way I consult and reshaped the way I look at data and consider issues. It really was a transformative experience.
Q. Could you give us an example of how owning the cafe transformed how you view research and data in the real world now?
A. Beforehand, I was looking at the trend data and when I would talk with chain operators or manufacturers, I would say, “Here's a great trend and this is something you should consider,” or "This is how it may mesh with your products, based on the flavors and the categories or whatever.” Now, I don't just think, “oh, here's a trend that you should think about,” I think about what is sourcing going to be like, how difficult is that going to be to use internally? How hard is it to communicate that to whatever your target or core customer group is? What’s the shelf life? All of those different issues are much more a part of my analysis and my consulting. Just because a trend is growing does not mean that it's something that should even be on your radar — it might be completely inappropriate for you from an operational point of view, from a customer point of view, from a whole host of different issues.
Q. At the New York Produce Show and Conference, you spoke about the new consumer emerging from the pandemic. Who is this consumer and why?
A. For almost two years now, consumers have essentially been forced into a siege mentality. Psychologically that means they feel that they're under attack from everything. It started with a pandemic, obviously, so for some, it was the mask mandates and the vaccine; for others, the supply chain issues, and now, we're heading into inflation. That siege mentality changes the way consumers approach problems, make decisions, how they go out into the world. For an example, before the pandemic, if you couldn't get a table at a restaurant, it might be frustrating, but your life went on. If it was serving you slowly, it might be annoying, but few people freaked out about it. Now, what we saw over the past year, were so many consumers freaking out about it, to the point that restaurants now have had to post signs saying, “if you are not going to be respectful, don’t enter our establishment.” Because of the siege mentality, it’s not just “I can't get a table at this restaurant,” they see it as yet another instance of them being under attack.
All of this is really changing the way consumers approach everything, but the food industry and foodservice in particular.
Another example is Gen Z, now the youngest consumers who are actively involved in foodservice decisions. They are incredibly technologically forward, and were very engaged in everything that was remote and tech driven and social media. You would have thought that they would have come through the pandemic with no problem, right? They barely talked to people face to face before, so why was the lockdown an issue? Interestingly, that generation suffered more psychologically and mentally. Before the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about Gen Z, and everything's going to go tech — the order kiosks and things of that nature. The reality is that they are still tech driven. They're still engaged in tech, but the need for hospitality has increased and they place a greater level of importance on human interaction to some degree, so it's a balance of tech and human interaction — and that is a fundamental shift for that generation.
The pandemic also shortened people's outlook. Before the pandemic, most people thought long term — not just what am I going to do tomorrow, but next month, next year, and what’s my life path? The pandemic immediately shortened that perspective. People were quite literally just thinking, “How do I get through today? How do I get through tomorrow?” That's why we saw so much of the indulgence, comfort, throwing out any kind of concern about health issues — "I’m just going to eat whatever I want to eat,” because they were only thinking about today or tomorrow or next week.
Now that we are, hopefully, despite a momentary Omicrom pause, emerging out of that mentality, and our outlook and our perspective is shifting again, to a longer-term perspective. As that happens, consumers are thinking more about eating better and thinking about health — and here's where the plant-based items and produce, fruit and vegetables in particular, start becoming even more important. The interesting thing is, comfort and indulgence isn’t going to cease to be an issue, but health becomes the forward issue. But now, it's not about ‘health for health’s sake’ or strictly health foods — it’s going to be health foods with a little indulgence; plant-based, but how do I make that craveable and something that you really want to eat. So even if some of the changes are subtle, some of them are actually pretty significant.
Q. So how does foodservice begin to prepare for that, and where does produce fit in?
A. Foodservice has been shifting in this direction, so it's not a complete about-face, but it's designing these plant-based or plant-forward options, not just for the vegan or vegetarian or the super-healthful consumer. It's designing foods that are gorgeous, with great texture, amazing flavor, and they fit with whatever your menu is — and they just happen to be plant-based and plant-forward. It's the right blend of all of the different plant-based elements that can create the texture, the flavor and the visual appeal, balanced with breads, or different types of fats, even animal protein used more as a garnish or to complement the plant-based elements, rather than be the primary showcase.
There are a lot of different ways to do that, and I think there's a growing list of products that provide a lot of different options. I’m not talking about the hyper-processed, animal protein replacement products that are out there. For chefs, in particular, there are products that help them shift the texture of fruits and vegetables, or there are other ingredients they can start leveraging, like aquafaba, that help them mimic other products they may have used, while still having that incredibly, craveable experience on the back end.
Q. Can you tell us more about protein alternatives in foodservice?
A. In September, I worked with another organization, and I actually presented some of this public data when I was in New York. It was a nationally representative study of consumers to understand where they're at with this whole protein alternative issue — which, of course, brought up a whole host of other questions about where they're out with fruit and vegetables. There were many interesting findings, and I will go through a number of them in New York, because this protein alternative is such a hot topic, and these hyper-processed products seem to be disruptors.
The reality is, from the data, we found that while (particularly) younger consumers are open to the idea of these types of hyper-processed products, and they're willing to try them, the reality is they are little more than a niche — kind of unique items to try, rather than something to adopt long-term. What they're really looking for is a better balance in their diet, having the right balance of plant-based versus animal-based. In fact, Gen Z is significantly less likely to say that they are abandoning animal products, they’re just looking for a better balance in their in their diet.
More importantly, I think, the big Achilles’ heel for these hyper-processed products, is that particularly younger consumers, and this is statistically significantly true for Gen Z, are increasingly concerned about the lack of transparency in the ingredients. And, while I think these products are focused on mimicking the animal product experience, I think they've got a blind spot for this growing concern about “what exactly am I eating here?”
Q. So food transparency and sustainability concerns are growing?
A. I think people are becoming even more concerned about or they're more focused on: What am I eating? What am I buying? How is this impacting me, my family, my community, the community at large? People have a much broader perspective on the role that their behavior plays, not just for themselves, but overall.
Sustainability is no longer just specifically environmentally based water and air quality, etc., it incorporates animal welfare and animal rights, workers’ rights, social justice. Sustainability now is this incredibly, hugely encompassing term. And I think that's because people are far more conscious about these type of processed products. I see chefs, in particular, and some chain operators are increasingly moving away, or who have chosen not to bring in one of those branded products, but rather to develop their own products back of house based on whole ingredients, like fruits and vegetables. Because ultimately long term, they will be able to defend that product and they know exactly what's in it, they control it, they control the ingredients, they can defend it, they can stand behind it.
Q. What else did you share in your presentation?
A. I unveiled a great deal of proprietary research in the presentation, I gather information from a ton of sources that's very recent, and distill that down into “why should this even matter?” It's not just a matter of “here's some interesting facts,” but why it's interesting, but how it's going to fundamentally impact what's going on the menu, how you need to think about sales, and what that's going to look like, not just for the next six months, but for the next year, or the next couple of years.
I love to have robust conversations with the audience, so I always encourage people to come in and pepper me with as many questions as they want. That's what I'm there for, and the more questions they ask, the more it makes me think about that data in potentially different ways, to re-examine what's happening. Engaging with this type of audience, with industry professionals, is as beneficial to the speakers as to the audience. Ultimately, we all want to do a better job as we move forward.
The Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum is the best kept secret in the industry. The most thoughtful and insightful speakers… and Maeve was exemplary. We can’t thank her enough for joining us.
We do a Foodservice Forum at The London Produce Show and Conference as well. So to get information on attending that event and broader London Show, let us know your interest here.
For exhibiting or sponsorship information in London, send us a note here.
And for this December’s Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum and broader New York Show attendee info, please let us know here.
If you are interested in Sponsoring or Exhibiting at this year’s New York Foodservice Forum or the broader New York Show, let us know here.
We thank Maeve Webster for keeping us thinking in this age of reinvention of the foodservice sector!
Once again, participants in the New York Produce Show and Conference had an opportunity to go on many regional tours, including an official post-show tour of several retail markets in nearby Newark, New Jersey. The tour also included a visit to AeroFarms, the world’s largest indoor vertical farm, built in a 75-year-old, converted 70,000-square-foot steel mill. Susan Crowell, a contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, talked with tour organizer Susan McAleavey Sarlund, executive director of the Eastern Produce Council, who has also been involved with the New York Produce Show since it started, to get some highlights of what was covered in the tour.
Susan McAleavey Surland
Eastern Produce Council
Q. What were the stops on this year’s New Jersey Retail Tour?
A: We kept it close to New York because of time constraints. We visited retailers Morton Williams Supermarkets and Seabra’s Market, and AeroFarms. Participants got a real flavor and taste for the passion of the produce marketplace in the metro NY area. They saw firsthand how items are merchandised at the store level, and topped it off with a tour and luncheon with the co-founder and chief marketing officer of the world’s largest vertical farm. It was not to be missed!
The Morton Williams store in Jersey City is neighborhood store. They know their clientele, and offer produce selections that cater to their neighborhood and customers — and they do a great job of merchandising produce in their space. In the metro NY marketplace, there are a lot of personalities and there’s a rich flavor of clientele these retailers are catering to, and they do a really good job of it at Morton Williams. Marc Goldman, the director of produce at Morton Williams, is a member of the Eastern Produce Council board.
Seabra's Market, which is amazing, is based in Newark. The family-owned store was founded in 1971 by a Portuguese immigrant, Americo Nunes Seabra, and they do a tremendous job of catering to the Portuguese community, and even run shopping shuttle buses from NY metro area. We toured the entire store, with a focus on the produce department where you’ll see a lot of different items that you may not always see at a retailer.
We also see a plethora of other items they offer their customers, including their large seafood department, and the meats department, which includes an on-site butcher, where we saw the meats hanging behind glass. It’s just an authentic, family business that has a true focus on their marketplace in the metro New York region.
We've gone for many years, met owner Antonio Seabra, along with Filipe Silva, director of produce, and other key team members. It is always such a special experience.
The people who meet us at these stores are so invested in these companies, and what they’re doing, and they’re just great ambassadors for the markets. They’re passionate about what they do in the produce industry and want to give back and share their stories.
Q. In addition to the retailers, tour participants had the unique opportunity to visit AeroFarms. Tell us a little bit about that stop.
A. AeroFarms is truly a unique and amazing experience for someone to have. The Newark R&D farm is the world’s largest indoor vertical farm. It uses proprietary aeroponics in its commercial indoor farms that raise produce year-round in a controlled environment. They sell at Seabra Markets, so we’ll see their packaging at the retail level.
In addition to the tour, we were able to visit their innovative warehouse/office space, and be treated to a conversation with Marc Oshima, co-founder and chief marketing officer, who is a member of the Eastern Produce Council.
We were also served lunch at AeroFarms, featuring their greens. It was simply iout of this world. I can still taste it — so fresh and delicious.
It was a one-in-a-million opportunity to see something like this firsthand. You can hear about it, you can read about it, but until you go through it and see it, you won’t understand how truly spectacular it is. Their technology and operation is at the forefront of the produce industry, and they’re proud to share what they’re doing with us. Just as The New York Produce Show and Conference is so proud to have been able to bring attendees this opportunity!
During this pandemic year, who could we count on? The question was top of mind. The answer, soon crystal clear, was Susan Sarlund and the whole board at the Eastern Produce Council.
When we launched the New York Produce Show and Conference, Susan’s father, John McAleavey, was by our side, as we wrote then:
John was from another time and, perhaps, that was the reason we always got along so well. For it has been said that this Pundit was born in the wrong age. So, together, thinking of nothing but how to do things the right way, doing things the best way, we embarked on a journey that led to the creation of this event, this industry institution.
New Event Planned For 2010:
Eastern Produce Council And PRODUCE BUSINESS AnnounceThe New York Produce Show And Conference
We cannot think of John’s daughter, Susan, without remembering something else we wrote at the time:
…for great men pass on duties to those they leave behind, and they pass on a willingness to perform the labors required. They also pass on honor, and those who had the privilege of knowing such a man are forever changed and made better for having basked in the reflected glow of a life well-lived.
A single tour may seem a small thing, but knowing the right places to stop, earning the place in people’s hearts that they want to help you… these are not simple things, and the example set is sometimes the most valuable lesson to be learned.
We are very lucky to have Susan and the EPC by our side… even more fortunate to count them as friends.
Brad Rickard has an inquisitive mind and a generous heart. He has presented with us in numerous venues and always left the audience thinking:
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
Can Labeling Impact Food Waste?
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
Now, at the most recent New York Produce Show and Conference, Professor Rickard presented some new research built around grapes, focusing on consumer attitudes and industry dynamics related to gene editing. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to detail:
Associate Professor of Food and Agricultural Economics
Faculty Fellow, Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability
Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Cornell SC Johnson College of Business
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Q: Hi Brad, first, thanks for being part of the Foundational Excellence Program. Miguel Gómez provided a nice overview, including your quick-fire multi-faceted talk, summarizing several research projects for that Program.
I also want to thank you for your more in-depth educational micro session that ran concurrently during the Main Trade Show at the Javits Center. Thanks for sending me your related research to review in advance of your session. As expected, the topic is thought-provoking and newsworthy. Your dynamic talks are always a major draw.
A: Mira, it’s good to reconnect with you, and it was nice to catch up with you again at the Show. This year’s educational session was based on work studying consumers’ willingness to accept gene edited fruit, and a paper focused on the application to quality traits for fresh table grapes.
Q: What was the impetus for the study? Is it a continuation or complementary to research you’ve done? Why are you focusing on fresh table grapes? I know it’s a highly competitive category with thousands of varieties, so I think it might be interesting to just have context on that front as well...
A: Okay. Yes, this one I would say is mostly motivated because I’m involved in a big USDA project built around breeding grapes. It’s a project that’s a little bit backward looking but mostly forward looking about what sort of things grape breeders should be taking into consideration. So, it’s things like climate change, soil use, water use, these types of sustainability attributes on the production of grapes. Yield is always a big deal when you’re thinking about new breeds of any type of fruits. But I think it’s especially true of table grapes with pest resistance. USDA included us in this big project because they also wanted people to think about the consumer element and what’s interesting or important to consumers of grapes, table grapes, raisin grapes, wine grapes. But what I talked about at the Show is just a piece specific to table grapes.
Q: Yes, that was of specific interest to our audience.
A: So, this is part of a much larger project, a five-year USDA project, called Vitis Gen. Vitis is the Latin word for grapes, and Gen represents the next generation in breeding.
Q: Could you provide context on why you’re concentrating consumer research on gene editing on the grape category?
A: Yes. So, consumers will just have to think about green grapes and red grapes or black grapes. But then, unlike apples, they don’t really carry varietal names, or as consumers, we don’t think about the varietal names. But you’re right, there are heaps and heaps of varieties in the background that sort of feed the red grapes category throughout different parts of the world and the same with green... There are some flagship table grapes varieties... I put together a couple of nice slides that show the market share of the main ones for red, green, and black, and the evolution of these varieties... when they were introduced, what market share they got to, what was their maximum market share. For instance, in the green table grape varieties between 1971 and 2020, the total acres have been about the same. In fact, there’s maybe a few less acres in green table grape production now than there was back in 1970 in the United States. But there was sort of seven main categories back in 1970 and then today we see that there are 20 main varieties…Thompson’s Seedless used to be probably 70 percent of the acreage back in 1970, and it’s still a big share but it’s probably closer to 25 percent now.
A: All these other varieties have come on board and some of them have come out of public breeding programs. Some have come out of private breeding programs. Some are licensed and patented. Some of them are still sort of coming out of USDA. But I think the punchline is that there’s many more varieties available to growers. The same could be said about red table grape varieties. I think we’ve gone from about six main varieties back in 1970 to closer to 25 varieties nowadays.
Q: Has the motivation in these breeding programs concentrated on industry production issues, shelf-life advantages, etc. Are the flavor profiles, taste, crispness, and all these consumer facing characteristics dramatically different between all these varieties...
A: They can be. These different attributes that we look at in the study can vary between varieties. They changed over time. There’s been improvements in most of those attributes, in addition to other attributes with yield and production, etc. as well.
Q: Are consumers tuned in to the nuances of all these different varieties...
A: Consumers maybe aren’t aware…if you’re not in the table grape business, you might be surprised how many varieties there are being grown in the United States today relative to 50 years ago.
I guess it just helps to motivate this whole USDA project about breeding because there’s quite a bit of breeding activity in the grape industry. There’s a lot of new varieties that exist today that didn’t exist in the past. There’s a lot of other new varieties that are on the horizon and just the whole business of breeding table grapes has become more interesting. It’s a good time to think about all these different attributes that you could breed for. You could breed for yield. You could breed for sweetness and crispness and those things that we include in our study. You could breed for the environmental attributes as well.
I guess I’m just giving some iteration that this breeding business is kind of dynamic for various reasons.
Q: With that context, let’s get into this study, where you’re trying to analyze consumer willingness to pay for gene-edited grapes versus conventional. The first question is defining gene editing and how it compares or contrasts to genetic engineering, or GMO’s. GMO’s have generated major controversy in the U.S. and globally. Are there many different types of gene edits that can be done, what’s the science involved? And do consumers even understand the difference?
A: Yes and no. These are good questions. I have some answers here. Why don’t I just start with the background of genetic engineering. That’s a good place to start. So, we’re not scientists here but gene editing has sort of become an alternative to GMO’s…and the motivation here, I think, is that in previous fruits and vegetables and other agricultural crops, there has been a lot of breeding programs that became interested in genetically modified or genetically engineered varieties. And that’s faced a lot of pushback from consumers. So now as we move forward in plant breeding techniques, gene editing is different from genetic engineering or different from genetically modified organisms.
We can talk a little bit about the technology, but it’s different. It’s sort of new…it’s the next step in plant breeding technologies. And some people fear that it may face this similar sort of pushback from consumers because it’s a new breeding technology. Gene editing kind of sounds a bit like genetic engineering. But it is different.
The way I describe it, it lets scientists manipulate the DNA. They’re able to remove, insert, replace portions of DNA in plants. It also has applications elsewhere, to bacteria, plants, and animals, but the focus here is on plants, on table grapes.
And then the other thing about this, we’ve come across four different systems of gene editing. The one that seems to be the most talked about, that scientists are most excited about is this CRISPR, an acronym, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat.
CRISPR is one type of gene editing that scientists think has potential for plant breeding. They typically would describe it as being simpler, faster, cheaper, and more accurate than these other gene editings. Perhaps it’s the gene editing technology that has the most future now.
Q: Okay. Is it being used now in any produce items?
A: There’s a lot of science underway that’s investigating the application of CRISPR to casaba and grapefruit and maize and mushrooms and some other fruits and vegetables.
Q: In some of the research, there was information about experimental gene editing by plant breeding programs that included tomatoes and potatoes and citrus.
A: I know there are a lot of studies going on that are using CRISPR gene editing technologies applied to a wide range of crops. In the case of oranges, there are efforts trying to deal with that citrus greening problem that’s a big issue in Florida. I think except for Canola, gene editing is not being used commercially in the United States. This is a bigger project on plant breeding we’re doing together as a team with researchers from Washington State University and UC Davis.
Q: What caught my eye was the reference to market-oriented traits...
A: Yes, that would be the more consumer-oriented projects. Some of them are done for things like the food quality. Sometimes it’s shelf life. Sometimes it’s things like size. In our study, what we’re doing is thinking about the fruit taste, texture, external appearance, and chemical applications. We want to know how important those things are to consumers and then in addition, how important are those things with or without different breeding techniques, specifically through conventional breeding or gene editing, and what’s the tradeoff, because most consumers like tastier fruit, but some consumers are a little hesitant to get that through some sort of perhaps controversial breeding technology.
We want to try to understand that tradeoff or that tension for consumers on average.
There is so much someone will pay for better tasting fruit but then they may also have a discount if they hear that it was produced through gene editing. We’re able to compare premiums of better tasting fruit versus the discount. Do they wash out or is one of those effects more important? Does that make sense?
Q: Yes. That would require establishing what attributes are important to consumers and then their willingness to pay for them with or without gene editing?
A: That’s right. We’re trying to say what attributes are important to U.S. consumers and then layered on top of that, how do you feel about this new breeding technology? It’s not genetic engineering, it’s gene editing, and we give them information to describe what is gene editing.
Some consumers know about gene editing, while others don’t. And so they rely on the information we give them to think about this technology.
Q: Could you give us some isight into how the research was conducted, the methodology...how the information was communicated to participants, etc.
A: We could talk a little about the survey we did, about the scenarios we gave, and then about the results.
Q: I know we can’t cover everything here, but it will be great to get some of the highlights. Another point I’m hoping you can discuss is related to regulation of these new technologies and impacts of consumer product labeling.
Is it correct that the USDA is not going to be regulating gene editing in the same way they are doing with genetic engineering? If so, could that make a difference in the big picture? I remember studies you’ve done on these effects, exploring whether labeling a product as GMO, could create, fairly or not, a skull-and-crossbones alarm for consumers, and alternatively, companies marketing product as non-GMO could be used as a selling point... And how different products elicited different consumer responses... Without a gene-edited label, for instance, will the consumer even know one way or the other?
A: I think this is part of the story. It depends how deep the consumer digs. But you’re right. As of now, the USDA has decided that gene edited agricultural crops aren’t different enough from conventionally bred products; that they don’t need to be labeled differently because of this manipulation of DNA. I think some people think of it as less manipulation than what’s done using genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is enough manipulation that the government feels that’s a place where there’s enough change that they feel consumers do need to know that information. While the gene editing, the level of manipulation is less, or they consider it not enough to warrant labels to consumers.
Q: Part of your study is looking to see if consumers will pay a reduced price if the product is gene edited, but in the real world they wouldn’t be told that...
A: So, I think this is part of the strategy before these products become available, I think we’re probably less concerned about how they react to the information versus before plant breeders start to adopt these technologies, what should they expect? Should they expect that consumers…I guess we could live in a world where all the table grapes in the United States use gene editing and all the table grapes produced in France don’t use gene editing, right? Then it would become simply are these grapes produced in the United States, or are they produced somewhere that doesn’t use or doesn’t allow gene editing? It’s at that point, I think, breeders might be interested in how consumers differentiate. If there is this world you can imagine where maybe they’re labeled as gene edited or not, but maybe they secretly are gene edited or not because of where they were produced, for instance. Or there could be some table grape producers in California that decide not to use gene-edited fruit stock or plants, right? They could produce table grapes and label them as not gene edited.
Q: You always keep me on my toes!
A: It’s still relevant as long as you can imagine a world where there could be these two distinctive markets. And the two distinctive markets could arise because the market says oh, you must label these as containing whatever or they could be differentiated because there are no rules about labeling things that contain, and then some firms or some countries, just label them as not containing. But it’s kind of an interesting side story that labeling, whether it’s does contain or does not contain, depending how they’re trying to differentiate their products from the mainstream or from other producers.
Actually, I think that is pretty important that you asked that because if everything is just going to become gene edited, then it’s kind of a moot point. But if you imagine a world – I guess plant breeders imagine a world where there could be some gene edited fruits and then some not gene edited, they want to understand the impacts. In this case, we’re just trying to quantify what that consumer response would be to that, whether it’s labeled or not labeled or whether the competitors’ product is labeled or not labeled.
Q: What did your research find?
A: We do find – and other people have done this work, too – there are some consumers that aren’t willing to buy gene-edited agricultural products. But in general, we find that on average, people are willing to buy at a discount for gene-edited agricultural products, but it’s not as big of a discount as you will have on average to genetically engineered agricultural products.
Q: Okay. So, your research is complementing or validating what’s been done with other studies?
A: Yes. There is some complementing, but it also adds something because it’s so specific to table grapes. We started off wanting to see how different people in the supply chain viewed this, what kind of importance they placed on different attributes in table grapes. We were curious what attributes were important to producers. We wanted to talk to retailers or somebody in the middle of the supply chain to see what was important to them. And then we wanted to also do this with consumers.
Q: I imagine those priorities were not always aligned between producers, retailers, and consumers and, also differed within those segments...
A: It turned out it was a lot harder to do this research with producers and with retailers. It’s hard to collect enough data, so in this study we decided first to focus on consumers. We put together this survey. We sent it out to about 2,500 consumers of table grapes and we asked them questions about who they are and what kind of table grape purchase pattern they have, what kind of table grape and fruit consumption. We asked them quite a few questions about their perceptions of food and science and technologies. We asked them questions about preferences for attributes in food more generally, all in this survey.
And then towards the end of the survey, we started putting them through some scenarios where we asked them some questions. We gave them a couple of table grapes, fictitious table grapes with certain attributes, and we asked them to tell us which one they were more or less likely to purchase. I don’t know if it’s interesting or not, but we did this consumer survey kind of at the start and in the midst of the COVID outbreak.
Q: Yes, very interesting. Do you think that impacted your results? What is your hypothesis, or speculation?
A: We’re never sure how that affects survey results, but we had a very good response rate because a lot of people were home. But most of this data was collected in April, May of 2020. This was a time when there were some shortages in the grocery store because it was right at the height of the initial outbreak of COVID in the United States. There were these stories in the news about empty shelves in the grocery stores. That sort of makes people think more about food, and maybe they don’t care as much about the technology...they just want to get food and are less sensitive to whether the product is gene edited. But then on the other hand, I think during this time most of us weren’t buying any food at the foodservice. We were buying all of our food at the grocery stores because restaurants and all the hospitality sector shut down.
So, we were probably thinking more about food purchases in general during this time, right, because we were making a lot more food at home, which effected buying decisions...forgive my long-winded answer. I’m just not sure. It could have really affected us either way.
Q: Also, like you said, you had more thorough responses because people were working from home, and they might have had some more time to be doing the survey. It could have affected the range of people who responded as well...And maybe some had lost their jobs so income played more of a factor...?
A: Yes, that was the other consideration during this time. We saw unemployment creep up because some people were being laid off, some people were working reduced hours at home. So it’s possible that some of these households had less income and then if you have reduced income sometimes you become less interested in attributes in food and you just become more focused on the price of food.
I think all these things could influence answers, but it’s not clear to me which direction if it did affect the results at all. It could’ve gone either direction, I think.
Part of the problem is we designed the survey before COVID and then we got the go ahead to release it just as COVID was sort of happening in the U.S. And we didn’t really have that chance to go back and add questions or adjust questions, given that we were in the pandemic.
Q: I’m intrigued by this discussion. There’s the added variable that many people were purchasing online and not going into the grocery store. Then there’s the long-standing issue that actions speak louder than words. Do you generally find that what people say in surveys online mirrors what the reality is when they’re doing purchases in store? I don’t know how complicated and challenging it is to do in-person follow-up studies or in-store studies. I know we discussed this kind of thing in the past. Can you address that?
A: So, it’s this age-old say-do problem, where people say one thing and then do something else. This was an internet-based study. We needed a lot of people to have a statistically valid response. So we were kind of limited to doing something faster. There is some language we can use to try to encourage people to be honest. But yes, there is often a bias. Normally in these types of internet surveys, I don’t think it effects their relative choices, or it’s shown not to effect their relative choices in a significant way. But they’ll still say they prefer this attribute over this attribute, or this attribute over that attribute, in an internet survey. And they still hold those preferences in the grocery store, but in these internet surveys, sometimes they overestimate how much they’d be willing to pay for some of these attributes.
Like in the real world, they’d still be willing to pay for this attribute more than this attribute. But the magnitude for which they’re willing to pay, the premium that they actually have in the real world sometimes isn’t as great as what you calculate in these studies that are based on data collected in an internet survey.
Q: That’s useful to know...
A: In this data collection, the final part is what we called a choice experiment, where we give consumers choices between these table grape products. This is where we change the fruit taste, the external appearance, the expected number of chemical applications and the breeding technique, as well as the price. Then we ask people which of these two options would they choose. And when they go through this exercise, you can imagine that there’s a lot of different possibilities of combinations of attributes. We don’t ask every person to answer every combination. That’s why we need so many people so that this distribution of choices is spread out across all of our different consumers. But then in the end, we can calculate average effects…
Q: Are the definitions straight forward? Often the way something is worded can influence results...
A: I think we give fairly good definitions of what we mean if something has superior fruit taste or inferior fruit taste, if it has excellent external appearance or poor external appearance. And then for the breeding technique, we give detailed definitions of both conventional breeding and then gene editing breeding. I shared this language during my presentation.
We borrowed from scientists. But within the definition of gene editing, we do say the USDA recently proposed that plants produced using gene editing will be treated the same as conventionally bred plants. And that the USDA even says that we can assume that plants produced using gene editing may be labeled as organic.
Q: Wow, that’s interesting, too.
A: There’s actually not a gene-edited, organically produced fruit that’s available. That scenario doesn’t exist in reality, but theoretically it could. And maybe it will in the future.
Q: Right. Or maybe the people that are doing organics don’t want to have it.
A: There’s that, yes, but that’s a major difference because if a plant is produced using genetic engineering, the USDA says specifically that that plant or the food produced from that plant cannot by definition qualify or be labeled as organic. But if the plant is bred using gene editing, if it follows the rules, it could be considered and labeled as organic.
I think for consumers who don’t want all the gory details, it signals that gene editing is a modification of the DNA structure of the plant but it’s not as large a modification as what genetic engineering does.
At the Show I talked about some of the demographic characteristics of the people in our survey relative to the averages. For instance, people in our survey were a little bit older, they had a little more income, they had a few more members in the household, they were a little more educated, I suppose, than the U.S. average. And were a little more female represented than the U.S. average. But the race demographics were close to the U.S. average, so that was well represented.
Q: I’m interested to learn how results break out with different consumer segments...
A: I talked about how there’s an average effect and then there’s different groups of consumers who think about this differently.
You were asking about ranking of attributes, which is a good question. I presented the results on this looking at fruit taste and texture, external appearance, number of chemical applications, and the breeding technique. What we find here is that the fruit taste and texture is the most important attribute. It leads to the highest increase in willingness to pay relative to the other attributes. And then second most important is its external appearance. Third most important is the number of chemical applications, which is kind of surprising because table grapes are a crop that does use a lot of fungicides, so it is a crop that’s been exposed to a lot of chemicals. You would think that of all the crops out there, consumers might be concerned about these chemical applications. But it turns out that they’re much, much more interested in fruit taste and texture and external appearance than they are about the number of chemical applications. Still, when you tell consumers that this table grape was produced using 80 percent less chemicals applied to the crop than the industry average number of applications, consumers were willing to pay a premium for that, knowing that the premium is not as great as it was if you told them this is a beautiful looking table grape or this has a really sweet and crisp trait or profile.
We discussed many specific numbers also. But the rank order is definitely fruit taste and texture, and then maybe half as important is its external appearance, and then half as important again is its chemical applications. And then we do find that people want a discount for gene-edited table grapes. They’re willing to pay less for them if they were bred using gene editing.
The discount from gene editing is almost the same as the premium that they’re willing to pay when they know that it has a beautiful external appearance. Those two affects almost cancel each other out.
But the extra premium that consumers are willing to pay for tastier fruit, fruit with better texture, that exceeds the discount that consumers need to take to purchase the fruits produced using gene editing. That premium is quite large. It outweighs the discount from gene edited fruits.
There is a small premium they’re willing to pay for reduced number of chemical applications, but it is totally washed out and then some by the discount that consumers feel they should receive for accepting the gene edited fruit.
Q: Got it. So, if producers are looking to do gene editing, they should try to focus on the taste and texture as the priority, and then appearance.
A: Yes, that’s my take on that because if you produce table grapes with gene editing, consumers are saying, I need this discount, but I’m willing to accept these table grapes produced using gene editing and you as a producer would receive additional profit if and only if those gene-edited fruits were able to provide superior fruit taste and texture. If the gene-edited fruit can do that, then consumers would be happy, producers would be happy as well.
And the same story mostly holds for this if the gene edited fruit could improve the external appearance of table grapes. But in the case of chemical applications, if the gene-edited fruit was able to reduce the number of chemical applications, then from our estimate that would not be an attribute that’s important enough to consumers such that they would accept the gene-edited fruit.
Q: I’m curious to know, jumping outside the box of table grapes, do you think you would you get the same kinds of results if you were doing a consumer study on a different fruit?
A: That is a good question. I think it probably depends if these are the attributes that are also important to that other fruit. So, taste and texture, that’s universally important to most fruit. But its external experience maybe isn’t as important. Maybe it’s more important for some fruits relative to table grapes.
I think with citrus it’s probably less important but with apples it might be more important. So, some of these results are specific to table grapes and it probably just depends on how important those attributes are to other fruits and vegetables.
Q: Right. Also, you were pointing out that with table grapes, it’s one of the commodities that does use chemical applications more.
A: Another thing that can be useful when reflecting on this subject... we break our sample of 2,500 people into four groups based on their general level of acceptance of gene editing, using our statistical model.
We have one group that is keen on gene editing, right, so they are even willing to pay a premium for gene-edited table grapes.
Q: That’s interesting. Does that group have certain sociodemographic characteristics, such as higher education, or higher income...?
A: It’s sort of a mixture of different sociodemographic attributes. But education is part of that. Income is part of that. The rural/urban divide is part of that. Where in the United States they grew up is part of that. I described some of the average characteristics of people that fall into these four different groups. But basically, the main thing that separates them is how accepting of gene editing they are. And the other thing I want to highlight here is how the groups start to have different rankings of these attributes as more or less important to them.
For instance, this first group that is generally positive about gene editing, about 22 percent of the participants, wanted to pay a premium for gene edited table grapes on average. And the most important attribute to them is external appearance. Then fruit taste and texture is the second most important attribute. And in fact, the number of chemical applications is actually not important to them.
We move to another group that is slightly negative on gene editing. They kind of follow the traditional pattern where fruit taste and texture is most important. External appearance is second most important and then expected number of chemical applications is third most important. But here the relative importance of the three attributes is closer to each other than when you throw everyone together. And when you throw everyone together, this fruit taste and texture was the top attribute by far.
The third group is a little less keen on gene editing. This group is really not that interested in the fruit taste and texture. All of their importance is about external appearance. And to them, the most important thing is the number of chemical applications. So another interesting reversal in sort of the rank order of the attributes for table grapes.
And then there’s a fourth group, which is the anti-gene editing group. The group represented about 20 percent of the population that was most against the use of gene editing. And to them, they were equally interested in fruit taste and texture and external appearance, but they were not interested in the impact of reducing chemical applications. The fact that gene editing might reduce the number of chemical applications, to them that wasn’t an interesting or important characteristic.
Q: Right. It’s not just about a list of preferences, it’s weighing those choices in relation to gene edited or conventional fruit and how that connects to what consumers are willing to pay.
A: Right. It’s a combination...that the breeding technique is going to lead to better fruit taste or it’s going to lead to better external appearance or it’s going to lead to fewer chemical applications. And then looking at these four groups of people that have different sorts of resistance or different levels of excitement about gene editing, you can get a sense for which of these attributes is more or less important to them relative to the average effects that we’ve talked about earlier.
Q: In addition to the group’s level of resistance or excitement to gene editing, are there other distinguishing characteristics that are common with people in each of these groups.
A: I have some additional information that provides more background about who is in each of these groups, not only are these the group of people for or against gene editing, but how old are they, what’s their income, their race, are they male or female...
Q: There is much to unravel here...but in the end, your research seems to purport that success of gene edited breeding programs requires a consumer-centric approach?
A: It’s important to understand motivations in breeding programs in table grapes, but the same can be said for apples and other fruits and vegetables. Historically, breeding programs have just largely done what producers have asked them to do, which is increase yield, sometimes increase size of fruit. And over time, breeding programs have responded to other things like sustainability measures and then even more recently, have started responding to consumer characteristics, consumer traits.
Q: Your research channels the latter. Bottom line, is this the key to a future for gene-edited fruit?
A: We see the attributes for table grapes that consumers are most interested in. Fruit taste and texture, then external appearance then expected number of chemical applications. That’s kind of the main punchline. We also show evidence that consumers on average aren’t that keen on gene editing. They need to receive a discount in order to purchase table grapes that are produced using gene editing, which makes us think that maybe we have to rethink whether we use gene editing or how we communicate the messages about CRISPR and gene editing technologies more generally. Gene editing is sort of in its infancy. And I think this final point is how it evolves depends on the relative importance of these attributes when you start to bring consumers into these groups that are for or against gene editing.
In the end it’ll be about how breeding programs respond to information from consumers.
Q: How does this align with other players in the supply chain. What if retailers differ from consumers on the attributes most important to them. For instance, maybe appearance or shelf life is a higher priority than taste and texture...
A: I think that’s a really good question. What are the implications to the supply chain? Consumers are just one end of the supply chain. A lot of these decisions are actually going to be made by retailers or somebody before it gets to the consumer. We are trying to do research and ask similar questions to producers and retailers, but it’s more challenging. We are in the midst of doing that.
I think retailers would be the most interesting because they are ultimately the gate keeper. As a consumer you can say what you’re interested in but if it’s not in the store, it’s not an option, and you can’t buy it. You just buy whatever’s in the store. I think that the retailers almost always have the final say as to what consumers are buying. But those retailers are responsive. They consider what’s important to consumers and they make their procurement decisions based on what consumers say is important. Or at least, based on their experience with consumer purchasing behavior.
It would be really fun to do these types of questions or surveys if we could get a large enough number of retailers to participate and say in their view, what are the attributes that are most important to them? How do they rank taste and texture...? Typically retailers might not be that interested or place that much value on the number of chemical applications that are applied to the table grapes because it's typically not a distinctive part of their promotion programs.
Q: That is one of the reasons for attending the event. You can ask retailers in person at the New York Produce Show how they make these assessments!
A: Having done the show for many years, it is always a reat opportunity to get their feedback. My guess is retailers might not be that interested or place that much value on the number of chemical applications that are applied to the table grapes because it’s typically not a distinctive part of their promotion programs.
Retailers, though, may have stronger or weaker views about the breeding methods that are used to produce the fruits and vegetables that they sell. We’ve seen examples with genetically modified fruits or vegetables. There are genetically engineered potatoes and apples that are deregulated. They’re being commercially grown but a lot of retailers, a lot of foodservice people aren’t interested in procuring those crops because they’re just afraid that their customers aren’t going to buy them or their customers are going to think differently about them as a retailer, as a business, and so there’s some reluctance.
Q: What about the Arctic apple? The selling point is that it doesn’t brown when cut open.
A: You’re allowed to grow it and you’re allowed to sell it. It has some markets in some locations. I think there’s quite a bit of acreage for those Arctic Apples up in British Columbia. So, I expect some consumers have a willingness to pay for that attribute. That’s positive, right? But then some of those consumers are also going to say oh, that’s a genetically engineered trait and I’m not willing to pay a premium. In fact, I need a discount in order to buy that apple that uses genetic engineering as its breeding technology. You compare the premium that they’re willing to pay for the internal appearance versus the discount they accept to pick this apple. Is it a net positive or a net negative? My guess is that it’s been a net negative for most consumers and that’s why we haven’t seen bales of Arctic apples explode on the market. Because in that particular case, the tradeoff just tips negative. Even though we like the idea, on average, the cost of the genetic engineering outweighs the benefits from the improvement.
Q: Right, but gene editing could put improvements like that in a totally different light...
A: That’s what our study seems to suggest... so maybe there is some hope for these new technologies for table grapes to lead to these types of improvements in consumer traits.
Q: In any case, you are exploring important issues that the industry needs to confront as new technology enters the field.
A: In addition to helping breeders understand what consumers want in new varieties, a major piece is what the rest of the supply chain is looking for in new varieties. And I think retailers are an important piece in this puzzle.
Q: Well, we are glad that The New York Produce Show and Conference could give you a platform to build on your research as a tool to advance the industry.
It is always interesting to see what consumers say they care about. The degree to which these findings actually impact purchasing decisions is very much an open question.
Many consumers claim an interest in what chemicals and pesticides are used on grapes. So, all right, this could lead a certain percentage to buy organic — although even organic growers have to use chemicals and pestic — and because they are typically less effective than those used on conventional produce, they often have to be used in greater quantities. Organic does not mean “planted and never touched till harvest.” But, in reality, even among consumers who buy organic, how many could really know, to any real degree the relative merits of any particular grape sold in the supermarket? After all the exact same variety, grown by many different growers in many parts of the world, will be treated differently. And how many consumers would really know how any producer raises any of them.
This Pundit knows a reasonable amount about grapes, as we have visited grape-growing and packing operations on six continents. We’ve had discussions with breeders, growers, retailers etc., and no matter how much insider knowledge we have, we couldn’t go into a supermarket to buy grapes and discern the level of pesticide and chemical usage on any of them. We doubt any consumers can do so.
The real problem in the grape industry is that most new grape varieties are in some incremental way better than a previous variety. But in most cases the differences are not pronounced enough, and the marketing budget to establish differentiation is too thin to make consumers really prefer one variety over another.
The last time the pundit visited Professor Rickard at Cornell, we also went down to visit Wegmans — one of the world’s premier retailers. Yes, they had a few proprietary varieties at robust prices in the department, but, at the entrance, there was a 30-foot-plus display of table grapes at deeply promotional prices. Now we are sure Wegmans has its standards and wouldn’t place just any grape on sale, but it also doesn’t feel the need to promote some particular proprietary variety.
Now this may well be an industry problem. How can we increase consumption if the best varieties are not the ones chosen for promotion?
Another issue is bravery. The evidence that consumers deeply object to GMOs is slight indeed. Retailers are more influenced by the prospect of protests by small special interest groups than by consumer resistance in rejecting these items.
It is always a treat to engage with Professor Rickard on these subjects as he has an inquisitive mind. He is also generous to the industry... he presented on a totally different international trade topic at the Global Trade Symposium as well as participating in the Foundational Excellence Program. So the smartest at the show got to see a Triple-Play!
Brad has also spoken at our events in Europe and, if we get lucky, we will see him there as well. In the meantime, you can get information on attending the London Produce Show and Conference here.
You can obtain information on Exhibiting or Sponsoring in London at this link.
Let us get you set up for a booth in the next New York event here.
And we can put you on the list for attendee information regarding the next New York show here.
Our gratitude to Professor Rickard for sharing his research and his perspective cannot be overstated.
A new researcher at the New York Produce Show, Rebecca Wasserman-Olin, shared new research findings about how customers value various appearance characteristics and how a consumer value perception is affected when a strawberry is marketed as ‘local,’ among other key findings. While this work uses strawberries as an example, it provides important lessons for everyone in the fresh produce market. Wasserman-Olin, a researcher in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, spoke at the recent edition of the New York Produce Show and Conference. She recently spoke with Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, about the new research and its impact for the produce industry.
Researcher in Dyson School of
Applied Economics and Management
Q. You’re a new presenter at the New York Produce Show. What research highlights did you share at the event?
A. This research, which was funded by the New York State Berry Growers Association and conducted in the summer of 2019, is all related to consumer preference and consumer behavior, and understanding how customers make purchasing and especially repurchasing decisions. Purchasing is mostly just based on visual, but in this study, we were able to bring taste into it as well, which connects more to ‘would you buy it again?’
So in this study, we were able to measure how consumers value strawberries in two different ways. First, we gave them a survey, before they came to an in-person experiment, to help understand which types of strawberries they would like to buy and understand the preferences for different attributes of the strawberries themselves. Those attributes were the size, the production location, the flavor and then price. From their responses, we were able to understand a little bit about the specific attributes themselves. Then, they came in person to an experiment and we had them rate the strawberries based on just a visual, and then they also got to taste them, and then rate them again and see how much they would pay for the strawberries. First, how much would they pay just based on visual appearance, and then also in the second round, based on taste and visual. That was how we were able to understand how they value strawberries in different scenarios.
And, on top of that, we were able to understand the value of marketing a berry as “local” and incorporate that into both of the studies and understand how just using this marketing term changes the perception or preference of berries.
Q. Were there any surprises in your findings?
A. I think the one biggest surprises — which I think if you talk to a lot of New York strawberry growers, they're probably not that surprised — but, an in-season, field-grown strawberry is extremely competitive, compared to what you traditionally see in the grocery store coming from the West Coast. Customers really love that strawberry when they knew where it was grown — it was rated really well for flavor, for color and size, with all those markers.
One of the unique things about this study was that we were also able to include a hydroponically grown strawberry grown in New York. We didn't reveal that it was hydroponically grown and that it was a different variety of strawberry as well. But it was definitely interesting to study that for the first time and understand that they were a little bit smaller, a little bit less uniform, which customers in a blind test have a lower preference for that berry over others. But once they knew it was New York-grown, it definitely received a premium and it was more competitive compared to the California berries.
Understanding how marketing local is able to overcome some of the quality challenges that you might have in an up-and-coming system was an exciting finding from the study, and one that we hope can help the industry as it begins to grow and hone its ability to produce high-quality strawberries.
The most interesting finding for taste was that California strawberries received a lower taste rating when respondents knew where it was coming from. When the production origin was told, all three California strawberries were valued lower than when they didn't know where they're coming from, and the California berries were given the largest deficit from the customer. That was interesting to see, and something that we're still kind of thinking about ourselves.
Q. So extending the season for locally grown produce merits some attention?
A. This study clearly shows the in-season, field-grown New York strawberries are extremely well received by customers, and they thought they had great flavor, great visual appearance. The challenge for the future is looking at being able to capture that premium, to help make New York strawberries competitive by extending that growing season, and understanding how the systems to farm hydroponic and aquaponic berries can be improved so they can provide a local option further away from just that short, summer season.
There are a couple of large operations investing in hydroponic and other indoor systems. I think last year was one of the first years that I noticed New York-grown berries in supermarkets during the winter and during the offseason, coming from some new operations. It’s definitely something that's getting attention in the industry, and there’s a lot of work going on at Cornell to support these growing systems.
Q. You some interesting data for branding and marketing products as local. What role does a consumer’s interest in “buying local” play?
A. In both of the studies, we found a strong preference to purchase local — and a willingness to pay for that. We don’t, at this point, understand if they value it higher or if they perceive that they need to pay more in order to purchase local, but we know that consumers expect that when they know it's a local product, they have the expectation that they will pay a higher price.
In our study, we had two groups and one was a control, where they didn't know where the produce was from. The other group was told the origin location, and in that group, we saw that just knowing that something was local changed their perception of its appearance, as well as of its taste. Respondents tended to be more ‘friendly’ with New York strawberries and rated them higher, and rated Californian strawberries a bit more harshly and gave them a higher price deficit, especially when tasting the berry. We saw that ‘local’ was very important in preferences.
Q. Your research was berry-specific, but are there generalizations you can make to the broader category of fruits and vegetables in general?
A. I actually conducted similar experiments with broccoli a year before the strawberry experiments were done, and we’ve also done blueberry experiments using a similar methodology, and we find similar trends throughout. When people know that something is grown in their region, they are a little bit more friendly and will still pay for a high quality when they know it is local, even if the appearance isn't quite up to the expectations that people have for that product. They give it a little bit more leeway when they know that something is local compared to coming out of state. We saw that in broccoli, too, and the blueberry data is still being compiled, so we look forward to understanding how it plays out in different berries as well.
Q. If I’m not a local grower or shipper, how can I use your research?
A. The first part of our research, the pre-experiment survey, looked at local, but also at specific attributes, and it was able to measure preferences for different flavors, as well as different colors and sizes. So from that research, We know that if you're a grower from out of state, you should ensure that your berries have attributes that might make them competitive to some of the berries grown in New York. We see a preference for deep, red color, highly sweet berries that are large (or just not small). So if you're able to capture all three of those attributes in your berries, and you're compared to a locally grown berry, which might not be able to capture all three, you could be competitive in terms of how much a consumer will prefer your strawberry compared to another. We provided some of that information — the general quality preferences when it comes to appearance and flavor.
In part, our goa in the presenbtation was to add a better understanding of the trade-offs, and look at how much consumers value each of those attributes. So, even though we know we want all of those things, some are more important than others, and we provided some information that goes a little more into the nuance of those preferences, past just what industry experts will already say they anecdotally know is true.
Q. What about retailers? How do they take your research and translate that into greater sales for them in the produce section?
A. Highlight when you are selling regionally grown produce. We know a lot of times it does come with a premium, but if you're able to market it as regionally grown, or locally grown, customers may be willing to pay a little bit higher price when compared to a berry that's coming from out of state or out West. Being able to market that fact is great for retailers.
Additionally, we are seeing that when people are able to taste strawberries, they are valuing regionally grown strawberries higher than they are the berries grown in California. So in this case, possibly bringing in sampling or taste testing helps stores demonstrate to customers that there may be more value in buying these regionally produced products or products that are sweeter.
Q. And what about all those other people in between the grower and the retailer — the wholesalers, the shippers — what can they do to boost their sales using your research?
A lot of my research lies either on the farm and or on the retail, so I'm less well-versed with the people in the middle, I will be very upfront about that. But, for me, one of the really important things is making sure that information isn’t lost — some of the descriptions about where it's coming from or attributes of that specific berry — as it's being sold throughout the supply chain. A product changes hands many times, so ensure that you're marketing the qualities the initial farmer was so proud to supply — that the information makes it to the end retailer.
This research is fascinating, extremely interesting – the question is whether it is telling us something about how consumers shop or something about what consumers feel is the socially correct answer to a question: Would you pay more for local?
The reality is that when consumers are in a store, making actual buying decisions, they have trade offs in mind. “We are saving to take the kids to Walt Disney world this Christmas”... or “Becky’s tuition payment is due in a month, and we are short”... These issues affect actual purchase decisions in a way that is really difficult to capture in a lab or interview. Nobody ever asks consumers, “The dress your daughter is planning to wear to the prom is on lay away. If you pay a premium for locally grown produce, you may not be able to pick up the dress six paychecks from now. Would you be willing to take that risk to buy local?”
Yet that is, in fact, the situation for many consumers. Not all, of course. Some affluent people can buy whatever produce they want, produce cost is an inconsequential decision. Even then, though, we can’t be certain of to what degree people express opinions that they believe are socially correct, not what they actually intend to do.
We were very excited to have a new voice among Cornell researchers join our discussion at The New York Produce Show and Conference.
We will be watching for further developments on this type of intriguing research and welcome this new generation of Cornell industry experts to the New York event.
Our next big event is The London Produce Show and Conference. If you would like information on exhibiting or sponsoring. Please let us know here.
If you are interested in joining us in London as an attendee of the event, let us know here.
And if you want to be put on the list for exhibitor or sponsorship information for this year’s December New York Produce Show and Conference, let us know at this link.
And if you want to be on the list for get attendee information at the next New York Show, just leave your info here.
Many thanks to Rebecca Wasserman-Olin for sharing her research and her insight.
John Bovay has become a fixture at The New York Produce Show and Conference presenting many thoughtful pieces, a few of which we have profiled here:
NYPS Veteran Professor, John Bovay, Presents New Study On The Effect Of Organic Promotion And Its Positive Impact On Conventional Fruits And Vegetables
Getting Down And Dirty On Food Waste: UConn Professor John Bovey Unveils New Research At New York Produce Show And Conference
This year, his topic seemed perfect for The Global Trade Symposium, as, indeed, it turned out to be. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to discuss the presentation with the Good Professor:
Agricultural and Applied Economics
Q: John, we were honored to have you back at the New York Produce Show and Conference where you presented your latest research and prescient insights. You started with us, initially, during your time at UConn and, have continued, more recently, at Virginia Tech. The topic you’ve tackled this year was an ideal fit for the Global Trade Symposium: Impacts of COVID-19 on U.S. trade in food and agricultural products.
A: I appreciated the generous invitation. The talk included the following:
Evolving effects of the pandemic on food demand and supply (a synthesis of academic research)
Patterns of U.S. trade in food and agriculture products over 2019-20
A general overview of how economists use applied statistics to answer questions about markets and policy
Preliminary results from my ongoing research paper with coauthors Charlotte Emlinger and Shamar Stewart, which shows that shocks related to COVID have had minimal impacts on U.S. imports and exports of food and agriculture products. However, there is much to disentangle within this realm that will be relevant to the produce industry...
Q: You were generous in giving attendees a first look at your exclusive research prior to publication. The research you’ve presented at previous Shows subsequently gets published in peer-reviewed journals.
A: Here are the articles I presented at previous editions of the New York Produce Show:
(2019 Show) McFadden, B., J. Bovay, and C. Mullally. 2021. "What are the overall implications of rising demand for organic fruits and vegetables? Evidence from theory and simulations". Q Open 1(1), https://doi.org/10.1093/qopen/qoab008.
(2018 Show) Bovay, J., and W. Zhang. 2020. "A Century of Profligacy? The Measurement and Evolution of Food Waste." Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 49(3): 375–409. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/agricultural-and-resource-economics-review/article/century-of-profligacy-the-measurement-and-evolution-of-food-waste/2D4CECD6A2D234E6D5F665EA2D06B7FC
(2017 Show) Bovay, J., and J.M. Alston. 2018. “GMO Food Labels in the United States: Economic Implications of the New Law.” Food Policy 78:14–25.
(2016 Show) Bovay, J. 2017. “Demand for collective food-safety standards.” Agricultural Economics 48(6):793–803. (attached) and Bovay, J., and D.A. Sumner. 2018. “Economic Effects of the U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act.” Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 40(3):402–420.
Q: Your current research sounds broad in scope, covering all food and ag products. Do you isolate impacts for fresh produce, and different commodities? Do you look at the fluctuations at different timeframes during the pandemic, the waves in COVID infection rates/deaths here and globally...and what changes occurred because of this...
A: The data collection/analysis is complex and ongoing. We also will be extending the analysis to 2021 before completing the research paper for publication. The methodology and approach to our analysis is purposeful in this regard for several reasons, and we discussed this in great depth at the Global Trade Symposium.
During the presentation, I made the point that patterns of trade (by port, by trade partner, by commodity or product group) did not change much from 2019-20; the research paper explores whether the small changes seen were caused by COVID, and the preliminary findings show that COVID had very limited impacts on the value of U.S. trade in food and agricultural products in 2020.
Q: You certainly presented some fascinating revelations...That conclusion does seem to take the steam out of the sensational headlines...
A: So, that’s the punchline, and I didn't want to wait till the end of the presentation to say it, because I didn't want people to just be sitting there on the edge of their chairs for a climactic conclusion. But I also want to provide them with the necessary information to appreciate the intricacy of the analysis.
Q: You may get some pushback from the foodservice side of the produce industry, which got decimated during the pandemic, and was forced to reinvent itself...
A: I addressed this. I want to speak at first about general disruptions to food and agriculture from the pandemic. It’s just an illustration that people who aren't active in food and agriculture don’t understand the complexity of the supply chain, and to point out how disruptions in any individual stage may have rippling effects throughout the global system.
At least from my perspective, studying the data I've been able to access, many of the initial disruptions we heard of, this is almost ancient history, but in March, April, May 2020 were caused by changes in consumption patterns rather than supply shocks. And that relates partly to changes in demand for the way that food is packaged and the distribution channels. For example, dairy producers were talking to journals a lot about pouring out milk, and not having buyers for their milk. But that wasn't necessarily because people were drinking less milk, I think they were, but particularly there was less demand for milk used in packages for institutional buyers and the same for vegetables more frequently used in restaurants than home kitchens. So, one of those initial disruptions was caused by changes in consumption, and changes in demand for certain products. Maybe some vegetables are more expensive and seen as luxury goods, things like Brussel sprouts and asparagus. I’m still flushing out that data. But it certainly seems that some vegetables are more essential, necessity goods, and some are more like luxury.
Q: I think you're on the right track there...
A: When people lose their jobs or lose wages, that's going to change what they eat. And we've continued to see a lot of disruptions in the way that people are earning and spending money basically.
Later on and some in the beginning too, but recently we've seen disruptions that are caused by bottlenecks in the supply chain. And particularly just in the last few months, we've seen a lot of stories about backups at ports, ships waiting not being able to dock, and trucks not being available to take things once they get off the ships. So those are some examples of other things, not necessarily directly COVID-driven. You could still make the argument that they are because people are demanding a lot of consumer products, they're not spending as much money on travel. They're spending more money on electronics or whatever things that are shipped to the US from overseas. And that's causing some bottlenecks too.
I also spoke a great deal about commodity markets, in which of course, the data are not focused on fruits and vegetables, and do not necessarily include some fruits and vegetables, but there was a huge drop in commodity prices at the beginning of the pandemic, but really, things have improved over time. Also, there's evidence that the gap between farm prices and retail prices for things like beef and poultry were high at the very beginning of the pandemic based on the graphical evidence I have. There doesn't seem to be a very strong correlation between COVID illnesses and these prices for beef and poultry even chicken ever since the first wave of the pandemic...we're getting into a fifth wave now, there's not a strong, obvious correlation between the prices that consumers are paying and the severity of the pandemic.
Q: I just wanted to clarify that you're really focusing on beef and poultry here?
A: Yes, that’s right. In future research, I'll be looking more at prices for fruits and vegetables based on this analysis of international trade that I've been working on. But we don't have that all put together yet, so I wasn't able to talk specifically on that pricing analysis during the presentation.
Q: That's fine, I understand this is an ongoing project with many elements.
A: I shared with your audience some of the most important academic research that's been done by other folks on how the pandemic has affected food markets and commodity markets. Focusing on fruits and vegetables and consumer goods. I wouldn't try to tell folks about academic research on cattle futures, or corn and soybean futures. This is not particularly relevant. But I did spend a little time talking about some of the most important findings that I thought would be interesting to your audience. There is a handful of academic journals some core papers, and some valuable information we discussed
Q: Could you give us a few bullet points on some of those findings?
A: One of the most interesting veins of academic research to me is how food security has been affected over the course of the pandemic with people losing income sources and jobs and things of that nature. Let me give you a couple of examples. This was a while ago, but back in March and April 2020, based on a very large-scale survey, where folks were answering questions multiple times within just the first couple of months of the pandemic. Pricing attrition seemed to be a less important aspects while packaged food became slightly more important. So, people would have been demanding more canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables, and been a little bit less sensitive to price. Just in the early stages of the pandemic. One of the things that I am looking into is whether those effects have persisted.
Q: Yes, I think that would certainly be interesting...
A: Another paper analyzing food insecurity by national experts in 2020 projected that 17 million additional Americans were going to be food insecure in 2020 compared with 2018. That was a really drastic change in food security and is something that matters in terms of produce marketers’ ability to sell food. If people are having trouble scraping together money to buy the basic calories that you need to eat, they're certainly going to have trouble buying those more premium, traditionally luxury vegetables. Those are a couple of examples of literature that I highlighted. But there was also various examples focused on food demand and changes in the way that people have been consuming food.
Q: New York Produce Show and Conference attendees were able to share their experiences with you as well...
A: It’s was great to have the opportunity to present my research to the produce industry at a global trade forum of this stature. My research has been so diverse over the years, I wanted to frame what I’m doing and tie together relevant information that could be useful to executives in advancing their businesses and the industry.
I just went into doing academic research since college and value the real-world business interaction. I've been to the New York Produce Show four times previous to this edition and presented a range of research papers, which have all been published now. I hope that what I shared as part of the Global Trade Symposium inspired meaningful feedback that will help us to improve our research in the future.
So, this is a USDA funded research project to study this question of how COVID has affected trading food and agricultural products. And we were asked to cover commodity groups, meat and livestock, dairy, grains and oil seeds, and fruit and vegetables. That was sort of the mandate from USDA with the funding.
My co-authors and I developed a lot of the methodology and the details on our own. We wanted to explore the question of how COVID affected trade directly, and then COVID mitigation measures, and how people's individual responses to the COVID situation may have affected trade.
We started this project a year ago. So, we didn't even have data for all of 2020 yet. At the beginning of February, we were able to get monthly data on trade flows between US ports and all foreign trade partners at the commodity level. So, port level data, with each individual country that we trade with, for each individual commodity.
Commodities are pretty disaggregate. Cauliflower and broccoli, for example is one commodity. So, it's separated out on some broccoli, but it's not just vegetables in general. So, it's a really big data set, and we're trying to explore how variation in COVID illnesses and deaths affected imports and exports from the U.S.
Then separately, looking at how state-level restrictions on commercial activity on mask mandates and this sort of thing, which probably affects demand somewhat, and maybe very, very slightly affects supply, how these have affected the flow of goods around the world.
We use state-level data on restrictions for the U.S. And then we use data for each country that we trade with. And then we have mobility analysis, basically people's cell phone mobility data on health, there may be correlations between people going into work, or into grocery stores and pharmacies and demand for all these various commodities.
Q: It sounds complicated, there are so many variables, and then also the evolving restrictions and the changes were so diverse with different countries, and within different states in the U.S.
A: It is very complicated. Right. So, that's actually what the empirical economic analysis relies on is the variations over time. New York State has had varying restrictions at various points in the last two months. so how has New York's restrictions related to imports and exports of goods from New York, and when you have data on hundreds of ports, hundreds of commodities, dozens of trade partners, and then they all have these different incidence rates of COVID, all the different levels in terms of government restrictions... There’s a lot to explore in the connections between what we're considering shocks of COVID on imports and exports.
Because it's so complicated, I felt I really needed to spend more time explaining the way that economists research and how we analyze data, basically. I spent a few minutes after introducing my research question, just talking in general, how does this analysis work...I think that it was useful to everybody in the audience to understand sort of the nuts and bolts of it, not just give the answer that feels like it comes out of a black box without explanation of what’s going on.
I think people walked away with a better appreciation of how economic research at universities is working, and also my results were not merely correlations and not just what we call summary statistics. You know, the raw data tells one story, and that is that trade flows were very, very much the same in 2020, and 2019.
What we wanted to do was explore how variation in these various COVID mitigation measures across the 50 states may have related to the tiny changes between 2019 and 2020. But the punchline is that we see that the mitigation measures on people's individual mobility are associated with pretty much economically meaningless changes in trade flows.
Q: Did you find any significant or meaningful differences when you looked at the different types of commodities, for example meat seemed to have a lot more issues and problems than fruits and vegetables...
A: Yes. There are some differences. But I think even when we broke it out by these four big commodity groups that I described, meat and livestock, dairy, grains and oil seeds, and fruits and vegetables, looking at the hundreds of commodities within each of those four categories in aggregate. We still didn’t find very much impact on prices. But I think if we were to go down to each commodity, perhaps we would see differences. If you were to dive down, there are 700 commodities, right?
Surely, we're going to see that COVID is associated with impacts for maybe 25 or 45, or some number of those 700 commodities, you're just going to see some impacts for sure. We want to be careful in not overstating the impacts of COVID by looking at each individual commodity and asking this question for each individual commodity because that may sort of mislead readers or listeners into thinking well, it was important. We want to keep it as high level as possible and talk about the average impact for the most part.
Now it may be useful to understand well, this one particular commodity group they were highly impacted. And I think that is definitely important information to know maybe down the road, but we want to be careful in the way we approach that because we don't want to overemphasize these to imply economically significant results if it's only one small industry.
Q: I understand your point.
A: For sure, if we dig down... I've done some analysis. I've seen that for a couple of fruits and vegetables. there do seem to be impacts from COVID and from mitigation measures. I'm a little reluctant though at this point to focus on those results because this research is still in a pretty preliminary stage. I wanted to talk about our next steps. I think that in a few months, we will have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's, in terms of setting up the research, the research question, and the data analysis, etc. And we'll be a little bit more confident in sharing results for smaller commodity groups at that point.
Q: Okay. So, you’d just pull out different vegetables. For instance, what happened with onions?
A: It’s funny you say that. I’ve looked at onions in particular, onions, garlic, etc. In my charts, you would see that category is really, really flat. But in fact, the trends month to month in 2019 and 2020 for imports of vegetables are really similar across the two years.
Q: As an aside, Miguel Gómez presented a broader talk on the reach of global trade at the Foundational Excellence Program, and he participated in the Global Trade Symposium. He made some interesting points related to impacts of COVID on global produce trade that seem to complement your preliminary research.
In a pre-show interview, he said that global produce trade during the pandemic was minimally impacted, in large part because of the industry’s vast diversification....
A: I haven’t made that point in this paper, but I fully agree.
I want to emphasize that in my presentation, you saw all these graphs on global trade, and for the most part they showed very little change from 2019 to 2020. When we started to do such projects, we were expecting we'd find some of the differences between imports and exports in 2019 and 2020 were related to COVID. I think at this point, our preliminary results say, well, maybe there is some very tiny relationship between COVID and imports and exports, but it is economically meaningless.
The situation may change or may have changed in 2021. We haven't done the analysis including the 2021 data yet. We’re still going through this. We still might have a long way to go before we're to the other side of the pandemic. I think some of the bottlenecks in the supply chain have been a lot more important in 2021 than they were last year. So, I'm still open-minded about what we're going to find when we extend the analysis to 2021.
Q: Are there other areas going forward you’ll be exploring that could be of interest to the produce industry?
A: We're also talking about bringing in data that allows us to compare agriculture with non-agricultural industries. I don't know exactly how far we can go. We probably wouldn't look at electronics or anything like that. But we may look at textile products, clothing, or other things that are not absolutely essential to surviving.
That's one extension that we've been talking about. We’ve been talking about looking to how COVID may have ed demand for those highly differentiated branded products, as opposed to potatoes, which are not very strongly branded, looking at whether there's been a change in the difference between bulk and branded goods.
Q: Do you think inflationary problems will influence your results for 2021 data?
A: We also want to look at price impacts. All of what we've done so far is looking at the value of trade, in terms of billions of dollars. With the inflation in 2021, maybe there have been changes in the quantity shifts that don't show up when just looking at the value of the shipments. That's another thing that I think is really important to look at. But we just haven't gotten there yet, in this paper.
Consumer prices in general have risen a lot in 2021. As a setup, we haven't been analyzing data for 2021. But the data that we are analyzing is just about value. So, for example, the value of bananas imported to Newark, N.J. in January 2020, that's one observation in our data set. But it’s actually bananas from each individual country to Newark. So that's the kind of thing that we're looking at.
So, if the price of bananas has risen in the last three years, and I don't know whether it has, what our data that we've been analyzing to this point, may be masking some changes in prices. If it's showing no impact on the cost of bananas, right now, that may be just because we're looking at the total value of the banana shipments as opposed to the quantity of the banana shipment. It’s interesting to explore whether there were important impacts in terms of quantity of these different commodities being imported and exported.
Q: When things started locking down in the produce industry, the food service side with restaurants was completely decimated and then the retail side ended up having all these fluctuations with demand and everything else. With the food service and retail sides separated supply chains in many ways, companies were reinventing themselves, and figuring out ways to work together...
A: Right. Early in the pandemic there were farmers who had to plow under their just planted vegetable fields because those vegetables were used in restaurants and the buyers didn’t think they were going to be able to sell them. I just wanted to make the point — and I think it was obvious to most people who were attending the Global Trade Symposium — that it wasn't really about a lack of demand for food in general. It was just about changing demand patterns and people changing the way they’re spending their time. And if they're not going to restaurants, their patterns of fruit and vegetable consumption probably change.
I think that the takeaway is that our research shows that global trade in food and agricultural products has been very resilient to the various pressures caused by the pandemic. That’s really the headline. We've even talked about whether that should be the title of the article. There have been challenges, obviously. There have been times when consumers felt frustrated that they weren't able to buy everything that they wanted. But all in all, trade patterns were very similar across 2019 to 2020.
In some ways I do feel the conclusion is anticlimactic. It was important for me to let people know we don't find strong impacts from COVID in this analysis, but, also, to take people through the full details of our analysis and carefully considered answers.
John Bovay’s presentation had two great values. First, it showed how even highly disruptive events, such as COVID-19, tend more to move things around than to change quantities when you are dealing with food. People have to eat; they may eat more at home than at restaurants; they may prefer more of a particular product than another, but it is a big economy, and in the end the volume of food consumed doesn’t seem to have changed too much. Second, Professor Bovay provided a really nice insight into the kinds of tools academics use to ascertain what is going on in the world and to explain the value of this type of insight.
In the years to come, as research continues it will be interesting to see if we can discern more minute impacts of the pandemic on the industry — particular products, etc.
So to make sure you are there, request information on attending the next Global Trade Symposium and New York Produce Show here.
If you are interested in exhibiting or sponsoring in New York, let us know here.
A raft of great preparations are coming up for The London Produce Show and Conference, so request attendee information here.
And, if exhibiting or sponsoring the London event is of interest, please request more info here.
Many thanks to John Bovay for making us all professors… even if just for a day.
Our piece, Triumph In New York, celebrated the success of the The New York Produce Show and Conference. In doing so, we acknowledged that, with a legal requirement for COVID vaccination in New York, we did lose some exhibitors and attendees – though, quite possibly, the move might have made others more comfortable about attending. So the net result of the vaccine mandate is difficult to assess. Still, some very intelligent and thoughtful readers took exception to the way we framed the issue.
I noted with curiosity the opposites in the view points of the opening of your column.
“A few we lost because their teams were composed of anti-vaxers,”
Obviously, it is not for me to judge…
Yet judge you do… You could have phrased that charged first line quite differently… “A few were lost as their teams had many with more robust natural immunity and saw no point to submitting to a new gene therapy for which there is zero long term health data”… as that is scientifically accurate and actually less opinionated than “anti-vaxers”. Or you could have said “A few were lost as their teams were opposed to the vaccine mandates”.
Frankly, I am disappointed in your phrasing and using the term anti-vaxer… this is divisive. Peoples health choices are to be based on informed consent, a global principal dating to the horrors of WW2. Mandates do not recognize our historical experiences. Are we not a country of liberty? The President today said there is no federal solution to COVID. Yet you and others cast aspersions on those who do not march in lock step with the tyrants who ignore and twist the science, ignore history, and seem to have vested interest in the profits to be made along the way. Medical science does not Vax people whom have had the disease. And others, for reasons solely their own choice choose not to submit to mandates for novel gene therapy. And you call them Anti-vaxers… anytime one calls some one “Anti” it is hard to consider it a positive statement. And you are right, it is NOT yours to Judge, so live the words and be part of the solution, not part of the mania.
Two other points I will make here as well.
First, I have a dozen or so people I know (employees or associates) whom have contracted the Delta or current Omicron versions… 2 hospitalized, one died…. The one common link among all? No history of COVID infection and all fully vaxed. Our team and associates who had the crud previously? No one sick at this point. I live on the border in Yuma, we have had our share of people with COVID.
Second, in the same time period as we have famously lost 5 million to COVID over the past two years, we have lost at least 18 million to starvation (by UN figures, others say double that). Where are our priorities? All losses are heartache for the loved ones… from COVID ¾ of the deaths are the elderly. Hunger is much less targeted in who it takes. Can we really rationalize our actions in the big picture?
We do not have to agree, but I do hope in the future you do not cast (negative) judgement on people as Anti-Vaxers and then 3 sentences later talk about not judging.
That Jim, is hypocrisy, and not productive.
— Steve West
We certainly meant no offense and apologize for any that was taken. Yet, to paraphrase Shakespeare, Methinks Steve West doth protest too much.
The term “anti-vaxer” has a clear meaning: One who is opposed to taking a vaccine, in this case the COVID-19 vaccine. The term is not pejorative; it is descriptive. What else would we call people who are opposed to taking the vaccine?
Although we appreciate Mr. West’s suggestions for alternative phrases, we could not, in fact, say that teams had people with “more robust natural immunity,” since, of course, we have zero knowledge about anyone’s natural immunity!
Although we could have said that “a few were lost as their teams were opposed to the vaccine mandates,” that would not be accurate. Many people, including close friends of ours and people for whom we have great respect, including those who have suffered through COVID, do not want to get the COVID vaccines. Whether their teams are fans or opposed doesn’t stop individuals from choosing to be vaccinated.
That people’s health choices are based on informed consent is generally true but, long predating COVID-19, communicable diseases have been treated differently.
In general, for school children, we have had vaccine mandates in place for decades requiring vaccines against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, rubella, mumps, chicken pox, hepatitis B and pneumococcal disease. Smallpox vaccine was once required until the disease was deemed eradicated globally.
It is, of course, interesting that most of the people opposed to the COVID-19 vaccines are not known to have expressed any opposition to these other vaccines or to their being mandated in order to attend school.
Does the existence of vaccine requirements for school mean we are not a “country of liberty”? If so, this is a claim that almost no one has made prior to COVID-19.
The concern about the word “anti” is not really clear. If we wrote that someone were an anti-racist, isn’t that a good thing? “Anti” just means opposed to or against. Whether that opposition is good or bad is a completely separate question.
The anecdotal points Mr. West presents are, of course, interesting, appreciated and not surprising. Indeed, people who have had COVID-19 are believed to have more robust immunity than the vaccines provide. But that doesn’t mean that vaccines should be avoided. Many who might have died of COVID-19 have avoided the illness or had a more mild version because they were vaccinated.
It is also equally true that there are many other maladies and problems in the world. One could well argue that the resources put into developing the vaccines should have been applied elsewhere and that doing so might have resulted in a greater good than focusing on this particular COVID-19 problem.
That is an important question to be considered when making public policy choices and investments. One side of the debate would probably argue that a communicable disease to which no one has immunity would stop the world and preclude society from functioning. So it would cost more than the vaccine cost to develop.
Still, this all seems irrelevant to an individual decision to take an already developed vaccine.
Most of us have to live our lives within public policy parameters. If you want to go to the UK, to do so one would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and have to present a negative COVID test. Then, that is what most people will do because changing public policy is a task on a different scale and different time frame.
The idea that the vaccines represent a “new gene therapy for which there is zero long term health data” is a point, but doesn’t really provide an answer or even an argument. First, the term “gene therapy” is probably not correct. See Why mRNA Vaccines Aren’t Gene Therapies, but this is mostly a matter of semantics.
There are also different types of vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a virus called adenovirus to produce a key part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus particle to which the body develops an immune response. Check out, Here’s Why Viral Vector Vaccines Don’t Alter DNA – It’s Pretty Simple – They Can’t: "Adenoviruses — even as they occur in nature — just do not have the capacity to alter DNA. Unlike retroviruses such as HIV or lentiviruses, wild-type adenoviruses do not carry the enzymatic machinery necessary for integration into the host cell's DNA. That's exactly what makes them good vaccine platforms for infectious diseases…”
Still, it is true that the vaccines involve innovative technology. Although, like many innovations, the roots go back decades. The issue is, of course, what standard of safety would one be satisfied with? Today over 9.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been given to people around the world. There have been the most minimal of acute symptoms. Is there a possibility that there may be unpredicted consequence that will become evident decades from now? Of course, there is always such a possibility, but, typically, we don’t wait to have absolutely perfect knowledge. The Salk vaccine, which was the first inactivated polio vaccine, was tested in a placebo-controlled trial that enrolled 1.6 million children in Finland, Canada and the United States in 1954. In April 1955, it was adopted throughout the United States. It wasn’t perfect. It was refined in various ways and, then, superseded by the Sabin-designed Oral Polio Vaccine.
We knew a few people who refused to take the COVID vaccine until the Pfizier one was given official approval. We also saw reports of people who had been waiting for official approval who died of COVID-19. In any case, the argument that the issue is the novelty of the vaccines becomes weaker with each passing day. It seems reasonable to say that those whose concern is the novelty of the vaccine ought to, at least, lay out a case for how long a period of use needs to pass before this novelty argument no longer holds currency.
There has been a big problem with this vaccine, in part because there is a big problem with the credibility of the media and the politicians in the country. Had President Trump been re-elected and the vaccine roll-out done under his administration, then Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris had already stated her view:
“He’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days, and he’s grasping to get whatever he can to pretend he has been a leader on this issue when he is not.”
There is simply not the slightest reason to believe that in a second Trump administration, the Left would have been enthusiastic endorsers of the Trump vaccines. So the response of many on the right to the Democratic rollout is also not surprising.
When science itself cannot be assessed in a non-political manner, the challenges in our society are obvious and substantial.
We respect Steve West and thank him for engaging on such a controversial topic.