ATLANTA -- Developing a better flavor profile for fruits and vegetables has to be "job one" for the industry, according to Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association.
Giving his annual state-of-the-industry address Oct. 15 during the four-day convention, here, Mr. Silbermann touched on a wide range of topics, including the rebranding of his organization as well as the "digital revolution" and the industry's current food-safety crisis.
The 2011 Fresh Summit easily lived up to its reputation of being the largest produce industry trade show in the United States, as more than 18,000 convention goers from 67 countries descended upon Atlanta Oct. 14-17. The exhibit hall featured more than 900 exhibitors in a cavernous hall that seemingly stretched beyond the horizon.
As he surveyed the produce landscape in preparing this speech, Mr. Silbermann saw two big issues. He said that there is an "obvious shortcoming" in the flavor of some fruits and vegetables, and he also noted a "crisis in confidence" because of the recent Listeria contamination that has seen 23 deaths linked to one cantaloupe packingshed.
He said that fresh produce is battling for the pocketbook and the attention of a new generation, and the industry will fail if it doesn't meet the flavor expectations of this demanding consumer. He also said that the industry's job is getting more difficult as this tech-savvy generation has been bombarded with digital marketing messages since the members first got out of their cribs. When that group is surveyed, no produce brand surfaces as one of the top 25 brands in their consciousness. Instead, M&M's, Google, Facebook, Apple and others dominate their power of brand recall.
"Their brains are wired differently than ours," he said. "Do you speak their language?"
Mr. Silbermann said that consumers are also taking fewer shopping trips to the supermarket ever in the past, giving retailers and produce marketers fewer opportunities to appeal to this group.
While these statistics would seemingly call for a new dynamic and a new way to reach this group, Mr. Silbermann said that there appears to be a disconnect between what the supermarket offers and what the consumer wants. He said surveys show that consumers are looking for quality in their food purchases with taste being the most important factor. The industry, on the other hand, continues to use price as its top bargaining chip.
"We've created our own unsolvable problem," he opined.
He said that over the past two decades the industry has made great strides in developing value-added products, but "then we converted them right back to commodities with the focus on price."
Mr. Silbermann advocated for the development of different products with flavor being the centerpiece of innovation. "We are not in the commodity business," he lectured.
As he left this subject, the longtime industry observer from the association ranks felt compelled to comment on the current food-safety crisis involving cantaloupes. He lamented that five years ago, the PMA convention was held in the shadows of another food-safety issue - the E. coli outbreak associated with fresh spinach in the fall of 2006 - causing everyone to vow to never let that happen again.
While much has been done to improve the industry's food-safety standards and practices, Mr. Silbermann indicated that there is obviously still work to be done. He said that it is everyone's responsibility to use best practices and that every single link in the supply chain must be held accountable.
He said that this crisis with cantaloupes is the result of a "terrible error by one company," yet it affects an entire industry.
During the convention PMA rolled out a new logo, which Mr. Silbermann said represents "the new PMA." He said that many in the industry identify PMA simply as a convention, but he admonished "we are more than just a week in October or July," referring to the association's two main events: the Fresh Summit in October and the foodservice trade show in July.
He said that the association has been a victim of its own success, since the organization's name has become synonymous with its events. "See you at the PMA," Mr. Silbermann said is a familiar refrain, which he indicated belied the organization's true value.
With its new logo, PMA wants to emphasize that it offers many other services. "We have tightened our focus on offering value," Mr. Silbermann said.
He said the organization has extensive and ongoing year-round programs involving issues such as the Produce Traceability Initiative, government affairs and food safety.
In addition, PMA has established many different global affiliations and is currently launching "PMA Exchange," which he called a social networking site for the produce industry where a "community of new ideas" can be shared.
Arguing for the increase relevance of the organization, Mr. Silbermann said that PMA has added many more women to its board of directors and is engaging in more trends analysis for the betterment of the industry.
He said that PMA's brand promise is, "We help you grow!" and at the heart of the PMA message is the concept that the industry is stronger together than alone.