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Troublesome Traceability Letters From PMA Veiled As Being Sent From Buyers

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 29, 2009

We’ve written a great deal about traceability and our recent piece, Is PTI Too Expensive And ‘Untenable’? A Retailer Speaks Out, which was built around a letter from Dan Sutton, Director of Produce at Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons LLC, brought a substantial response.

Although part of that piece dealt with substantive issues regarding traceability and, specifically, the Produce Traceability Initiative, the piece also raised questions about the proper role of trade associations in communicating with their members — specifically whether it is appropriate for associations to facilitate communication between select firms, in this case nine specific buying organizations that do not constitute any official board or committee, and their vendors and prospective vendors. This seemed especially troublesome as the letter was in many ways a veiled threat that these buyers would cease buying from vendors who didn’t conform to PTI.

One observant reader questioned the whole idea of associations using the names of their board members to scare people half to death:

The attached e-mail message just arrived, from PMA, as I finished reading the Perishable Pundit’s recent article on the Produce Traceability Initiative.

Note that the e-mail is designed to look like a personal e-mail sent to me from Dave Corsi, who is, of course, the Vice President of Produce & Floral at Wegmans Food Markets. Though, in fact, it is a mass mailing by PMA to promote an upcoming program.

Also note the opening lines:

Rutgers Cooperative Extension may be running out of time to avoid a FOOD SAFETY CRISIS.

Dear Richard,

You’re at risk. And the clock is ticking. The CSPI estimates a $44 billion economic loss per year as a result of foodborne illness — including losses to the food industry from business closures, negative publicity and recalls. Prepare your company before it’s too late.

Seems that sending threatening letters under the signature of industry board members is the method of choice for PMA on this food safety initiative these days.

Professor Richard VanVranken
County Extension Dept. Head, County Agricultural Agent
Cooperative Extension, Atlantic County
Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
Mays Landing, New Jersey

From a practical perspective, there is a lot wrong with these types of attempts at personalization. In this case, Rutgers Cooperative Extension is unlikely to have a food safety crisis and the “Dear Richard” the letter is sent to just shows how much they don’t know the recipient since his friends all call him Rick, not Richard.

From an ethical perspective — and we really shouldn’t pick on PMA as this has become quite a common practice — this business of sending mass mailings out as if they are personal letters from influential people in the industry is questionable.

It is questionable because it really is a practice designed to deceive. It is specifically designed to get a recipient, who would choose not to read a promotional e-mail, to open it because they were tricked into believing the letter is from a key buyer.

We certainly don’t hide the association between Jim Prevor and Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, but we made a conscious decision to send out our e-mails from PerishablePundit@PerishablePundit.com, even though using “Jim Prevor” would have increased the percentage of the e-mails opened. It just seemed that sometimes the most effective thing is not the right thing.

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