Assessing PMA’s Dues Restructuring
Disney made an announcement regarding its acceptance of advertising on programs geared for young children:
Under Disney’s new standards, all food and beverage products advertised, sponsored, or promoted on Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Radio Disney, and Disney-owned online destinations oriented to families with younger children will be required by 2015 to meet Disney’s nutrition guidelines.
The nutrition guidelines are aligned to federal standards, promote fruit and vegetable consumption and call for limiting calories and reducing saturated fat, sodium, and sugar.
It was praised by virtually everyone, including First Lady Michelle Obama:
…First Lady Michelle Obama has called the move a "game changer" for the health of US children.
At the Disney press conference, Michelle Obama said: "As parents, we know that whatever is on TV is what our kids are going to want."
"I remember... going to the grocery store with the kids, and the minute you walk down the aisle the kids are singing some jingle, or they're pulling on your leg begging you, pleading you for whatever they saw on TV. And as a mom, I know how that makes it even harder for us to keep our kids healthy."
Even the Produce for Better Health Foundation felt compelled to chime in with a press release titled, Two Thumbs Up for The Walt Disney Company:
Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D., president and CEO of Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), was among several invited guests of The Walt Disney Company to attend a special event in Washington D.C. earlier today. The company introduced their new standards for food advertising on food programming targeting kids and families. The Walt Disney Company is the first major media company to introduce such standards.
“The Walt Disney Company has supported PBH and promoted our message aimed at adults and children to eat ‘more fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, frozen, canned, dried, or 100% juice because it matters for their better health’ for the last several years,” says Pivonka. “Their new standards are another way The Walt Disney Company is demonstrating their commitment to better health and the increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. The new standards are a perfect complement and support mechanism to the recommendation to make half the plate fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, frozen, canned, dried or 100% fruit or vegetable juice. I commend them on adopting these standards and look forward to continuing to work with their committed staff for years to come.”
Now we look at this and certainly see clever positioning. Disney manages to get the First Lady of the United States of America on its side. Yet it actually didn’t sacrifice very much. Bloomberg reported the whole issue is insignificant for a company of Disney’s size:
Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s plan to bar junk-food advertising from children’s programming would have cost less than $7.2 million in television ad revenue if it were in effect last year, according to estimates by Kantar Media.
That’s the amount that Disney generated from beverage and food commercials aimed at children in 2011, the New York-based research firm said. The figure is less a 10th of 1 percent of Disney’s total annual advertising sales. The company reported ad revenue of $7.6 billion for its media networks in its last fiscal year, an increase of 8 percent.
Disney claims the numbers are inaccurate, but even if they were off significantly, it still would be an insignificant issue. Remember, the Kantar numbers include ALL advertising of food aimed at children, not just products that violate the new Disney standards. In truth, many major food advertisers such as Nestle have already pledged to reduce or eliminate the advertising of less healthy foods to children, so it is not even clear there is much advertising out there for Disney to decline to run.
Beyond the PR significance, we are not prepared to join the hallelujah chorus on substantive grounds.
The First Lady’s point that children may want things they see advertised is surely true, but the proper response to that is for the First Lady to urge parents to be adults and fulfill their responsibilities to their children, which includes not buying things they think are inappropriate.
As a public health advocate, PBH’s endorsement of this troubles us because there is no science that says choosing to occasionally eat foods that violate the Disney standards causes any health effects at all. Carvel likes to advertise that Father’s Day should be celebrated with a Fudgie The Whale cake. Now a diet of Fudgie The Whale cakes is not likely to win any endorsements by nutritionists, but eating a slice of ice cream cake once a year is not known to cause any bad effects at all. So why shouldn’t Carvel be able to promote its product?
The whole approach violates the nutritionists’ maxim: “There are no good or bad foods, only good or bad diets.”
The project also lacks humility. The truth is that we don’t know very much about the impact of various ingredients on mortality. Take salt. Disney trumpets that its standards include sodium, and Elizabeth Pivonka points to the fact that Disney’s standards will lead to reduced sodium in the foods as if there is incontrovertible evidence that healthy people should reduce their sodium intake.
In fact, such evidence is scanty and, in fact, reducing sodium may actually do harm. The New York Times recently ran a piece by Gary Taubes titled Salt, We Misjudged You:
…this eat-less-salt argument has been surprisingly controversial — and difficult to defend. Not because the food industry opposes it, but because the actual evidence to support it has always been so weak.
When I spent the better part of a year researching the state of the salt science back in 1998 — already a quarter century into the eat-less-salt recommendations — journal editors and public health administrators were still remarkably candid in their assessment of how flimsy the evidence was implicating salt as the cause of hypertension.
“You can say without any shadow of a doubt,” as I was told then by Drummond Rennie, an editor for The Journal of the American Medical Association, that the authorities pushing the eat-less-salt message had “made a commitment to salt education that goes way beyond the scientific facts.”
While, back then, the evidence merely failed to demonstrate that salt was harmful, the evidence from studies published over the past two years actually suggests that restricting how much salt we eat can increase our likelihood of dying prematurely. Put simply, the possibility has been raised that if we were to eat as little salt as the U.S.D.A. and the C.D.C. recommend, we’d be harming rather than helping ourselves. …
In the years since, the N.I.H. has spent enormous sums of money on studies to test the hypothesis, and those studies have singularly failed to make the evidence any more conclusive. Instead, the organizations advocating salt restriction today — the U.S.D.A., the Institute of Medicine, the C.D.C. and the N.I.H. — all essentially rely on the results from a 30-day trial of salt, the 2001 DASH-Sodium study. It suggested that eating significantly less salt would modestly lower blood pressure; it said nothing about whether this would reduce hypertension, prevent heart disease or lengthen life.
While influential, that trial was just one of many. When researchers have looked at all the relevant trials and tried to make sense of them, they’ve continued to support Dr. Stamler’s “inconsistent and contradictory” assessment. Last year, two such “meta-analyses” were published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international nonprofit organization founded to conduct unbiased reviews of medical evidence. The first of the two reviews concluded that cutting back “the amount of salt eaten reduces blood pressure, but there is insufficient evidence to confirm the predicted reductions in people dying prematurely or suffering cardiovascular disease.” The second concluded that “we do not know if low salt diets improve or worsen health outcomes.”
The idea that eating less salt can worsen health outcomes may sound bizarre, but it also has biological plausibility and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, too. A 1972 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the less salt people ate, the higher their levels of a substance secreted by the kidneys, called renin, which set off a physiological cascade of events that seemed to end with an increased risk of heart disease. In this scenario: eat less salt, secrete more renin, get heart disease, die prematurely.
With nearly everyone focused on the supposed benefits of salt restriction, little research was done to look at the potential dangers. But four years ago, Italian researchers began publishing the results from a series of clinical trials, all of which reported that, among patients with heart failure, reducing salt consumption increased the risk of death.
Those trials have been followed by a slew of studies suggesting that reducing sodium to anything like what government policy refers to as a “safe upper limit” is likely to do more harm than good.
So, we are confronted with a big company burnishing its reputation by doing something that costs it nothing, the First Lady of the United States endorsing the notion that American parents are a bunch of irresponsible people without backbones who are helpless before a child who has seen a TV commercial and the Produce for Better Health Foundation endorsing a dubious criticism of individual foods rather than diets, while endorsing health claims that simply are not proven.
Disney may win because its reputation gets enhanced, the President may win because it looks like his wife is doing something useful when it comes to public health, and the Produce for Better health can hope to get more support from Disney for applauding its efforts.
The evidence that any of this will lead to more healthful children — zero.
There is a movement afoot to ban children from certain places. This piece, titled Restaurant Bans Kids, followed up on The No Kids Allowed Movement Is Spreading, and both presented real issues for the restaurant industry:
At a Pennsylvania restaurant, it's no shirt, no shoes, no kids, no dice.
At McDain's Restaurant, in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, kids don't eat free. And starting next week, they don't get to eat at all. Mike Vuick, owner of the Pittsburgh area eatery, has just announced a ban on children under 6 at his casual dining establishment.
After receiving noise complaints from customers about crying kids at neighboring tables, Vuick decided to institute the policy, which will go into effect July 16.
In an email to customers, Vuick explained: "We feel that McDain's is not a place for young children. Their volume can't be controlled and many, many times, they have disturbed other customers."
The owner of the "upscale, casual and quiet" restaurant explains to WTAE Local News, he's got nothing against kids in general, but their endless screams at public dinner tables are "the height of being impolite and selfish."
There is little question that restaurants have to meet the needs of their customers and if customers are complaining about children, more and more restaurants will ban them.
There have long been places where children are not welcome. At Disney World’s acclaimed Victoria & Albert’s restaurant, in its Grand Floridian Hotel, only guests 10 and over are invited to dine. There are 55-and-over communities, and many resorts have adult-only pools, to name a few.
This movement, though, is driven by two things. One is surely a change in demographics. DINKLife, which was just recently launched, celebrates the dual-income, no kids lifestyle. Although this web site seems to focus on younger people who either have not yet had children or who have decided to not have children, an even bigger constituency is the growing elderly population, whose children are long since out of the house.
Yet we suspect there is something beyond demographics at work here.
Read that restaurant owner’s complaint again: “…he's got nothing against kids in general, but their endless screams at public dinner tables are 'the height of being impolite and selfish.'"
What is this about “endless screams at public dinner tables”? One take, that taken by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame, who we owe a hat tip to for introducing us to this topic, is put this way: “WHEN DID KIDS BECOME THE EQUIVALENT of second-hand smoke? When parents quit disciplining them, I’d guess."
That is a true-enough point, but we would take it a step further. The anti-child movement, especially in places such as restaurants, is also motivated by a change in ethos that makes people, parents among them, unwilling to sacrifice their own comfort to avoid inconveniencing others.
Maybe it is partly a function of older parents who are just more tired, but it is certainly a function of a “me generation” attitude that is entirely self-referential.
Children do sometimes misbehave, and parents can moderate this by planning ahead, bringing appropriate toys and distractions, offering appropriate incentives, etc. Still, children may misbehave and if that misbehavior takes the forms of screaming in a restaurant, parents have to interrupt their own dinner and take the child outside until he can be calmed and brought back to the table.
Momma Pundit did that more than once with this incipient Pundit, and the Jr. Pundits have sometimes required similar treatment.
The key is that the parent has to feel a responsibility to the other people around. Unfortunately, not everyone does.
The real message here for businesses that serve the public is that if the culture no longer causes parents to protect other customers from bad behavior by their own children, then restaurateurs will have to act.
Of course this leaves a big open question: How are restaurants to protect patrons from poorly behaving adults?
Rutgers University is one of the charter members of the University Exchange Program at The New York Produce Show and Conference. Each year bringing both students to gain experience and exposure and faculty members to share their latest research with the broader produce community.
In the launch year of the show we profiled the Rutgers contribution with this piece: Rutger’s Professor Ramu Govindasamy To Speak Out At The New York Produce Show And Conference … Research On Asian And Hispanic Produce Marketing On The East Coast Identifies A Profitable Opportunity and last year we showcased the presentation this way:ETHNIC AMERICA: Opportunities For Growers, Wholesalers And Retailers In Ethnic Produce Items...Rutgers University’s Dr. Ramu Govindasamy Unveils New Research.
Both presentations have served the industry well be pivoting a focus to the produce needs and desires of various ethnic groups. The next stage of this research has now launched and we asked Pundit investigator and Special Projects editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Professor, Department of Environment and
New Brunswick, New Jersey
Q: We are pleased you will be presenting analysis of your study: Ethnic Produce Marketing: Perspectives of Intermediaries; a collaborative effort with Dr. Ramu Govindasamy from Rutgers and Dr. Kathy Kelley from Penn State.
Dr. Ramu Govindasamy has captivated attendees with his talks at our previous shows and we are privileged to have you participate this year.
Could you start by providing a perspective of what led you to this most recent research?
A: The first time we’re talking about the intermediaries study is at the New York Produce Show. This is a wonderful opportunity to present our research.
This is the third project in a series of ethnic produce research through USDA’s Specialty Crops Initiative, covered consecutively at prior New York Produce Shows. The first two were mainly concerned with demography and ethnic populations, and related characteristics. This project looks at the intermediaries. It covers a wide area from Maine to Washington D.C. Different institutions and universities participate in this program. I worked on this study with Dr. Ramu Govindasamy and Dr. Kathy Kelley, from Penn State, a marketing economist with a diversified interest in horticulture.
Q: What is the key purpose for the study? Do you have a hypothesis? What do you hope to achieve?
A: The main objective is to survey the intermediaries, wholesalers, retailers and distributors, to find out what are some of the bottlenecks they face sourcing, selling, packaging, advertising and marketing; what difficulties they face and how different institutions can be of help to them. The main goal is to help the economics of small and medium farmers.
Q: Do you see avenues for small and medium farmers to assuage these bottlenecks? How has the farm sector changed? Could you describe industry dynamics and the impact on small and medium farmers?
A: As the farm sector in the U.S. has become much more consolidated and the land for agriculture has been diversified in developments, it has severe impacts on small and medium farmers and the need to find niche markets for ethnic populations.
Q: Could you detail that ethnic diversification?
A: As a matter of fact, demography has changed quite dramatically. The 2010 census reported the total population at 308.7 million. Between 2000 and 2010, the overall growth rate for the U.S. was 9.7 percent. If you look at the growth rate for the Hispanic population in the U.S., it grew by 16 percent. If look you look at the Asian population alone, it experienced the fastest growth rate of 43.3 percent.
Q: How does that breakdown within subgroups?
A: The Asian Indian population is fastest growing, Chinese second, and then Koreans, Vietnamese and other small subgroups.
Also, Asians as a group are associated with high purchasing power. The median income of the Asian population is about the median income of the U.S. and. this reflects greater potential for spending money, which will have the largest impact against this ethnic market. We have preliminary information about how that splits out; The Asian Indian population ranks highest in purchasing power, then the Chinese, and the Mexican group will follow.
Q: Is purchasing potential related more to income levels or to diet?
A: The Indian population is the highest spending because their diets depend a lot on produce compared to Chinese and Mexicans. The majority of Indian population happens to be vegetarian and this is why Indian and Asian stores sell a lot of lettuces, vegetables and herbs.
Q: What are the specific produce items and varieties that are most popular in each segment?
A: For the Asian Indian groups, the top three are radish greens and Indian sorrel spinach, followed by fenugreek leaves. For the Chinese group, first is bok choy, then Chinese broccoli and spinach. For Mexican groups, the first is pursalen, then roselle, and epazote, which are all leafy vegetables. For the Puerto Ricans, it’s lechuga, garlic chives and cilantro.
Q: What is the availability of these top items at retail? Are there gaps that need to be filled?
A: To determine this, we conducted a study, involving a series of questions. We gathered information in several ways. There was a focus group meeting, which lead to more specific surveys. We contacted retailers, brokers and distributors and had 51 participants; 18 retailers, 16 wholesalers, 17 distributors and brokers.
Q: Were the participants responsive? What did you ask and what did you find out? Did the answers meet your expectations?
A: We spoke with small retailers, which gave me an advantage because I used to be a small ethnic retailer. The survey conformed to my personal experience. The results of the survey didn’t surprise me. They were in line with what I had experienced.
I started the store in 2006 in New Jersey. One of the reasons I ventured into retail was that I saw a good business opportunity. I realized when I did a demographic study of the area that there were a lot of Indians and Asians, but not a single store to meet their needs.
Why don’t I start an Asian ethnic store to sell items in demand, cilantro, chili, armament and all the different vegetables... When I would go to wholesalers, I’d see the issues they had to deal with in getting items, finding the right quantity, how they store product, and safety issues they have to go through, USDA inspections at the port, etc. I could contrast this with what customers actually need, and are they really willing to pay a premium for these ethnic herbs and vegetables.
Q: Was your retail operation a success? Is it still running?
A: The store was successful but became extremely tedious to run the store and be a professor. I sold it to somebody and it turned into a 7/11 now. I had been helping the community. I had a lot of friends and connections discussing what they needed. Some of the most valuable information I learned mainly came from my customers. I used to change variety and product combinations, not selling exactly same thing all the time. I’d talk to customers and add something new, see how many they bought There may not be huge demand. I used to modify product mix often. Having my own store gave me the flexibility to make changes.
As an aside, at the time, I had been amused by the name of your online publication, The Perishable Pundit. I was thinking how my herbs and greens were so perishable and asking myself, how do you master the Perishable, Pundit? The name seemed very appropriate. I was feeling like a perishable pundit!
After the focus group, we did phone interviews and we also sent people to collect the data. Indian retail managers especially didn’t want to give any information on the phone. We had to go to them directly and insure them the information was absolutely confidential. In addition to data collection, we developed 25 open ended questions; more probing, so that managers could give us a better idea of their issues. Part of the survey for the manager asked about the character of the store, how it performs, volumes, and customer willingness to pay the price; are customers satisfied with product, safety issues, etc.
We also collected data on preselected items, recoding volumes and prices. When the data collector goes to the store, he physically sees the produce of the presorted selection, how much quantity, the prices, and gets an indication of how fast the produce moves through the store, to validate what the manager says, if it’s fresh, etc., and to get an accurate assessment, even if the manager is not giving the right information.
Our research showed a big problem. Eighty eight percent of managers said they experience difficulties in finding ethnic greens and herbs. There is no availability.
When I had my store, I had to go very early to Jersey City where there were four wholesalers carrying the items I needed. If I was not there by 6:00 a.m. the probability was that I wouldn’t get any product.
Q: Where was your store located? Couldn’t you procure from Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx? Doesn’t Hunts Point Market open wider access to some of these specialty items?
A: My store was located in Marlboro, New Jersey. Hunts Point Market was too hard for me to get to personally. The Jersey City wholesalers maybe import from India, the Caribbean, California, and might get things from Hunts Point Market. Product is either limited or they don’t even have it. I remember this guy was crying because his whole supply of produce from India got held up one time because the USDA said it couldn’t enter the U.S. food chain. Wholesalers face a lot of issues with supply of some of these specialty items.
Q: With ethnic population growth rates rising, won’t availability issues just get worse?
A: There is huge demand for these products, not just from ethnic groups, but other people want them because they are tired of the same foods, and greens are healthy and nutritious. There is a growing awareness of obesity problems and desire to change eating habits and increase produce consumption.
The supply chain is finding it very hard to source them. The supply constraint is problematic. If companies try to import, they have transportation costs and safety issues.
Some people don’t see country of origin label (COOL) and have no guarantee the product is what it claims to be.
Q: It’s interesting that you bring up COOL in an advantageous way. COOL has always been a controversial topic in the produce industry. Many industry executives have argued the requirement just created extra burdens on the supply side while increasing costs down the chain. Some say COOL was a marketing attempt to gain a competitive advantage with consumers prejudiced to choose the U.S. labeled product over the one labeled from Mexico, for example….
A: Many people want the country of origin label these days before they actually trust the product. It’s valuable on the supply chain side. For the consumers, they can actually trust this is coming from this particular place and approved by federal agencies.
Q: What actions can be taken to increase availability of ethnic crops?
A: Our research not only set out to find out the difficulties people face and to understand constraints. It was also to remedy the situation. So this also becomes beneficial to small and medium farmers in the U.S., who can grow and supply these products. Trust issues are less of a problem if product is domestically grown because it has to go through all the safety routes. Therefore people will have much more confidence and increase demand, and in turn, this will result in growers increasing their production. Then instead of niche it begins moving in the mainstream.
Q: Where do you see the best production opportunity for these specialty crops? Haven’t you begun trials in different states? What is the status of this work?
A: The emphasis is on the East Coast. Experimental plots are underway. There is one in Florida, two in New Jersey and one in Massachusetts. We selected 10 herbs and vegetables already on trial for production. These trials have been viewed as successful.
Also there are experimental plots in different stages. We began this process a couple of years ago. During the 2011 growing season, we began to evaluate Asian, Chinese, Mexican and Puerto Rican specialty produce items. We’re looking to learn several things. Our first goal was identifying key products, analyzing the limitations from sourcing seed to harvest, estimating yield and quality of niche and new crops.
In presenting our research, first we are trying to summarize our entire survey of retailers, distributors, and wholesalers. We want to help small and medium farmers to grow. We already had ten major crop identification trials, and are able to show the research we’ve done; the measurements, pounds, height of plants, how they were planted…
Q: In your assessment, do the results point to meaningful opportunity?
A: It all seems very viable. This experiment was like one done at a pharmaceutical company. It starts out with wide number items, and then in trial some are not conducive to grow in this climate, some are eliminated, then 10 crops are identified. What are the conditions for how these items can be successfully grown on the East Coast?
The next issue is the seeds and where we can get the best seed possible. Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey are where we’ve held the field trials; growing all these different combinations of greens and herbs and figuring out which is the best climate for them to grow. The first trial is already harvested and going for testing in terms of taste, quality and content.
Q: Who should be mindful to attend your presentation?
A: The main point for attendees is that 78 percent of participants in the survey said they were interested to learn more about the possibility of growing herbs and vegetables domestically. From the retailers’ point of view, more than 80 percent said they are willing to work with companies to increase the supply of these specialty items.
The other part of this discussion is the difficulty retailers are having in meeting demands. The major problem is in sourcing. At the same time, trials are going on to determine which of these products can be grown domestically by small and medium farmers. There is huge potential for attendees. If they haven’t looked at the ethnic market, it is time for them to look at it. The opportunities are great if we can integrate the entire supply chain.
Q: Are strategies primarily geared towards niche markets?
A: Some of these are niche products, but more and more greens and herbs are becoming mainstream and thus widening demand.
In terms of marketing we asked retailers different questions. How do they promote, where do they spend their ad dollars, what types of media, mail, local newspapers, social media, blogs; Do they give discounts, coupons; engage in T.V. advertising, is it mainstream stations or national language stations, what targeted messages. How do they target their audience? For example, there is a channel that only runs on Indian languages… Some of the stores in New Jersey do advertising on domestic language stations. When an Indian festival comes they do major marketing.
In New Jersey, there is a very big Indian market. If you go to Edison, there’s a whole street where you’d think you are in India. In Jersey City, a whole area is committed to the Indian community. In Freehold, where I live, there are numerous Spanish restaurants and grocery stores. In Massachusetts, there are ethnic pockets and these are expanding. In Michigan, there is a large Asian population. I will discuss different studies showing areas where ethnic populations are growing.
Q: While you’ve pinpointed top selling specialty vegetables within different ethnic subgroups, isn’t there a lot of overlap? Combined with the mainstream trends, it seems the market is flush with possibilities…
A: When I had my ethnic grocery store, I used to go to a wholesaler in Elizabeth, NJ that not only sold specialized produce to Indian retailers, but offered all kinds of combinations of herbs to reach a wide range of consumers. He had different styles of product mix for Italians, Americans, Vietnamese, Koreans, but was also selling common items for Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Chinese. We’ve identified 10 specialty items that are common denominators for many different ethnic groups. There is a huge gap that can be filled.
Q: What is the next stage in this on-going project? For those attendees whose interest has been sparked, what is in the pipeline?
A: The field trials have been very successful. As for our time frame, pilots have already been harvested and product has been sent for all forms of testing; analyzing attributes, quality, taste, nutritional content, texture….Biological testing is being done for the first two trials. We want to determine what contributed to the results. Is it because of climate or nutrients provided or pesticides used, etc. When the product meets all the requirements, then we will contact the farmers and they can start to cultivate.
Sometimes studying detailed markets leads to broader insights. One issue Professor Vellangany raises is the possibility that Country of Origin Labeling may serve as a kind of subtle indicator that the supply chain is organized, knowledgeable about the product, etc. this is much the way some research indicates branding functions in fresh. Beyond the typical efforts to develop specific brand preference, the mere fact of branding makes some consumers more confident in the product, creates the thought that someone is standing behind this product.
When it comes to the focus of this study there are really two: Focus on opportunities at retail to better serve ethnic minorities that seek specialized product and provide opportunities for small or regional growers that need profitable products to produce.
Yet we wonder if the logic of the three years of talks doesn’t point elsewhere, specifically to Salinas, California.
If we combine a growing ethnic population with the bulk of the population getting increasing exposure to ethnic items through travel, culinary innovation in the US and exposure at retailers looking to capture these markets, we would expect growing demand for specialty items and if specialty greens become increasingly mainstream, won’t they wind up being produced in mainstream places such as Salinas and Yuma?
We have to give Professor Vellangany some props. He went and opened a store to test out his concept and to learn more. That type of “hands on ‘ research is most commendable and certainly helps him in understanding the real life obstacles to making theoretical plans, actual.
Inadvertently he also threw up a challenge to both the Hunts Point and Philadelphia markets – how can these giants serve these niche markets more effectively?
For answers to these questions and more, make sure you are in the audience at The New York Produce Show and Conference.
Register online and avoid any lines, you can do so right here.
Of course you can also register at the door, at The Sheraton 7thAvenue and 53rdStreet) on Tuesday, December 4, 2012 for the Global trade Symposium, Wednesday December 5th at Pier 94 ( 12thavenue and 54thstreet) for the Opening breakfast, trade show and main workshop stage and, again at the Sheraton on Wednesday, December 6th, 2012 for the “Ideation Fresh” foodservice forum and the regional bus tours.
Both venues have parking available and both are convenient to mass transit.
But, again, you can beat any lines by registering at this link.
Our special report titled, As The European E. coli 0104:H4 Outbreak Causes Illness And Death, It Wreaks Havoc On The Produce Trade And Breaks Confidence In Public Health: Lessons From Europe, brought many responses. Some focused on the relevance to the United States:
A very good Special Report. There is no doubt but that Germany’s deadly food safety incident raises significant questions for the fresh produce industry in the United States: the moving target of what human pathogen to test for; the actual value of enhanced traceability systems; how to improve epidemiology; how to handle compensation for growers and others caught up in a devastating marketing problem not of their making; and where now to target scarce research dollars. And the list goes on.
I expect the unfolding experience in Germany will set the stage for some interesting discussions at the Center for Produce Safety’s June 27-28 meeting in Orlando, Florida.
— Christian Schlect
Northwest Horticultural Council
Others saw the issue through the prism of personal responsibility versus reliance on government:
Insightful analysis and on point regarding the brief conclusions in the last 3 paragraphs.
The problem is that we have now added a glut of real time information to both experts and the public alike, much of it incomplete and some erroneous. This fact, along with human nature (which “changes not”) to be prideful, blame-assigning, risk-averse, will continue to result in all of the circumstances you site in this case with the next outbreak.
No matter the motive, government bureaucrats and industry trade groups and academics have “promised” the public “food safety” and that promise has been believed. The “genie is out of the bottle” and personal responsibility was forced in its place with the ”cork” firmly replaced.
— Daniel Barth
Super King Markets
Los Angeles, California
Others remind us that statistics can be deceiving when collected by various groups under disparate standards:
Some years ago, when I decided to take a second Master's to update my technical knowledge, I took a food microbiology course. I was shocked to find out that only 17 out of 50 states report their epidemiology data to the CDC, which is why you hear about outbreaks from NY, MA, MN, etc., but never from others who refuse to spend money on a state health service.
I took the course in 2006. Has the situation changed after all the recent outbreaks, and the passing of the new Food Safety law? I doubt it, but would be pleased to hear that the CDC are working from better information nowadays !
— Richard Yudin
Technical & Environmental Manager
Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Some took exception to some of our points:
Your recent piece on the European e-coli outbreak was, as usual, comprehensive and insightful. I do, however, have to take exception to something you propose. You suggest in point 7 that "the focus on traceability should be moved to epidemiology". I couldn't disagree more.
You could mount virtually all of the industry resources available and still not get epidemiology "right". As you point out, in the E. coli outbreak in Europe, work in microbiology is continually evolving and, despite the best science has to offer, will continue to confound mankind with new strains of pathogens and disease that we don't expect.
So the events in Europe demonstrate why it's MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER to move toward a uniform and effective traceability process that enables IDENTIFICATION — ISOLATION — COMMUNICATION to take place as expediently as possible. The biggest enemy in a food safety outbreak is not science, but TIME! And that's the one variable that the industry can actually do something about. The tragedy, in my mind, is that the industry keeps dragging its heels in this area, when, as you correctly point out, this is one area the industry can actually do something about it.
This is not in any way to dispute that added effort in the area of epidemiology isn't warranted. The Center for Produce Safety would seem to me to be a logical place to start. And clearly, funding needs to be increased for university research. Those efforts needs to be transparent so that all parties involved can have a coordinated effort in this area.
But this important work should not take the place of, or take the focus off of, traceability. They are two entirely different approaches to address a singular concern, that being a wholesome and safe food supp
— Bruce Peterson
One sharp-eyed professor caught an error which we fixed the same day online:
I found an obvious error in the text provided by the GeneKey chief. The genome size of Escherichia coli O157:H7 is 5.4 million base-pair (5,400 genes), not 5,000 base-pair as mentioned in the report.
Non-pathogenic E. coli has somewhat smaller genome size (4.6 million base pair)
— Ahmed Yousef
Professor of Food Microbiology
The Ohio State University
The professor then went on to send us a study he and colleagues published back in 2009 that he believes “could have prevented this tragedy.” It is called Inactivation of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Natural Microbiota on Spinach Leaves Using Gaseous Ozone during Vacuum Cooling and Simulated Transportation.
Still others focused on the differences between the US food safety system and that in Europe:
A good piece covering many topics. With the plethora of both factual and speculative articles flying around, it was interesting to see what the Pundit take on all this would be.
I think you are spot on in your sixth paragraph about how the countries reacted. Despite all the EU efforts to harmonize, these (Germany and Spain) are separate countries and in the EU the member countries have less "glue" binding them together than the States of the United States. Press releases from the EU, affected countries and then local releases within the countries themselves seem to be a less than unified messages about the issues at hand.
One BBC commentator stated that "there is also a German belief in direct and open speech — if the authorities know something they believe the citizens should be told." I am not sure if that is fair comment or not, but how much information should a government make known to its people and when? How does any level of government (or industry) measure the need to protect its citizens with full disclosure versus the need for economic stability? Does partial disclosure cause more or less damage than full disclosure?
Even with clearer communications for example, X% probability of item A, Y% probability of item B, the economic damage to the named items will be done. This goes back to your points about the need for better epidemiology and better crisis management as you note in your piece.
I think epidemiology and traceability works hand in hand in terms of getting to the source of an issue as soon as possible and confirming we have the right source. The ideal situation being that the full disclosure as soon as the correct facts are confirmed will alert the consumers but avoid unnecessary economic hardship. I fear a lot easier write down than to actually put into place.
Pulsenet went global, and on their site, they mention, “PN Europe is currently in the process of being taken over by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Stockholm, Sweden. Ongoing activities and the central databases will probably be transferred to ECDC to Stockholm during 2008.”
When I look on the ECDC site, I am struggling to see a mention about Pulsenet, but a lot of information on their surveillance plans. Suspect this will be up for review after this current issue has played out, plus also maybe they will be looking at how member countries are required to inform consumers about issues (if countries can agree to surrender than level of control to the EU!).
You touched on irradiation, it does sound good but I read an article a few weeks back that made me realize this is a more difficult technology to apply to produce that I had first imagined. Of course, labeling of irradiated products is a different debate.
Looking forward to your next Pundit edition as this issue progresses.
— Mark Shakespeare
Santa Maria, California
What with all the attention being paid to the United/PMA dust-up… when we all finish saving the produce industry, we will have to turn our attention to saving western civilization. As part of the PMA/United business, we wrote a piece titled A Modest Proposal For Reviving The Merger of PMA And United. This piece illustrated a mechanism by which a decision could be made even when the two parties substantively disagree.
Now our subsequent piece, United/PMA Impasse More than Just A Decision About A CEO — It Is A Battle For The soul Of The New Association, pointed to an evolution in our thought that the disagreement over the CEOs was really not a personnel matter but a proxy for a disagreement as to the nature of the association. This meant that a mechanism for finding a CEO may not be what we need at all; we may need a mechanism for defining what our trade associations ought to do.
None the less, there was a lot of commentary on our “Modest Proposal,” but the nature of the commentary made us decry the state of literary knowledge in the country.
The phrase, “A Modest Proposal,” is the common name for a famous essay by 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, who is most known for his novel, Gulliver’s Travels. His 1729 essay is titled, A Modest Proposal For Preventing The Children Of Poor People From Being A Burden On Their Parents Or Country, And For Making Them Beneficial To The Public.
The essay suggests that the impoverished Irish could improve their lot by selling their children as food to rich ladies and gentlemen. It is written in what is known as the Juvenalian style of satire — named after the Roman satirist Juvenal — which is filled with moral indignation and personal invective and is the style typically used for bitterly polarized political satire.
This seemed to fit the state of the industry, which was filled with finger-pointing and blame-casting. So we thought it a perfect title for our piece.
“A Modest Proposal” is widely recognized as the single greatest work of sustained irony in the English language. You can read the essay here and the SparksNote on the essay here.
Our recent piece PMA And United: To Merge Or Not To Merge? That Is The Question, dealt with many of the issues surrounding the idea of merging our two national produce trade associations. This followed on top of many pieces we have written assessing the issue. You can see many of those pieces here.
As the conversation has proceeded, we can only admire the industry and intelligence so many industry leaders are volunteering to make the resolution of this issue a great success for the trade — whatever outcome might actually represent success. We have, however, grown concerned that the process may be going off track a bit. We do not prejudge the outcome, but we do think it essential that the focus remain strategic.
In other words, everyone needs to take a breather and read their John Marshall. He was the 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, the longest serving chief justice and the one whose opinions really set the basis for constitutional interpretation, including that the Court had the power to invalidate an act of the legislature if it conflicted with the Constitution.
In his famous opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland, Marshall expressed a vision of a government that was established in line with great and timeless principles but retained flexibility to meet current needs. In the course of the opinion, he wrote a phrase the still echoes through American constitutional law: “We must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding.”
Equally, our discussions with too many industry leaders is leading us to fear that the whole issue of merger is boiling down to what roles Bryan Silbermann, currently the President of PMA, and Tom Stenzel, President and CEO of United, will play in the merger.
That is inappropriate.
The Pundit has long and deep relationships with both of these men. We would be shocked if we were not in touch with them many years after they are retired from the produce industry. Both have served long and well and clearly both must be treated with respect.
However, whether a merger makes sense for the industry cannot possibly depend on the interests of any individuals.
The industry has now spent well into the six figures on this process and countless man hours of attention that could have been spent elsewhere. Nobody is going to propose that the industry be anything but generous to these two men. But either a merger is the right decision or the wrong one.
If the personal interests of individuals don’t fit with the direction the industry needs to go, then we wish them well, put them on retainer as consultants, buff up their pension plan a bit and go hire a new CEO and COO.
Both gentlemen and their super sharp wives and wonderful families are always welcome as guests in the home of the Pundit. But the board members will find themselves going way off track if they allow such considerations to enter their deliberations.
One of the things the industry has to get its hands around is that many of its products are primarily or exclusively used cooked. It is highly unlikely that we will succeed in increasing consumption of fresh produce if we don’t succeed in finding and executing creative and delicious ways of cooking fresh produce.
The priority of this project is why we our Celebrity Chef Main Stage right on the expo floor. We already profiled one appearance on that stage in our piece Culinary Extravaganza at The New York Produce Show: Ritz-Carlton’s Executive Chef Mark Arnao Among Super Chefs To Appear On Stage.
Now we have another super-intimidating Chef appearing at the show. How intimidating?
Well it’s a pretty heady credential just to have graduated from The culinary institute of America, this guy was the valedictorian! We asked PRODUCE BUSINESS contributing Editor, Carol Bareuther, to help us learn more:
Chef Ben Pollinger
New York, New York
What does it take to maintain a Michelin star rating for over six years? Ben Pollinger, executive chef at Oceana, located at 120 West 49th Street in Manhattan, relies on his green thumb, his Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY education that saw him graduate as valedictorian, and his classical French training to source the freshest ingredients and serve seasonally-inspired dishes that keep customers coming back for the remarkable repertoire of flavors. Fresh produce is definitely an ingredient that stars in its own right on Pollinger’s menu.
Q: When did you first develop an interest in fresh produce?
A: As a kid we ate vegetables all the time because my father and grandfather were avid gardeners. They got me involved in gardening at a young age. We grew simple things like corn, beans, zucchini and tomatoes, for example, in the backyard of our Rutherford, NJ, house.
Q: How did you decide to become a chef?
A: I was an economics student at Boston University when I took a part-time job in the college dining hall to pay the bills. The food was good. The vast majority of what we did was from-scratch cooking on a large scale. We used a lot of fresh products like fresh vegetables simply steamed. After a few years, I thought if I’m going to do something for the rest of my life, I want it to be fun.
Q: When were you exposed first to the concept of locally-grown?
A: At the CIA. We cooked with all fresh produce and the school is really awesome about sourcing locally and exposing students to this. Also, I worked at a local restaurant while I went to school. That’s when I became even more aware of the amazing bounty especially in the Hudson Valley. In school we had farmers deliver and at the restaurant we would either go pick up product from a farmer or at the farmer’s market or farmers would deliver direct. We’d see all this great produce as it came in. It was great.
Q: I hear there were two big influences on your culinary career with respect to fresh produce. Can you explain?
A: Sure. The first was when I moved to Monte Carlo after graduation to work at Le Louis XV under Chef Alain Ducasse. The menu was reflective of the local cuisine on the Riviera with a huge emphasis on fresh produce. There was such an amazing variety like giant white asparagus from Central France and violet artichokes with the spines still on from Northern Italy. Every day the chef du cuisine would go to Nice and pick out stuff for the restaurant at the farmer’s market. It was a farmer’s market that functioned like a wholesale market serving chefs instead of a retail outlet. That’s when I first saw the concept of farmers growing produce specifically for culinary properties, not as a commodity. One of my jobs was when the chef came back and pulled up at the hotel, they’d ring the kitchen and I would need to bring everything in and sort it out. I got to see it all first hand.
Q: And, the second influence?
A: It was while working at Tabla, which is now closed. It was one of Danny Meyer’s restaurants and I worked there with Floyd Cardoz. It was a ground-breaking restaurant and on a national scale in that it featured Cardoz’s New Indian cuisine. That’s when I became more acquainted with Indian cooking. Impoverished countries have evolved to do much more creative things with produce than cuisines based primarily around protein.
Q: What is your current philosophy of fresh produce at Oceana?
A: Fresh produce plays a very important part on the menu. Generally speaking, the majority of what I cook is how I like to eat. Lighter with a healthy balance. That means a moderate size portion of seafood, which is what we are known for, along with produce and whole grains. There’s also less of a reliance on butter and heavy cream and instead on stocks, olive oil and vegetable-based sauces such as salsa and chutney. The menu isn’t designed to be healthful, per se, but I’d define 90 percent of the selections as just that.
Q: Could you offer a couple of examples of produce-heavy menu selections?
A: Sure. We have a five-course tasting menu that has different themes each month. In October there was a pumpkin theme. Not just in dessert, but in the whole menu. For example, a couple of the selections were New Orleans Shrimp and Pumpkin Risotto, Sea Scallops with seared pumpkin, Swiss chard and a saffron fennel reduction, and roasted monkfish with trumpet mushrooms, butternut squash, red curry and pumpkin sauce. For dessert there was Pumpkin Tres Leches.
Q: What are a couple of other ways fresh produce is showcased on the menu?
A: In general, we offer a fixed composed plate. That might be swordfish with cauliflower puree and glazed carrots with carrot vinaigrette. Or, we offer a fish on a plate where you can order the sides you want. Our sides include roasted Brussels sprouts with duck confit, cider glaze and mustard; spiced pumpkin and red peas; and braised local greens with roasted shallots and preserved jalapeno.
Q: What types of produce will you feature this winter?
A: Winter is all about hearty greens and root vegetables. We’ll also feature apples in our five-course tasting menu after the New Year.
Q: How do you source your fresh produce?
A: In the summer and early fall, the restaurant group that we are part of will send a truck out to two farms on the north fork of Long Island and load it up with things like tomatoes, corn, eggplant, beans, peppers, carrots and variety lettuces. Locally-grown is great, but it’s not feasible all year. If it were, we’d have to go back to the old days when we used what was in the root cellar. That would mean hunkering down to a diet that included only potatoes, carrots, turnips, apples, cabbage, celery root and winter squash. That’s why it’s essential to be able to source produce from other places throughout the year. In fact, we buy the majority of our herbs from a vendor here in New York that has an organic herb farm in Columbia. There is a big cut flower business out of Columbia to the U.S. with several cargo flights weekly that the herbs come in on. Because I count on her and I want her to be there for me, I support and buy from her year-round even though I’ll also buy fresh herbs locally during the summer.
Q: Tell us about your home garden?
A: It’s about 300-square-feed. I have about 20 different varieties of herbs in pots like basil, rosemary, thyme, lemon balm, several varieties of mint and sorrel. My kids will eat sorrel right off the plant. I used to grow more chefy-type vegetables, but now I focus on varieties my three kids, who are ages 8, 7 and 3, like to eat and work with. That includes tomatoes, beans, carrots, zucchini, cucumber, okra and fresh ground cherries.
Q: What are some of the fresh produce trends you see for the future?
A: I see a resurgence of not just the local movement, but an increasing interest by farmers to grow different products for their culinary attributes rather than as a commodity. I have farmers now who ask me what I want and then go out and grow it. I’m more interested in that type of farmer than the one who is more interested in the size of a head of broccoli so it fits just right in a box or the size of a tomato to fit in the carton over taste and flavor. Farmers are realizing that its flavour that counts.
Q: Could you give us a sneak peek of what you’ll present in the Celebrity Chef Demonstrations on Wednesday?
A: Last year it was a winter vegetable stuffed braised red onion with curried spinach sauce. I’m still planning this year’s dish.
The chef brings up five very intriguing points:
1) His idea of produce being grown specifically for culinary purposes is interesting and make sense. It hearkens back a little to the interview we did last year with farmer Lee Jones. If you think about, a restaurant is mixing in with the price of food lots of other things, ambiance, service, etc. so , especially in fine dining, it can pay more for ingredients to get something special.
2) The chef’s reference to his Brussels Sprouts with Duck comfit reminds us of our column Three Cheers for Bacon. produce is great but we kill ourselves if we don’t aggressively urge its use with other foods.
3) We think the Chef’s point about looking to cultures that were poor and thus were not able to build menus around protein, is astute. These are cultures that had to make produce flavourful.
4) It is a truism in produce that what customers want most is constituency. The chef reminds us that in the white table cloth sector that is not necessarily true. Flavor is more important than consistent sizing – although plenty of chefs if looking to put a whole braised onion on a plate want a certain size.
5) Overall he reminds us that consumption has to be driven. Boosting red onion consumption is hard if everyone is going to eat the same dishes they did last year, but if a person starts enjoying the chef’s “winter vegetable stuffed braised red onion with curried spinach sauce” — his red onion consumption will zoom. That is called opportunity.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see Chef Pollinger work culinary magic at the Culinary Chef main stage at The New York Produce Show and Conference and enjoy all the excitement as we join the good Chef in Celebrating Fresh!
You can register for the event at the door but you can avoid the lines by registering right here.
The New York Produce Show and Conference is now underway! The industry has gathered from far and near to Celebrate Fresh! For those within easy transport range, there is still the opportunity to visit the trade show, conference and cooking demos today, Tuesday, November 8, 2011, and to go on tours or attend the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum on Wednesday, November 9, 2011.
You can find registration information at this link.
For those who weren’t able to be in New York City on Monday, November 7, 2011, we’ve developed a new video channel — Pundit-TV — and sent our video teams out to give a taste of what is happening in New York.
Director, Watts Farms
headquartered in Kent, UK
Q: In anticipation of attendees getting to visit Watts Farms, could you share background about the company and a preview of the tour?
A: We’re a farming business split into a number of companies. Our Farningham operation, where we are meeting to do this interview, is Watts Farms Packing, Ltd., and we are a farming and packing business that supplies into the major retailers in the UK. Then our sister company is Watts Farms Catering, Ltd., based in Dartford, which is about 10 minutes down the road from here. That business specializes in supplying fresh produce into the hotel and restaurant and foodservice trade. This part of the business grows lots of different crops, which then go into the food service sector, but also that company works with other UK growers at the local level here, but then does the importation business as well. So if it’s out of the UK season, the product is imported in. We offer product 365 days a year, and we can’t just become seasonal.
The UK season in general is from round about now through October on a vast majority of salad crops, legumes, anything that needs warmth, and the beginning and end dates all depend mostly on how harsh the winter is. Veg wise, we go into the latter part of the autumn, and the early part of the spring. It’s too cold and too wet in the winter to produce anything outdoors. And then we import, and those products come out of places like Southern Europe, Spain, Southern Italy, and then to Africa, East Africa, Israel, Cyprus Turkey, those kinds of places much warmer than us.
Q: What percentage of your business is foodservice versus retail?
A: We run about 50/50. So the supermarket business is about 50 percent, and the foodservice is about 50 percent.
Q: Do you see growth in one segment more than another and if so, why?
A: The growth has been in the foodservice part. That is because we do a very good job at it! It’s a young business. We’ve only been going about seven years on it, and the difference is that we’re producers and growers and packers as well, so we control the entire chain. As growers we understand, not only what quality is, but also how to manipulate so we ensure that we get the very best quality into our customer. We’re also pretty strong in product innovation and new product development. We run lots and lots of trial work on our farms and in our glasshouse operation, developing new varieties of crops to grow in the UK. We’re the largest grower of fresh herbs in the UK. We grow items like chilli peppers in the UK as well, crops that weren’t particularly mass produced. So they’re almost niche crops although some of them start to become commodity as other people start to grow them as well.
Q: What are some of the trials you’re undertaking?
A: We’re doing melon trials this year, which normally people wouldn’t try and do because a lot of melons are coming out of Spain and South America to the UK. We’ve done lots and lots of work on different varieties, manipulating different levels of flavors in herbs. We tend to pick up a product, first learn how to grow it, and then try and improve on what we are currently doing, which is what most farmers set out to achieve. We’ve just got a larger range of crop than most.
Q: When you’re developing product, what are the trends you’re targeting?
A: There’s definitely been a trend towards people wanting UK-grown product. This whole local thing, is kind of a grey area. How’s local defined? What we’ve focused on is growing and producing it in the UK for a start, obviously I’ve got asparagus crops that grow six miles from central London, so to me that’s pretty local. But where does local start? If it’s 10 miles away, is it still local? If it’s 20 miles away, is that local?
Q: What constitutes locally grown is a topic of much discussion in the States as well…
A: We’re dedicated to minimize the amount of time that it takes to get product from field to consumer as well, which is quite involved.
The other trend in the last 15 years in the UK is that food has changed massively. You can’t switch on the television and not go straight on to cookery programs, and also probably since 2001, 2002, people have started to eat out more in the UK and taken a more European approach to eating then we used to. When I was a kid, we very rarely went out to a restaurant, and going to McDonald’s once a month was a big thing. And I wouldn’t have been in the minority.
Now when you’re in London, you can’t walk 10 yards without coming across food, and people are becoming more adventurous. You go into a bookshop – they still do have bookshops and of course there’s all the buying off Amazon, everyone has a cookbook out, even the wives of celebrity chefs, and there’s all the information on cooking that comes off the Internet. It makes people want the best ingredients and it all knocks back into the desire to buy UK product and to get it as fresh as possible. The trend is not just in produce, but in meat, cheese, and wine. There’s an increasing amount of wine being produced in the UK as our climate changes. Certainly in the southern parts of the UK, there are a lot of French companies that are starting to look at buying land because they’re predicting it’s going to be a new “champagne” region.
Q: How does this trend tie back into your strategies at Watts Farms?
A: We’re trying to work with chefs, for them to understand with seasonality when the produce is best, to understand the chain that we have in terms of harvesting the crop and putting it through our process. We encourage chefs and restaurants to come out and see us and get an understanding of what we do.
It’s something we’d like to do more of. We get a lot of restaurants that bring their trainee chefs out that have never been onto farms before and only see produce turning up in boxes at their back door. So it’s very good and rewarding for us and for them.
Q: Will attendees get to partake in a similar experience by coming on the tour?
A: A lot of the micro cress product that we’re going to see during the tour, when we visit our glasshouse growing operation, is a restaurant product. At the moment it’s not really in the mass market yet. It’s used as a flavor additive into salad packs and things like that but in very small amounts. The product is used in a lot of high-end restaurants, but it’s starting to move into other forms of restaurants as well.
Q: How large is your micro cress operation? Is it in the pilot stages?
A: We produce a couple of hundred kilos a week of it. Basically, we harvest at the first true leaf stage and product is sold with the cotyledons (seed leaves) and first true leaves attached. It’s got loads of flavor in it. We do things like coriander, thai basil, and garlic chives, an Italian watercress, red vein sorrel, red amaranth, pea shoots, roquette cress, mizuna, parsley cress, red frills and bulb blood; quite a range.
Q: What else would you like to highlight about your company?
A: I think the thing that makes us different for the foodservice business is this connection with the production and the farms, whereas most foodservice businesses are middlemen, so they buy and sell, and they’re very big companies. We’re small in comparison. You have Fresh Direct and Reynolds that do hundreds of millions of pounds turnover. Yet, we’ve come into a very competitive market by offering customized service and great quality, and we’re farmers so we understand the entire business. And then what we do off of that is offer products like the cresses, which are not that unusual now, being around five years or so, but they’re still reasonably uncommon in the marketplace as not a lot of people are using them. What we can offer is the ability customize. If a chef comes a long and says I’ve seen this mint cress and would like to use it, we can grow it for them, rather than phoning into some automated system of a massive distribution center. And perhaps not getting that same kind of service they’d get from us.
At Watts Farms, there are four directors in the business; myself, Mike, Avril, and their son Ed. Ed and Mike look after the foodservice side of the business. I tend to deal with more of the retail side of the business and the supermarkets, and Avril looks after all of our workforce basically. We house our workforce during the summer because they come in from Eastern Europe and work for us during the season, but we’re all involved in the business, and it is hands on.
Q: And you’re all family…
A: Except for me. I’m the odd one out but I’m kind of family. They’ve adopted me.
Q: Could you tell us about your work with retailers?
A: We mainly work with ASDA, which is a Wal-Mart company. It’s our primary retail focus. We do a large range of products and have worked with them for a really long time, nearly 20 years. It’s a very different business. It tends to be very high volume, whereas the foodservice business tends to be a much broader scope of customers.
Q: ASDA is quite a contrast from your foodservice customer base. One might have expected you to provide a list of high end, specialty retailers. These are totally different businesses…
A: Yes, but ASDA has aspirations of moving into different markets and expanding on what they do. We do a lot of work for them on trying new crops. We’ve just put some baby turnips into ASDA, which is quite new, so we’ll see how that gets on. We’re developing things for them all the time. We’re a small player in the UK, so we have to have a point of difference and really give the customer something that perhaps other people are less likely to do, or it’s not as easy for them to do. We’ve got a very quick decision making process in our business. We literally meet once a week and if we decide we’re going to do something, it happens right away. There’s no chain of management that it has to funnel through, but we’ve got a management structure in place to help us run the business, of course.
Q: When you initially were developing the baby turnips, was that a targeted project for ASDA?
A: We had the restaurants in view when we were doing that. And then the ASDA buyers came down and they were interested in it. From there, it involved two and a half years work. So we’ve been through eight or nine different varieties, and we’ve ended up with two from those, which we’re now using.
Q: When you work with ASDA on a project like baby turnips, ASDA is differentiating its offering and providing unique products for its customers as well…
A: It’s in ASDA’s extra special range, where we do a couple of different lines.
Q: In such a competitive market, you’ve figured out how to gain a competitive edge…
A: When you’re a small player you have to be innovative in order to survive. You have to come up with ways of growing your business. We’ve grown really quickly, probably in the last five years we’ve gone from a £10 million turnover to a £30 million turnover. And we want to continue to grow. We constantly have to reinvest in the business to be able to fuel that growth, which again is challenging.
Q: For the tour, could you share a bit more about the glasshouse growing system people will see?
A: It’s a bench system, so the crop’s grown in water. There’s no soil. The bench is seeded with the various micro cresses. They take two to three weeks to grow and then they’re harvested off and sold. And it’s year round. It’s a glasshouse, or greenhouse. Basically it’s one and half acres, and we’ve had it for two years. I’ve been interested in increasing protected agriculture and we decided as a board that we quite liked the idea of the glasshouse. Our foodservice business had been buying micro cress from another grower and selling it on. We thought we might as well produce our own crop and sell it. Now all of the cress that we grow in that facility goes into our own foodservice business, which then supplies it to the hotel and restaurant trade in London.
Q: It’s one more example of how you have complete control over your entire supply chain.
A: Yes and it also shrinks costs out and time out as well. It’s a lot easier for our end business to order from us; to say, ‘we want 50 kilos of various cresses and can we have the order tomorrow morning. If we did that into another company, it would take all that extra time to process it, harvest it and transport it, whereas we can get it to the customer the next day so it’s very fresh. We do all of our own distribution in London.
And we cover all angles: retailers, hotels, restaurants, and wholesale markets as well.
I’m the chairman of the National Farmers Union for Kent. Basically I represent the farming community in Kent. It’s a lobby group in order to safeguard the agricultural industry in the UK, so we have lots of connections with people that grow either crops. And then I work on a national level as well with a producer organization and I sit on the board. They are a group of UK farmers that work together. So we’re very much integrated in the industry. There’s strength in numbers and it also gives us the ability to offer this great range of products. What we hope to do is be able to sell UK products as much as possible during the UIK season with great flavor and quality as well.
Q: You’re involved in such a wide array of ventures; it’s hard to take it all in…
A: Yes. There’s a lot going on. It’s always difficult to communicate what we do. Customers come here and they spend two days with me, It takes that long to get through all the aspects of the operation, but they can see how we produce things outside, or in the tunnels or glasshouses, and they follow the process all the way through to this facility where it’s chilled and packed. You start to get an idea of the extent of what we do and see the range of crops that we’re growing.
Produce is a really exciting place to be. It’s one of those things where the highs are really high and the lows are really low. I lost half a million bunches of onions three weeks ago during a hail storm. You get things like that, where we grew that crop all through the winter and got a week of away from harvest and lost the whole lot. You’re challenged with disease and pests as well. It’s a very challenging environment and strong competition. But on the flip side, when you develop a crop or variety for a couple of years and it comes to fruition, like the baby turnips, it’s also a great thing to achieve and you get the buzz from that. Of course the buzz lasts for five minutes! It’s like anything in agriculture, you have to be passionate about it or you won’t stay in the business. It’s a way of life because of the constant hours we work every day of the year.