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‘Eat Seasonably’ Campaign Another Example Of Misguided Intentions

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 23, 2009

We’ve written plenty about the locally grown movement and about sustainability, so when we heard that a battle was brewing in Britain between advocates of eating seasonably and the fruit and vegetable industry, we wanted to learn more. After all, isn’t all produce seasonal somewhere? Besides, our great-grandparents ate seasonably — mostly root vegetables all winter or things that were canned or preserved. Is it really true that advocates want people to go “back to the future” and give up bananas, pineapples, mangos, papayas, etc.?

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Nigel Jenney
President
Fresh Produce Consortium
UK

Q: Could you describe and put into context how this seasonal campaign got started and the various groups sponsoring it, so we can better grasp the scope of this?

A: You’ve seen our press release responding to this program. The Eat Seasonably campaign is one of a number that have come to the floor in recent months in the UK, precipitated and encouraged by the current recession, and also increasing consumer interest with sustainability and food security in the UK.

What you do have is a situation where there are some groups that have a very clear view of what they think consumers should be doing in terms of enjoying fresh produce, and giving clear guidance of what they think is appropriate. But it is a much broader alliance. It’s not just about fresh produce; it’s about being responsible in a number of ways, related to energy and travel and all those sorts of things.

Q: I understand that several seemingly disparate organizations peripheral to the produce industry have thrown weight behind this campaign to focus on locally grown UK fruits and vegetables. Where did this “eat seasonably” concept originate? Is it being pushed forward through private organizations promoting various interests that intersect, is it supported at government levels …?

A: I’m actually trying to recall the roundabout way it unfolded. The National Trust, which owns a lot of agricultural land, extended its interests, starting a non-profit initiative called, We Will if You Will.

Eat Seasonably is the first campaign from the project spearheaded by Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, and Ian Cheshire, Chairman of B&Q, a do-it-yourself store. B&Q has a planting and seeds division and encourages UK consumers to focus on growing their own fruits and vegetables. The campaign is partially funded by UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a group that wants conservation of energy in the home, in transportation, etc., and sees eating locally as an off shoot.

Promoters of the initiative say it “aims to deliver a series of new and unique collaborative efforts between business and civil society to encourage the mass mobilization of individuals toward more sustainable lifestyles.” We believe this Eat Seasonably campaign is operating on a narrow/distorted definition.

We felt it necessary to raise the flag for imported produce. It is important for Defra to expand its definition of “in-season” produce to include produce from around the world, which is “in-season” at different times of the year. The campaign is partially funded on a narrow definition of what constitutes in-season produce.

The campaign is great to encourage consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, but we want to stop the distorted messages around it. Our industry is taking a much broader approach to promoting produce. On our website, you can examine the diverse range of programs.

Q: Could you elaborate on what is problematic with this campaign?

A: Our broad position — we take the fundamental view that it is important to encourage people to enjoy eating fresh produce regardless of its source or origin, especially to help developing countries. Our eating habits are not their best. Consumers average 2.5 portions of produce a day, whereas the target is around 5, and we have a strong interest in addressing problems of obesity, diabetes and other general health issues as an industry.

One of the reasons for our Eat-in-Colour campaign is to introduce people to eating and enjoying more fresh produce. Among a number of initiatives within that campaign, one very successful one may be of interest in the U.S. Three years running, the Healthy Eating Badge rewards young children for designing and cooking healthy meals incorporating various themes throughout the year. Finding ways to engage young people is critical to increasing produce consumption.

From a government view, 5-a-Day is a government-owned initiative, but like many things, it’s been more successful in promoting awareness of what people should be doing, but has been less successful in altering what people are actually doing. Our role is to find practical and enjoyable ways for people to actually eat their 5-a-Day. We need to go beyond just being aware of it.

Q: In that respect, have you conducted studies to track and measure the impact of these campaigns? How do you weigh where to invest resources, or for that matter whether this new Eat Seasonably campaign is worth worrying about. Perhaps the public relations effort will just lift enthusiasm for eating fresh produce and create a rippling effect to increase consumption across the board? In the U.S., there is much discussion right now on the merits of a generic produce marketing initiative.

A: We do in fact have rather detailed consumer analysis information to track human habits of eating fresh produce, and the results have been positive. Obviously what I can’t say is this is solely due to the Eating-in-Colour campaign. What I can say is that it is consummate of many other business campaigns as well. In these situations, we’re first talking about running a generic industry campaign, not promoting from a particular source, but talking about industry as a whole. We’re not able to assess whether avocado sales have increased this month because of it.

In reality, the responsibility of the industry is to introduce and encourage consumers to enjoy all fresh produce. If we don’t, our competitors, which are manufacturers of all sorts of food ingredients, will win out due to much greater marketing and promotional budgets.

Our core view is we accept the Eating Seasonably campaign encourages consumption of fresh produce. What we’re concerned about is limiting that choice of enjoyment, because it only permits British produce, and only certain produce at different times of the British season. The UK enjoys a varied diet of fresh produce, and around 60 percent of fresh produce in the UK is imported. Broadly, the UK is considerably more self sufficient in vegetables than fruit. I’d say roughly 77 percent vegetables compared to 10 to 15 percent fruit.

Our climate allows us to produce certain vegetables very well, and a number of fruit items well; if you take strawberries and apples, we produce quite a significant portion of our consumption requirements. But the climate is what the climate is in the UK. As you know, we get quite a bit of rain. Producing items such as bananas and citrus are almost impossible.

Q: How long has this seasonal campaign been running, and are you noticing any difference in terms of ways consumers are purchasing?

A: Up to date, no. The Eat Seasonally campaign was only marketed in June of this year, so we’ve responded very quickly and robustly with the press release you’ve seen and from a number of different angles. Number one, we’ve talked about the desire and interest of consumers to get produce for much longer times of the year. Actually quite often there are a lot of fruits and vegetables coming from other parts of the world that are not detrimental from a sustainability perspective.

Q: I’m hoping you could elaborate on that. Eating locally produced food has become a popular phenomenon, exemplified acutely when major UK supermarkets started differentiating food packages from Kenya with airplane stickers. Some characterize sustainability as being made up of three silos — environmental, social and business related. And all three need to be taken into consideration and balanced for true sustainability efforts. We’ve written about misconceptions regarding food miles. What is your position in this regard?

A: Food security and sustainability is a major topic in the UK for food supplies in general from meat products to cereals through to fruits and vegetables. As you’ve already highlighted, we’ve chosen to import a wide variety of fresh produce. In a country that imports large amounts of fresh produce, it gets on the radar very quickly. There are two elements we are all looking at, and the UK government is looking at how we can encourage improved food security, what is the potential of growing more fresh produce in the UK, but balancing that, we are also very aware food security is a global position, and quite rightly accept locally in-season produce grown where ever in the world, and which is enjoyed everywhere in the world. Enjoying fresh produce in season regardless of its origin is the important thing.

If you store UK produce or import from other places in Europe or from other parts of the world, one could challenge which is more efficient from a carbon footprint point of view. It may be more sustainable to import produce from Kenya, for example, than to store domestic produce in the UK.

Q: To your point, a study by Cranfield University in the UK did a comparative analysis of the impact of carbon emissions for roses produced and exported from Kenya versus the Netherlands. It found that Kenyan exports including airfreight were actually six times more carbon efficient than by the Netherlands-grown process, and the heating requirements of putting product in greenhouses. The study was commissioned by World Flowers.

A: It’s a very complex process. We need to insure that consumers do appreciate the complexities of the industry. Round about a year ago, there were consultations in the UK on whether products certified as organic should be allowed to be shipped by plane because of the air miles. We had a very avid response. Our headline position was successful on behalf of the industry. We argued the case that this was not a responsible position for a combination of reasons. First of all, from a trading position, African nations had great ability and it was important in promoting trade, and second it supported the family farms and better standards of living and infrastructure for the people of Kenya and other countries in need. [Editor’s note: read more on FPC’s response here, here and here.]

We were very actively arguing the imperative of putting into context the climate change issue. If we look at the overall supply and planes bringing those goods to the UK, well over 60 percent of those planes were passenger planes anyway, with people traveling on holiday. And even if you did include the products, the carbon footprints of journey were a small fraction of one percent of the total UK carbon footprint.

If we look at it from another perspective, in Kenya the average carbon footprint for the individual is something like one or two percent per year; in the UK it is 10, and in America I’m sorry to say it’s probably nearer 20. I think I raised that for this reason. We’re saying look, yes, we need to consider how we can be more responsible, but actually the western developed countries need to look at themselves much more closely. Preventing that trade and preventing that support would change the carbon footprint very little but would have the potential to destroy these families’ livelihood in those developing countries. Also, it would do vey little to change the carbon footprint of the UK or the world in general.

From an agricultural point of view or a carbon footprint point of view, growing of those crops is some 50 to 55 percent of its total product carbon footprint. The carbon footprint includes the growing process, but then there’s the distribution and retail side. The distribution is around 10 or 12 percent of that carbon footprint. What we’re really saying is yes the process needs to be sustainable, and that’s also about water sources and many other things. There needs to be a clear and detailed evaluation that everyone agrees to, of what that includes.

In the future, water availability will be a big issue, not just carbon footprints. It could mean looking at the impact of replacing meat-type products with produce. When you look at the produce industry, it makes up about 2.5 or 3 percent of UK gas emissions total, and if you look at meat production total, it’s about 3 times that. One of the challenges considered now and being debated is should we promote eating less meat. Changing people’s diet could result in a much more positive impact on the climate.

Q: Do you have studies in this area we could link our readers to?

A: I’m afraid these studies are quite tedious and thousands of pages, when there are probably only a few paragraphs you’d be interested in. What I could do is answer your readers’ individual questions. Tell them they are free to contact me and I would be happy to help in anyway I can.

Q: That’s an interesting proposition. Perhaps switch over from the Eat Seasonably campaign to an Eat More Produce and Less Meat campaign!

A: That would be a great idea from our point of view. From our point of view, changing people’s diet and eating less meat in favor of more produce would have a much more positive impact than people choosing to grow more produce locally.

Q: It also would be interesting to get your feedback on differing claims related to the value and health aspects of eating organic versus conventionally grown, on differences in products labeled natural or pesticide free, etc. Issues with pesticides seem to matter more to European consumers than to those in the U.S. And we haven’t even touched on food safety concerns yet!

A: From our point of view, we continue to state, and so does the UK government, that there are no proven differences in health benefits of consuming fresh conventional versus organically grown produce. The clear government view at the moment is that eating fresh produce, regardless of its origin, is good for you, not the fact that it happens to be local or it happens to be organic.

Q: There is some blurring there, that some consumers might think it’s better if it’s locally grown, and also from a food safety standard as well.

A: The UK overall, has very rigorous standards in food safety and hygiene requirements. Our issues in terms of food scares are very, very rare with fresh produce. In the UK, produce accounts for an exceptionally few number of health-related issues. It tends to be other food products like meat connected to food safety problems in the UK.

Q: Alas, food safety has become an all-consuming issue for the produce industry in the United States. Although numerous variables come into play when assessing the problems, many U.S. industry executives have looked to the stringent British retail food safety standards as guidance.

A: Pesticides are an issue for consumers in the UK and throughout the EU. We do produce a number of guides on the responsible use of pesticides, and other food safety guidelines. I’m not saying you don’t do that in the U.S., but we’ve worked very hard to get that message out there and have been very successful in achieving compliance.

Q: You mention some cultural differences with consumer sensitivity toward pesticide use. Irradiation has become a more poignant issue in confronting food outbreaks. And use of GMO’s could influence food security. Could you share your views on these topics?

A: In terms of irradiation, products that have been irradiated are not acceptable in the UK and Europe. They are banned and there is no consumer debate. It just doesn’t happen. There is also significant industry customer, and more important, consumer resistance to eating GMO foods, as opposed to the U.S.

I do think as the months and years go on, with the population growing rapidly in the UK and the world, there will be a real challenge as it relates to food security and sustainability — how can we responsibly increase the amount of food without being allowed to consider responsible use of new technologies? We have a very robust and rigorous system of control with chemicals. There is legislation on how some pesticides will be allowed to be used in the future. That said, we are certainly concerned as an industry and need the appropriate technology to provide produce at prices consumers can pay.

There is certain keen interest in organics, but it is a small proportion of the total market, two or three percent, and it’s sold at a premium. From an agronomic standpoint, looking at food security, we simply can’t produce the needed amount of food in that way.

Q: Some of these issues — use of pesticides and GMOs, sustainability, food safety, etc. — can be overlapping or contradictory…

A: It does become quite complicated doesn’t it? Different elements of society choose to buy organically or locally or buy free-range if talking about meat-based products for a whole host of reasons; quite often it may not be for taste or flavor. It may be for many other reasons.

Q: Isn’t that even more reason it’s important to get accurate information out there so consumers can make intelligent decisions based on the facts?

A: There are organizations that monitor what pesticides can and cannot be used in the U.K. or on products exported to the U.K. There are very rare occasions when issues arise, but almost 98 percent of the time Good Agricultural Practices are being used. Consumer evaluation panels show concern of pesticides declining and an increasing understanding the industry is responsible and is doing what government expects of them.

We do a great deal in terms of promoting best practice and providing education on what people should be doing with agricultural products. With organics, the language of ‘my products are pesticide-free’ tends to be great marketing strategy, but as you know, saying the product is organic does not mean that pesticides have not been used. That is something that is often a misplaced assumption by many consumers.

Q: We’ve covered many topics since pivoting off of the Eat Seasonably campaign. Are retailers gravitating to this campaign? Will they be marketing the concept with signage and promotions?

A: From our point view, what we’re looking to do is to encourage consumers to eat more fresh produce, so regardless of the season, the great news is that retailers and others are promoting fresh produce. If it’s UK strawberries and they’re in season, and they’re introducing consumers to a product they will enjoy, that’s great. It’s all about balance, enjoying product regardless of what UK product is in season. For some it could be UK strawberries. We just don’t want that to be at the expense of other great produce.

Q: I know you were quick in putting out this press release expressing your reservations and concerns about the Eat Seasonably campaign. Are you taking any other actions at this juncture?

A: The overall debate of food security and sustainability is something we work on avidly with a large range of organizations in the UK and embassies around the world and retailers and the supply chain as a whole, looking to promote that constructive and balanced message.

Q: Are there retailers you can point to that are doing an exceptional job in this area?

A: You’re putting me on the spot as we have many members at the FPC. To pick one out I don’t think would do my career prospects much good! I can say that we have four or five major retailers in the UK and they’re all doing well in promoting their own position and have different views on what their consumers want nationally, in regional and local markets and in many other regards.

Q: You’re very diplomatic!

A: We also run an event called Re:Fresh, which is a conference during the day with awards in the evening. Some of the awards are geared towards retail. The big retail award at this year’s conference in May went to the Co-operative Group. They’ve become a very well-established organization. They were a smaller retailer, but recently bought Somerfield, and overnight became the fifth biggest retailer in the UK. It’s a national business looking to do things locally, via neighborhood stores.

The award is based on a number of criteria, and we were impressed by their commitment of working closely with produce suppliers, the total footprint of their stores, and their dedication to service and meeting the needs of their customers.

Q: We’ve covered much ground in this interview. What are your closing thoughts?

A: The Fresh Produce Consortium is the UK’s fresh produce association, so the members we represent would be the whole supply chain, the fruit and vegetable sector, some 900 members — importers, foodservice providers, wholesalers, packers, and many retailers including the major retailers. At the same time, we have associate members that include embassies around the world.

We have two primary aims really. One is to promote the industry in general terms and encourage and promote increased consumption of fresh produce. We also spend a great deal of our time lobbying government and other stakeholders in regard to legislation and other issues.

Q: As a single entity, your organization represents a wide scope of issues and interests.

A: Yes, the industry is very, very broad.

Q: What reaction have you received from your broad constituency since you voiced your concerns regarding the Eat Seasonably campaign?

A: The response we’ve had from all areas of the supply chain supports the importance of taking a constructive and balanced way forward. It’s about promoting increased consumption of fresh produce and it’s not about promoting one particular commodity or origin.

We had the pleasure of dining with Nigel and some of his associates at the Fresh Produce Consortium when we had flown to London to speak at the Re:Fresh conference. Nigel gets more than a few kudos for keeping a very diverse membership feeling generally happy and well attended to — without the kind of resources that the national US trade associations have to employ in that kind of task.

Here they have taken on the yeoman’s task of stating the obvious: That it makes no sense to advocate for changes in behavior for which there is no evidence that any benefit will be derived if the behavior does change.

One only has to spend a short time in the UK and one learns that sustainability and food miles are used as protectionist weapons and that consumers see sustainability as an outlet for nationalist sentiment.

We did some focus groups on sustainability in the UK and when we did them in the south of England, we found consumers waxing poetic about “local” and the need to limit “food miles.” The consumers were, by American standards, remarkably sophisticated. They understood “carbon footprints” and “food miles”… they recognized difficulties in the concepts such as the location of retail distribution centers and they all claimed to want local produce.

When we played the “dumb American” and stopped the groups in order to try to summarize our learning up to that point, we got wide agreement that most wanted to “buy local” and “reduce food miles” in order to reduce the “carbon footprint” of what they ate. Yet when we asked next if this meant that they would be thrilled to see a lot more produce from the north of France, just a short ways over the English channel, in their stores and on their plates — the groups rose, as if in unison, to explain that no, that wasn’t what they meant at all.

It quickly became obvious that these consumers had a peculiar definition of “local” and, despite their protestations as to the importance of buying local, they vastly preferred produce from the hinterlands of Scotland 800 miles away to French produce from 20 miles away over the English Channel. In other words, to British consumers the “local” movement and British nationalism are closely intertwined.

An “eat seasonably” campaign is pretty easy for forces in the UK to launch as Britain exports very little produce. So you have British nationalism, overlapping with protectionist forces and the most mindless kind of sustainability ethos that demands no evidence or proof but simply like to do things to “feel good” and you have a recipe for a mess, which is pretty much what this “eat seasonably” program is.

These things are so complicated on so many levels. Nigel’s first line of defense is very similar to the long-time point in discussions of organic: Whether in fact there ultimately will be found some health benefits to consuming organic produce is irrelevant compared to the overwhelming body of evidence that diets composed of high percentages of fruits and vegetables are healthier diets. In fact promoting organic, with its higher price points, could well lead to consumption of less healthy diets as people might eat fewer fruits and vegetables.

Equally, as Nigel points out, whatever benefits might be found to be incurred as a result of eating locally, these benefits are likely to pale before the advantages realized through a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. A strictly “local” and “seasonable” diet, with highly restricted availability and selection is likely to lead to lower produce consumption with all the health-related issues implied.

Of course, it goes beyond health. If consumers are not happy with their selection of fresh produce, they may eat more processed foods or meats — and who says that will be more sustainable?

Of course, advising people to eat local and seasonal on sustainability grounds is more an ideology than a scientific standard. The use of water, the output of carbon and other concerns vary substantially based on where and under what conditions the product is grown and transported.

If the lamb in one place is local but is fed feed that is raised by farmers with tractors, and an alternative is importing lamb from a place where the lambs graze outdoors on natural pasture, simply noting that one product is local and one has some food miles doesn’t reveal anything definitive about the relative carbon footprints on those products. It also tells you little about the totality of sustainability, encompassing the full range of environmental concerns, social concerns and economic concerns, or whether the locally grown product is actually superior.

Nigel also points out that defining what is seasonable is not so easy. In an age when controlled atmosphere storage can extend shelf-life substantially on many products, and various horticultural techniques, up to and including controlled environment agriculture, make a mockery of old seasonal limitations, it is not even clear what limits the season on many products.

We really have to give a tip of the hat to Nigel, the Fresh Produce Consortium and the British trade in general. One of the biggest problems we confront, not just in the trade but in Western Civilization, is the common desire to do things for their symbolic significance.

Just the other day, we reported on the US experience with COOL and pointed out that many, in industry, government and consumer advocacy groups, spoke in favor of this legislation. Now that the legislation is in force, nobody pays any attention to the question of whether COOL has actually achieved any of its intended purposes.

There is such a thirst among many people to “do something” to be part of making the world a better place, that, all too often, in their desire to contribute, people skip the difficult work of determining how to actually help the world and, instead, simply do things that “feel good.”

Yet if the groundwork has not been done, if the science isn’t thorough and sound, one is as likely to do harm as to do good. Certainly, the notion that we know the answer to the problem blocks a lot of serious work that could lead to a brighter future.

We thank Nigel Jenney and the Fresh Produce Consortium for helping us think through such an important issue.

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