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    Nothing Generic About Reactions to Proposed Produce Promotion Board

    After nearly 20 years of working mightily to increase fresh produce consumption on a relative shoestring budget, industry leaders have an important question to square off with: has the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) come as far as it can go?

    After nearly 20 years of working mightily to increase fresh produce consumption on a relative shoestring budget, industry leaders have an important question to square off with: has the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) come as far as it can go?

    Indeed, it seems clear that it’s a question leaders from the Wilmington, Del.-based foundation are asking themselves, as revealed by presentations during two lively town hall-style forums that took place during the recent United Fresh 2009 Convention in Las Vegas to explore details pertaining to the possible creation of a generic national fruit and vegetable promotion board.

    Aiming to ultimately infuse the disparate fruit and vegetable industry with a robust, compelling, comprehensive national health marketing, communications, and education campaign via a significantly larger $30 million budget generated from “first handlers” vs. PBH’s existing $5 million piecemeal promotional purse (more on that momentarily), backers of the proposed plan contend the industry would finally have sufficient resources and firepower necessary to irrefutably increase U.S. consumption of all forms of fruits and vegetables.

    But gaining buy-in for a big, bold, new idea such as a generic promotion board within a segment of the industry that’s as diverse as it is dynamic cannot be done without ample input from all sectors of the supply pipeline. To that end, PBH president and CEO Elizabeth Pivonka and PBH chairman Paul Klutes of C.H. Robinson stepped forth during the industry confab to jumpstart dialog about the new plan that crystallized after a year’s worth of PBH special task force and executive committee research.

    In simplest terms, the proposed blueprint for a would-be umbrella fruit and vegetable promotional organization calls for a $30 million annual budget generated by mandatory assessments on all “first handlers” and importers of both fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, through a 0.046 percent assessment – or at the rate of about one-half of one-tenth of 1 percent -- of the free-on-board (FOB) market value.

    After laying out the impetus and related issues spurring interest in the creation of an over-arching promotional board that would revolve heavily on a behavior-focused social marketing campaign, PBH’s Pivonka opened up the floor for questions. The majority of raised-hands hailed from grower and commodity commission communities, whose leaders expressed profound reservations about a proposed national generic promotion board whose funding base would appear to be heavily shouldered by producers in the form of yet another assessment. And though the skeptics verbally outnumbered the proposed plan’s equally sizable base of advocates – the majority of which reside within the retail buyer community – Pivonka said industry leaders of all stripes have expressed full support of the concept but are mostly taking a wait-and-see approach until more information is circulated to the trade.

    When the potentially influential – and apparently controversial national effort – was first introduced in early April, Mark Munger, VP of marketing at Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce and immediate past PBH chairman, said the proposed assessment rate was designed “to not be overly burdensome -- yet enough to be helpful to the industry as a whole. There was a great deal of thought that went into the development of the proposed promotion board because we wanted to give the industry a solid place from which to begin discussions. Our intent is to get feedback from first handlers over the next several months and make adjustments accordingly.” And though Munger acknowledged it’s all together possible “that nothing happens at all, our hope is that the industry will give the effort fair consideration.”

    Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc., believes the proposed plan – which would be managed by a new and inclusive committee-led board -- offers the industry a chance to make its mark with a program unlike anything it’s ever seen. Rhetorically responding to the question, “What’s in it for the grower?” Pepperl said, “If consumers ate just one more apple, we’d have a hard time keeping up with trees.”

    During her ongoing national “road show” to present the proposed promotional plan to produce industry constituents, Pivonka – who was instrumental in helping develop and promote PBH’s venerable 5 A Day and more recent More Matters efforts -- said while PBH originally advocated the new umbrella plan from a neutral position, she and the Wilmington, Del.-based organization’s board now believe firmly that it not only has merit, but is the next logical extension in the industry’s collective path to increase consumption – provided that an equitable consensus can be reached.

    If sufficient interest is generated, PBH’s executive board would next put the plan to a vote internally come fall, after which time industry comments would be collected and submitted to the USDA, which would subsequently take over the process and create a marketing rule to formally establish the promotion board. Following the customary vetting process, USDA would then proceed to put the plan to a referendum vote among first handlers. Pivonka said voting would likely not occur until 2011, and if passed, assessments would likely not begin until 2012.

    Parting Thought: After sitting in on the town hall meeting, it’s safe to say that gaining industry consensus to support a national umbrella produce industry promotion board is clearly going to be an uphill climb for its messengers. But a potential program doesn’t stand a chance of moving forward without broad industry support, and it’s thus imperative that produce executives across the entire supply chain make their opinions known by contacting leaders at PMA and United Fresh, as well as yours truly, via [email protected].

    For details about the proposed promotion board, visit http://www.FVCampaign.org 

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