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Got Produce? Both SidesNeed To Be Heard

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 19, 2009

Our piece, Got Produce? Generic Marketing Program Dialog Begins, But Is It Right To Use PBH Donor Funds To Lobby For A Mandatory Assessment? — brought many opinionated letters. We will be dealing with the various pros and cons in later articles but thought this note on our current subject — which is how the industry can conduct this “Dialog” — was worth noting right now. It comes from one the largest shippers in the industry:

Thank you for your thoughtful insights on this very HOT issue brewing in the industry now. I look forward to additional dialogue as Webinars and meetings continue over the next few months.

However, I am concerned that those Webinars are merely a vehicle to communicate the merits of such a program and hear feedback at the end of each presentation. I do not see a mechanism in place by PBH to compile and disseminate comments, concerns, or issues expressed at these meetings back to the industry.

The only feedback we are receiving following the PBH Board meeting and the United Town Hall meetings is what we hear in the trade press. I almost feel compelled to listen in on each Webinar simply to hear the feedback — otherwise how will I know?

The writer of this note is one smart cookie and what he is alluding to is that although the process is billed as “An industry dialog” it is, in fact, a wildly stacked deck in favor of the proposal.

In our last piece, we pointed out that it had been stacked in a financial sense. PBH is paying staff time and expenses to fly an advocate of the plan to meetings, using staff time and its influence to get presentation venues at United, the Grower-Shipper Association, etc., but it hasn’t extended this offer to a critic of the plan. The webinars and presentations are not treated like real truth-seeking presentations in which each issue is delineated and then both pro and con are discussed via prepared presentations. Instead the presenters of the affirmative case get to give a fully planned presentation and then there is time for questions. So a critic gets a statement or two.

And because the process is so obviously one-sided, the promoters have no credibility that they will encourage the dissemination of information that would actually lead to real and useful dialog. In other words, had a Nobel Prize-winning economist stumbled into one of the United Fresh open meetings on this subject and pronounced that he had carefully studied the matter and wished to endorse the program as a very profitable one for the industry — we could reasonably expect that there would be a real effort made by the promoters to let the industry know about this opinion.

It is — and this is a big problem — not at all obvious that if the same economist walked into the same meeting and expressed the opposite view, any effort would be made by the promoters to get that negative view out before the industry.

Now we should say that we don’t really blame the individuals involved. Elizabeth Pivonka, President of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, is an entirely admirable person. She has single-handedly attempted to increase consumption of produce with resources palpably insufficient to do so. We have featured her in pieces including those here, here, here, here, here and here. And, Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, has donated almost a million dollars in advertising to help her cause. We have not the slightest doubt she means to help the industry and the planet.

Mark Munger is also a person of admirable character. We met him a long time ago, became friends at a PMA Leadership Symposium sitting by the bar and discussing life for several days in a row. The Pundit and his then fiancée even invited Mark to our wedding although he and his wife were unable to make it. Mark has generously tried to help the industry and we have featured him in pieces such as the ones here, here, here, here, here and here.

Though our acquaintance with Paul Klutes is more recent, he has been generous with his letters to Pundit, which include these here, here, and here, and he has always impressed us as sharp and well intentioned. Friends at C.H. Robinson as well as vendors who work with him speak of him with the very highest regard. That he wants what is good for the industry and the world is not doubted.

Yet we are in a difficult situation for three reasons: The first is that these three generous souls are in a peculiar position. We cannot recall a single time in the more than quarter century we have been cognizant of these issues that a President or Chairman of PMA or United Fresh ran a public advocacy campaign for something that the boards of these associations had not endorsed.

The Produce For Better Health Foundation has an enormous board. If all the companies on it had endorsed this proposal and then sent these three out as advocates for PBH’s position, the plan would be difficult to stop. But speaking on their own, without the benefit of their own board’s endorsement, it is difficult to know what to make of their presentations. If they can’t persuade their own board members, what chance do they have of persuading the rest of the industry?

Second, as we have expressed, we don’t think spending donor money that was given to PBH is right because the money was not collected for that purpose. The willingness to do this seems to imply, once again, that nobody is supporting this proposal, that they couldn’t get 25 donors to each ante up $10,000 for a lobbying campaign, so they had to dip into the PBH kitty.

Third and perhaps most important, to be credible the process should have been managed by a neutral party. Then each question can be presented with both the pro and con being presented in the most effective way. Follow-up publicity could publicize both positions. Now industry members feel, legitimately, that the promoters are not working to get out the negative critiques on the proposal.

How could three people of such extraordinary good will and generosity have come to present things in this way?

We would say the industry is experiencing a “Lorelei DiSogra moment.” Lorelei, who we profiled here, is a true believer and this is her power. When we profiled her we introduced her this way:

One doesn’t so much meet Lorelei DiSogra as she appears before you… one would be tempted to say she bubbles with enthusiasm, but that trivializes her presence. She is enthusiastic, deadly enthusiastic, a woman with a mission who has had several positions but only one job: To carry the torch of good health through increased produce consumption during the long marathon of building support in the public health and education communities, the journalistic, policy and regulatory communities and the legislature.

Lorelei has found her place as the Vice President, Nutrition and Health for United Fresh, but she has had many other positions including working at Dole. When she was at Dole, we often spoke with other Dole executives about her. We never heard anyone fault her work ethic, her intelligence or her creativity, but we often heard questions as to whether, at heart, she was actually more interested in helping the world than in purely promoting Dole’s products.

Now the CEO of Dole was, and is, deeply dedicated to a vision of healthy living and so Lorelei had a place and promoted 5-a-Day and other pro-consumption programs with a Dole logo on them. Ultimately though, Lorelei’s vision really was not a one-company vision; it was an industry vision and so she pushes many of the same concerns from her perch at United.

It is notable, though, that the service Lorelei provides at United is not just a matter of increasing produce consumption; it is a matter of getting public funds to pay for it.

In other words, she didn’t try to get permission for the produce industry to supplement WIC funds or get permission for the produce industry to bring in fresh produce for a school snack program. She worked to get the government to fund these initiatives.

We suspect that Elizabeth, Mark and Paul are so enthused by the vision of a healthier populace based on increased consumption that they are driven to make it happen any way they can. It is, however, notable that not one of these three advocates own a produce company, not one of these advocates will actually have to pay the bill, and we would submit that focusing on the paying of the bill is pretty crucial.

It is unclear to what extent, if any, PBH has succeeded in increasing consumption, but as an organization funded by voluntary donations, that is not such a crucial matter. Those who believe can contribute and those who do not can decline to do so.

This proposal though — a mandatory payment — has to be sold based on a solid return on investment. Whether that can be obtained and at what level of investment is a matter on which men of goodwill can and will differ. We have kept our mind open on the substance of the proposal and on alternatives.

The imperative for the industry, right now… if we are to have a true dialog… is that both pro and con need to be given equal opportunity to be heard.

Many thanks to our correspondent for pointing out the problematic nature of the way this dialog is being conducted.

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