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    FRESH FOOD: Produce: Cold snap

    Retail produce sellers this winter season have new resources at hand to make the most of the cocooning impulse.

    It's a welcome winter ritual for food retailers: When the snowing gets tough, the snowed-in eat in, and supermarkets are only too happy to oblige. Especially in light of the strong meals-at-home movement currently in progress, the time is right for grocers to take full advantage of shoppers' impulse to stockpile for the winter. Abundant fresh produce this season should play a leading role in retailers' scenarios.

    When those local news crews begin converging -- if they haven't done so already -- on your stores for "live and local" footage of bad-weather stockpiling, it might be wise to suggest filming from the fresh produce department, instead of panning across the usual suspects: depleted bread, milk, and rock salt. Even in the dead of winter, the produce department, with its welcoming reds, whites, oranges, yellows, and greens, remains the picture-perfect backdrop for courting consumers in search of comfort food.

    Barring any deep freezes or other unpredicted natural events that might still be on the way, the supply side looks much better than last year. After last season's wild weather that wreaked havoc in key produce-growing regions -- including subfreezing temperatures in California and Arizona that damaged and disrupted crops such as oranges, artichokes, lettuce, broccoli, and leafy greens -- supplies of most winter staple commodities have rebounded or even increased slightly, according to recent data from USDA's Economic Research Service.

    The key differentiator for produce is the link to healthier eating. Promoting this is a job that will likely become that much easier for certain staple categories, thanks to forthcoming new firepower from the potato and pear industries.

    Year of the spud

    After years of subsisting as a dependable but unexciting produce department fixture rather than a star attraction, potatoes are finally dusting off their skins in preparation for a new close-up: the United Nations has dubbed 2008 the International Year of Potato, in recognition of the commodity's potential to help feed the world's growing population as the third-largest global food crop, behind rice and wheat.

    For U.S. potato growers and commodity boards, this international distinction would be an ideal topper for the industry's own nutrition-based image campaign. The new long-term, comprehensive campaign is designed to establish a healthier identity for potatoes, and a stronger bond with consumers. In this way, it's modeled after the pork industry's "Other White Meat" and the beef industry's "What's for Dinner" image-marketing initiatives.

    The new "Potatoes: Goodness Unearthed" program is the brainchild of a coalition of industry leaders known as the Fresh Demand Working Group (FDWG). The FDWG launched the new effort in November to spur the complete recovery of fresh potatoes from the lingering black eye the commodity sustained during the low-carb diet craze. It was developed by the same branding agency behind the Produce for Better Health Foundation's "More Matters" campaign.

    The FDWG's brethren, including grower/shippers, state industry organization leaders, staff and members of the United States Potato Board's (USPB) domestic marketing committee, and the United Potato Growers of America, convened in late 2006 to devise strategies for creating a new industrywide message that would convince consumers to recognize the fresh potato as a healthy, nutritious, and good-tasting food item.

    Although 79 percent of U.S. households consume potatoes 1.8 times per week in the home, per capita fresh spud consumption has steadily declined over the past 10 years, notes David Fraser, v.p. of the USPB. The industry's new message creates "a new attitude and gives consumers a new way of looking at potatoes, to which they have always related," says Fraser.

    Despite an onslaught of flawed and negative information about potatoes from a variety of sources, "Research and anecdotal accounts continue to show people love potatoes," says Fraser. "The new nutrition campaign seeks to create a consumer message across all potato varieties, products, and uses."

    In preparation for the Jan. 15 launch of the far-reaching consumer campaign, fresh grower/shippers have been distributing campaign materials to retailers, which will also be incorporated into USPB's current "Best In Class" (BIC) and "BIC Fast Track" programs.

    The USPB also recently partnered with SC Johnson in the nationwide rollout of the company's new Ziploc Zip 'n Steam Microwave Steam Cooking Bags to conduct over 5,000 in-store fresh-potato cooking demonstrations.

    Profits in a pear tree

    Another winter staple, pears are perfect for adding yesteryear elegance to cocktails, small plates, and home decor. That's the key message being touted by the Portland, Ore.-based U.S Pear Bureau Northwest, which is promoting an abundance of Northwest varieties under its venerable USA Pears brand by offering entertaining tips that are as easy as stopping by the produce aisle.

    The Pear Bureau Northwest, which represents over 1,700 growers who produce 84 percent of the nation's fresh pear crop, is also shining a spotlight on a new ripeness guide to help consumers determine when Bartlett pears have reached optimal ripeness level.

    The new Bartlett Pear Ripeness Guide -- which features colored panels with die-cut windows to compare the skin color of a pear with the closest shade of green or yellow in the guide to determine the pear's ripeness -- is available in two formats. One is the size of a credit card that can be carried in a wallet or purse, while the other is larger and pear-shaped, with a metal eyelet so retailers can attach it to displays.

    Consumers' increased pear knowledge also bodes well for premium-variety pears, which are now making steady inroads at retail. "For the past few years, our Korean pears have been making their way into more U.S. produce departments," says Robert Schueller, spokesman for Los Angeles-based Melissa's World Variety Produce. "These crisp, sweet, delicious, larger-sized pears are not only special [because of] how they are grown, but [also] how attractive they look and how wonderful their flavor is."

    Available now through March, Melissa's-branded Korean pears offer a thinner skin, "so when you bite into each fruit, the taste is a juicy flesh. The pears also have a smaller core, which is able to retain more juice than any other variety of pears." The fruit, adds Schueller, is imported fresh from a region offering ideal growing conditions that yield a richer-tasting, juicier pear than virtually any other growing area in the world.

    To preserve maximum eye appeal, Schueller says that growers "take extreme care bringing the pears to market. In a very detailed and labor-intensive process, these pears are carefully hand-wrapped while still on the trees, with a protective paper cover to protect them from the elements. The wrapping process protects the fruit from wind damage, rain, sunburn and other natural causes of blemishes and scars."

    Juiced on citrus

    Retailers can also count on peak-season citrus fruits from Florida, California, and Texas to brighten up produce departments. The first name in citrus, Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers offers a more abundant supply of seasonal citrus this year. Among the varieties to focus on this year are Sunkist-branded Fairchild tangerines, Satsuma mandarins, Oro Blanco ("white gold" in Spanish), pummelos, fresh California clementines, cara cara navels, and minneolas.

    "We know from experience that once consumers try a Sunkist Seasonal Specialty, they'll be asking for more," claims Robert Verloop, v.p./marketing for Sunkist Growers. "The key is to encourage that first bite." To that end, Sunkist offers in-store demonstrations so shoppers can "try before they buy," he says. "Recipe cards and colorful point-of-purchase materials help consumers understand the special features and flavors of the Sunkist Seasonal Specialties."

    Besides California, one of the world's most prolific growing areas of quality citrus is the southernmost part of Texas -- the Rio Grande Valley -- which is regarded as being the chosen favorite of many consumers, present company included, with overall market share gains noted annually against other sourcing regions.

    Texas is the second-largest producer of grapefruit among the states, and the third-leading state in orange production, with about 28,295 acres in commercial citrus production in the Rio Grande Valley alone. The primary citrus counties are Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy. Ruby-Sweets and Rio Stars are the top sellers, with recognized superior sugar-to-acid (brix) ratios that exceed the standard (10-plus, vs. 7.2). The high flavor profile is a key benefit for attracting new consumers.

    The mitigating factor here is that at presstime the Texas Department of Agriculture had issued a precautionary 32-county quarantine to prevent the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid, an insect capable of transmitting citrus greening. The disease currently doesn't exist in Texas, and state and federal agricultural regulators want to keep it that way.

    Psyllids have been detected throughout a number of south and east Texas counties, where nurseries and other citrus producers/sellers in the quarantined counties must enter into a compliance agreement with the state agriculture department that spells out a treatment plan for all known host plants for the insect, particularly citrus plants.

    Agricultural officials say the Asian citrus psyllid poses no threat to human health, just as citrus greening poses no threat. However, citrus greening is harmful to citrus fruits and plants themselves.

    Apples' role in healthy diets

    Domestic apple growers also stand ready to help retailers ring in healthier produce sales. This winter, Wenatchee, Wash.-based Cameo Apple Marketing Association (CAMA) is offering point-of-sale materials featuring a low-fat Cameo apple chicken salad recipe card, for instance.

    "We know many Americans pledge to lose weight in the new year," says CAMA president Kevin Precht. "The marketing activities planned for January leverage shoppers' renewed commitment to healthy eating."

    Retailers can use the point-of-sale material in their apple displays to attract shoppers looking to maintain their New Year's resolutions and add healthier recipes to their meal plans, adds Precht, noting the four grams of fiber packed into one medium apple, which helps create a feeling of fullness that can aid in weight loss.

    In tandem with Cameos' removal from cold storage in January, Precht says "the timing of our winter Cameo promotion is ideal; the quality will be some of the best we'll see all year."

    The Fishers, N.Y.-based New York Apple Association (NYAA) has also launched a new variety guide and merchandising display that makes it easy for retailers to promote the excellent eating qualities of Apple Country apples.

    "These are the most beautiful POS materials we've ever created," says Jim Allen, NYAA president. "We're already getting hundreds of requests from retailers to put these up in their produce aisles." The best part about the new guide, says Allen, is that it comes with a display-ready box, which makes it easy for retailers to use in the produce section and more accessible to consumers.

    The new guides feature information on 20 of New York's most popular apple varieties, and include a rundown of the health benefits of eating apples, consumer handling tips, and recipes. To highlight a unified, consistent in-store presence to promote Apple Country apples, the new variety guides share the same graphic look and feel as NYAA's new Apple Bin Wrap introduced earlier this year.

    Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Apples is also eyeing a promising new year, with the expectation of marketing over half a million cartons of Honeycrisp -- a significant increase over last year. Due in part to young orchards coming into production, this year's crop is also producing exceptionally large fruit, resulting in plenty of opportunity for promotions of the jumbo-size apples this season. Supplies should be available through March, a full two months longer than last year.

    "We can't recall another variety that has achieved this kind of popularity and demand so quickly," says Suzanne Wolter, Rainier's director of marketing -- and there's no slowdown in sight. Wolter cites recent Perishables Group data that finds Honeycrisp accounting for 5.2 percent of apple category dollar share in the fourth quarter of 2006 nationally, a 2.2 percent increase over the fourth quarter of 2005.

    Some retailers, she says, were asking about Honeycrisp's fourth-quarter availability back in the second quarter of this year.

    Moreover, says Wolter, a few retailers have attributed the recent success of the apple category as a whole largely to the Honeycrisp. "One retailer even revealed that Honeycrisp contributed as much as 15 percent to overall category sales," she says. "A major Midwestern wholesaler sold more cases of Honeycrisp in 12 weeks, at an average retail price of $2.49 a pound, than its No. 2 apple variety in the category, which was stocked for 26 weeks."

    Customers, adds Wolter, said that the variety "had a tremendous impact in achieving overall sales and profit goals during the fourth quarter. The only other produce item that has that kind of impact during a short marketing window is cherries."

    Most importantly, she notes, consumers seeking quality "are also willing to pay a higher price for the outstanding taste and crunch of Honeycrisp."


    Winter staples retail merchandising materials

    Retailers may request more information and free samples of consumer merchandising/POS materials by contacting the following organizations:

    The Fresh Demand Working Group (FDWG)'s new "Potatoes: Goodness Unearthed" program:

    Web site: http://USPotatoes.com

    Phone: (303) 369-7783

    The Pear Bureau Northwest's Bartlett Pear Ripeness Guides:

    Web site: http://store.usapears.com

    Phone: (503) 652-9720

    Melissa's Korean pears:

    Web site: http://melissas.com

    Phone: (800) 588-1281

    The Cameo Apple Marketing Association's chicken salad recipe cards:

    Web site: http://americancameo.com

    Phone: (509) 665-3280

    The New York Apple Association's Apple Country variety guide and merchandising display:

    Web site: htpp://nyapplecountry.com/varietyguidebin.htm

    Phone: (585) 924-2171

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