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Got Produce? Let’s Cancel The Effort
And Start Afresh

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 16, 2009

We have written extensively about the proposal for a mandatory generic produce promotion program. It would have been a difficult proposal to get passed under any circumstances, but thinking about it during a time of recession made it a doubly difficult proposition.

Yet, we have written more in sorrow than in anger because the proponents of the proposal, as well meaning a group of people as any in the industry, have consistently shown an impatience for the difficult task of political persuasion, a task whose timeline runs not in months, but in years, sometimes decades.

Instead of doing the hard work of setting up a dedicated organization that had to raise its own funds, the proponents hijacked the Produce for Better Health Foundation and used donor money to promote a mandatory assessment, a purpose never once mentioned when that money was being sought.

This sense that money has been diverted to purposes donors never intended, combined with the sense that PBH executive talent has been diverted from the core task of PBH, has led at least some industry members, who donated in years past, to decide to donate no more.

And the thought being paid to whether or not a mandatory generic promotion program will produce results has led people who hadn’t thought about the subject in years to ask if all the millions PBH has spent over the years has actually produced any results. The likelihood of PBH itself coming under severe scrutiny was, itself, a pretty powerful argument for why PBH ought not to have taken the lead on this question as it has.

Above all else, the proponents of this program have never shown a decent respect for those who might differ with them, and without that respect, they have lost the power to persuade.

We need to start again.

At the Produce Marketing Association convention, PMA was kind enough to give PBH a room to conduct a “Town Hall” on the generic promotion as United Fresh had been back at its convention in late April.

At the beginning of this process back at the United convention, the meetings were sparsely attended. After months of surveys, trade press articles, personal visits by the advocates to industry groups around the country… after all this, the advocates held a “Town Hall” meeting and, basically, nobody came.

At the largest PMA convention ever held, one at which seminars on topics such as traceability were locking people out of the door because they had exceeded capacity, they couldn’t get 70 people to come to the Town Hall. And half of those were representatives of mandatory commodity promotion groups probably worried that their own assessments might be cut to fund all this.

Part of the problem was that the advocates had decided to use this gift PMA gave to propagandize. Instead of staging a debate and dividing the time equally between the most articulate and informed proponents and opponents, they decided to have a panel discussion in which everyone was on one side except Rick Antle, who saved the seminar from being a total bore because Rick had the temerity to refuse to play the role they had cast him in as sacrificial lamb.

The Pundit wouldn’t be propagandized and went to other events, so we sent top staff to observe as well as received reports from industry attendees.

The first handlers in attendance — those who would have to pay the bill — seemed underwhelmed. Every question seemed to be answered by saying that this would all be up to a 100-person board they expected to establish, which to the first handlers was the same thing as saying ”give us a blank check” and we’ll decide later how we want to spend it.

The 100-person board seems self-evidently ridiculous. They have that at PBH, but there it is a fund-raising tool to get people to donate in exchange for a seat on the board. Here the funding is mandatory, so why we need a board the size of the United States Senate is a question never answered.

Even those who were in favor conceptually seemed to think that the $30 million dollar assessment was too small to produce a meaningful return. Over and over, we heard from people inclined to support such a venture that the number was political, chosen not because it was the amount that would produce an optimal return, but because it is what the advocates thought they could get.

The ability of human beings to see in reality what they wish to see is enormous, and the advocates seem inclined to push on having decided that the fact that so few show up at their meetings and so many answer that they know nothing about the program on surveys is a sign of hope. In reality, it is a sign that the industry has other priorities.

The experts brought in by the advocates have themselves sustained that as a sensible conclusion. The basic gist of their argument is that the programs are profitable but that is based on very low expenditures. There is precious little evidence that the program would be scalable. In any case, the argument doesn’t meet the burden it must meet, to establish that a national generic promotion program is a better investment than commodity specific promotion or other investments people might make.

What the lack of attendance and more generalized lack of interest shows is that this initiative is completely top down — and that is its Achilles heel.

Both United and PMA have representatives on the executive committee of PBH; on at least some level they were willing to have this discussion. The silence of the industry speaks very loudly. It is time that the folks from United and PMA speak up and say that we need to set this initiative aside and start working to salvage PBH before that comes down in a whirlpool with this generic promotion initiative.

Those who believe a mandatory assessment national generic promotion program can work and should be implemented can regroup, lick their wounds for a year, then put up some money and begin the multi-year effort of creating trade consensus on the need for and efficacy of such a program.

Developing specific proposals is premature and a distraction. We need to go back to first principles.

The advocates of this plan meant the best for consumer health and the industry but they were so anxious to plant seeds that they failed to prepare the soil. In our industry, we really should know better.

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