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Pundit Mailbag — Taste Trumps Over ‘Local’

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 1, 2010

Our extensive discussion of the “local” phenomenon has recently included three pieces revolving around the procurement policies at Sodexo/UC Davis and a related workshop held at the PMA Foodservice Conference:

More On PMA Foodservice…Everyone Is In Favor Of Better Flavor But Is ‘Local’ A Solution Or An Ideology?

Tom Reardon of Michigan State University Speaks Out: Wither Local?

Dissecting The Meaning Of Local, Sustainable And Flavorful

These pieces have brought a number of comments, including this one:

Great piece on “local”, both in the letter from Professor Reardon and your analysis.

It’s interesting to note that COOL has not moved the needle in terms of consumer choices, and I think that supports Mr. Reardon’s musings. At the end of the day, consumers want great-tasting fruits and vegetables that delight their senses, and, I would agree, don’t really care where they come from.

In my view, this is another reason to continue the focus on three things:

1. Taste

2. Taste

3. Taste

!!!

— Chris Puentes
President
Interfresh, Inc.
Orange, California

Chris’ comparison with the COOL movement is apt in many ways — and some quite scary.

Most obviously, the COOL movement was pushed by producers who hoped that consumers would see words such as “Mexico” and be scared to death.

Yet it didn’t happen. There has been no noticeable change in consumption patterns due to COOL.

This means the law is ineffectual, but it is not harmless. Retailers are spending millions to conform to the rules. In the very same state, different inspectors are interpreting the rules differently.

Bananas, for example, often are shipped to retailers with different countries on the very same shipment. Some retailers put up signs listing each country that bananas on the table may come from. Some inspectors are requiring this.

Other inspectors are saying, no, they don’t want any signage. They will rely on the clause in the law that says that if 90% of the product is stickered, then the sticker can be used in lieu of a sign. However, a typical hand of bananas has two stickers on it. Which means most of the individual bananas are not stickered. So the reliance on stickering depends on a finding by the inspector that the product is a hand of bananas, all of which are stickered, rather than an individual banana, most of which are not stickered.

Then, of course, we have the fact that individual bananas often are separated from the hands. They fall off accidentally or are ripped apart by consumers so they can buy a smaller hand. Some inspectors are allowing for this and not requiring stickers or signs on these bananas; others are requiring they be consolidated and signed or stickered.

And this is all just on one product — bananas!

The end result is wasting countless hours of management talent and countless dollars in order to achieve nothing.

In its essence, that was really our critique of the Sodexo/UC Davis procurement policy. They had set up this elaborate scheme of concentric circles of preference for procurement but, in fact, had not required the product meet any specific criteria. They simply assumed that the closer a product is produced to the school the more flavorful and sustainable it would be. But, in fact, there is no evidence that this is true. In some cases, as with counter-seasonal fruit, it is obviously not true.

Of course, the fact that a convoluted five-tier procurement system makes no sense is not evidence that conventional agriculture is necessarily doing a great job.

Sure, some companies — Sun World come to mind — have really focused on breeding and we’ve listened to British retailers, for example, speak with enormous enthusiasm as to the flavor of new black grape varieties that Sun World’s affiliated growers were planting in South Africa.

Yet most producers have little choice but to sell what they have. We bought some peaches for the Pundit household last week and they wound up in the garbage. The Jr. Pundits won’t be urging the purchase of peaches for quite a while.

If Sodexo/UC Davis had really come up with a plan to make sure all its produce was flavorful, we would have been pointing to it as a model for others to consider. Instead we were left curious as to how an ideology got adopted as a procurement standard.

Many thanks to Chris Puentes of Interfresh for weighing in on this important matter.

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