Food safety was among the topics addressed by Cathy Burns, CEO of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), at its Fresh Summit Convention & Expo, Oct. 18-20 in Orlando, Florida. In her State of the Industry address, Burns said the industry has experienced “too many recalls and outbreaks this year, including the largest E. coli outbreak in more than a decade. With each incident, the public loses confidence in our products and that is headwind we just do not need. And they start to question our promise to their well-being.”
The issue of food safety was in the news again in November, with a major recall of romaine lettuce just before Thanksgiving due to an E. coli outbreak.
Burns said a food safety commitment is needed from the entire supply chain.
“PMA’s belief is that produce safety must, must be the cornerstone of an organization’s values, character and culture,” she said.
PMA is in the process of finalizing a turnkey produce safety and certification program specifically for the industry, with details to be formally unveiled in the coming months.
On the retail store front, Amazon Go changed the in-store experience, Burns said, adding that “fresh foods are certainly a key part of their value offering.”
Other retailers in the U.S. and abroad have opened similar cashier-less mobile pay stores, she said.
On the distribution side, U.K.-based Ocado announced that its automated warehouses can now assemble an order of 50 items in less than five minutes, Burns said, and it has entered a new partnership with Kroger to create a seamless digital grocery experience for customers.
As automation across the industry continues to grow, these technologies won’t be able to handle all the skills people can, Burns said. She referred to a global study that found customer-facing workers are the least likely to be impacted. The same study found that some of the unique skills employers valued most but are very hard to find are communication, collaboration, problem-solving, leadership and customer service.
The Global Human Capital Trend Study by Deloitte revealed that businesses are increasingly being judged based on their relationships with their employees, their customers, their communities and impact on society, Burns said.
A separate Deloitte study found that only 48 percent of Millennials believe businesses behave ethically, with 47 percent believing business leaders are committed to improving their society. Because of this, 43 percent of Millennials envision leaving their job within two years, while only 28 percent seek to stay beyond five years. And Gen Z respondents express even less loyalty, with 61 percent saying they’ll leave within two years.
Burns said while good financial rewards and company culture can help retain talent, the key to keeping employees engaged is “meaningful work, career feedback, diversity, inclusion and flexibility.”
Another way to retain them is to provide education and training to keep them up to speed with digital tech, she said, as well as providing support to develop strong interpersonal skills as well as confidence.
As part of PMA’s mission to provide solutions in the talent arena, the Center for Growing Talent in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers has developed Harvest, a free and confidential assessment that allows produce and floral companies to gauge their competitiveness in their people practices and how these strategies compare to others.
“This kind of analysis is key to our industry’s ability to grow and prosper,” Burns said. “We must be able to develop new talent practices to attract, develop and retain our best and brightest.”
Nielsen found that shoppers’ portions of dollars spent in grocery stores is actually trending downward but total amount of money spent on food is growing, Burns said. According to Deloitte, global grocery sales through e-commerce sales increased 30 percent this past year, with the U.S. experiencing 5 percent growth.
Research from the Food Marketing Institute and Nielsen indicates that in five to seven years, 70 percent of consumers will be grocery shopping online. But according to Retail Feedback Group, only 28 percent of shoppers say they buy fruits and vegetables online.
“Produce falls short of meeting their expectations of freshness and quality,” Burns said. “And for some, they just find pure joy in picking their fruits and vegetables in-store.”
In addition to produce, floral is another category where consumers just enjoy selecting their purchases in person, Burns said. IRI has found that global floral sales increased 5 percent annually over the past five years, in comparison to the rest of the fresh departments growing 3 percent annually. Burns said it helps to examine shoppers’ behaviors and needs by demographics.
• Plant-based foods: Burns also spoke of what she termed one of the most interesting developments this year in food tech: how the plant-based food movement has changed traditional ag businesses. She gave an example of Cargill selling off the last of its cattle feed lots and investing in Memphis Meats, a startup that grows protein in a test tube rather than on a ranch.
Attending the South by Southwest Conference this year, PMA got “an up-close look at this trend,” Burns said. “What was most surprising is that for the South-by audience, this concept of cellular agriculture as opposed to animal agriculture was completely acceptable and enthusiastically embraced.”
Another example of sustainability intersecting with science and technology, Burns said, is graphene, a substance that can efficiently conduct electricity and heat.
“Scientists have developed a way to create graphene by converting food waste into a biogas using a reactor,” she said.
A thin, edible graphene circuit could be used as a sensor to detect if food was contaminated and actually warn consumers.
This demand for a more trackable supply chain is what has driven interest and adoption in blockchain, which provides both transparency and traceability to its members, Burns said. Blockchain digitizes information in a new way, collectively making the system smarter.
“Programs like the Produce Traceability Initiative and the Produce Specific Trellis Framework, developed by a partnership between PMA and Purdue University, are tools that are compatible with these blockchain approaches,” Burns said.
Consumers’ desires to lead healthier lives has, in part, led to the incredible growth in plant-based foods, Burns said. While some shoppers are looking in departments other than produce to get their plant-based food fix, she said “we cannot, cannot let protein define produce…Our job remains to help the world understand that the single, most simple thing you can do to live a full and vibrant life is to eat more fruits and vegetables and not as a substitute for something else but because of its own merits.”
• Social media: Burns said social media also has a role in increasing sales and it’s not just young consumers who are shopping through social media. Some new ideas and experiences seen this year include Instagram making it possible to order food from a smartphone.
“More than 200 million daily Instagrammers visit a business profile each day. That’s a big audience to connect with,” Burns said. “And for our industry, that’s a huge opportunity. In May, it was reported that more than 273 million posts were marked with the hashtag ‘food.’”
She also noted a partnership between SNAP and Amazon. SNAP users can now shop by pointing their camera at a product and if Amazon’s virtual search engine recognizes it, they can buy it.
The future of the produce industry
In speaking of the industry’s future, Burns again spoke of her experience at the South by Southwest Conference.
“I know I’ve mentioned South-by a few times and for those of you who are not familiar with South-by, it’s an interactive conference that happens every year in Austin, Texas, that attracts close to a half a million people from around the world. In fact, 50 percent of the audience comes from outside the U.S.,” Burns said. “We went to bring our industry out in the culture conversations and open doors for future opportunities.”
With produce and floral, emotional connection is not an issue, she said.
“We have people’s hearts. It’s our industry’s connection to the world and therefore their minds that needs strengthening,” Burns said. “This is why South-by was on our to-do list…This year we went to listen and learn. Next year, we’re going to be heard. Next year, PMA will return to South by Southwest to be part of the conversations around food and culture. Honestly, I’m on a personal mission to ensure our industry’s voice is heard.”
Burns said wherever important conversations about the world’s food supply are taking place, the produce and floral industry needs to be there.
“You have my commitment,” she said. “We will be at those tables, leading those conversations on behalf of our industry. There is no doubt that fruits, vegetables and flowers play an important role in cultural expression and well-being and they’re an essential part of a happier and healthier life.”
Burns said she believes as an industry, the potential is there to create powerful connections not only with consumers but with each other. “After all, if we’re going to grow a healthier world it is going to take every single one of us in this room. And our future depends on it.”