Cathy Burns will mark her one-year anniversary as president of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) on Dec. 1. The former grocery retail executive says her time at PMA thus far has been “fantastic.”
“The opportunity to both learn from and impact an industry vs. a single organization is inspiring,” she says. “The platforms that we have, based on our strategic plan, are very noble, and the opportunity to bring those to life on the global stage is humbling…The opportunity to join PMA and be part of the organization to move the produce industry forward has surpassed my expectations.”
Burns recently chatted with The Shelby Report’s Kristen Cloud. While PMA has many “moving pieces,” Burns says there are three areas in particular that are positioning PMA and the produce industry for the future.
Burns: As we think about our strategic plan, all of it is in service to providing personalized value for the industry, and there are…certainly things that we’re thinking about and taking action on in positioning us for the future. One is really around consumer confidence. Obviously, consumer confidence in food is paramount, and the produce department is certainly on the leading edge of that. What’s great is we have very fresh, healthy products coupled with, as I’m learning more and more, emerging technologies and increased supply chain efficiencies that position our industry incredibly well—and ultimately mitigate some of those risks in food safety. We know it’s the entire industry’s responsibility, from seed all the way through to fork as we like to say, to deliver fresh and safe products to consumers, and we know there’s a real growing concern around that. That is certainly top of mind. We have a strategic pillar that is Science & Technology coupled closely with another strategic pillar called Issues Leadership, both of which take the industry responsibility to keep our food safe very seriously. That’s the first kind of topic that is not only important to us but important to the end-consumer out in the marketplace.
…Second…our strategic plan is all in service of increasing consumption over the long term, and in the simplest terms, we’re being out-marketed. If you think about what’s happening across the food chain, certainly unhealthy foods are getting more share of voice than healthy foods. Children on average see about 5,500 unhealthy ads, media hits, per year. They see fewer than 100 healthy food ads. And that’s all healthy food ads; that’s not just produce. It is unreal. As an organization, as an industry, we have a responsibility to change the trajectory of obesity in children but also the conversation that’s happening around fruits and vegetables. We’re really excited about our “eat brighter!” movement, and it has created a lot of momentum. I describe the phase we’re in right now as the tipping point, where we have inspired the industry both on the supplier/grower side and on the retailer side to join hands to create and industrywide movement that ultimately inspires children (through age) 5 to eat more fruits and vegetables. We don’t need to tell kids or their parents that fruits and vegetables are healthy. What we do need to do is create some type of emotive marketing that inspires them to eat fruits and vegetables. We couldn’t think of a better partnership than the one we have with PHA, the Partnership for a Healthier America, and Sesame Workshop, which has given us the opportunity to sub-license their assets royalty free. There’s a small administrative fee that we charge to help on the back end to help the structure and support the movement. But at the end of the day these assets are royalty free, and it is our intention, as is with other marketing efforts that happen across the supermarket aisles, to be able to inspire kids to say, “Hey, if Elmo’s eating it or Big Bird’s eating it or Cookie Monster’s eating it, I should be eating it, too.” Marketing works. We actually created a marketing toolkit. You can see how it comes to life and how the industry is potentially using it. There’s a video of one of our first adopters, East Coast Fresh, that actually has brought that to life with their products and are actually being distributed in retail stores up and down the East Coast. It’s pretty exciting in terms of what is possible for the industry to create some emotive marketing and inspire kids to eat produce—fruits and vegetables. We’re really, really excited about this opportunity, and Sesame Workshop certainly stepped up in providing their assets royalty free, and PHA in terms of their connection with the White House and the constituents they serve. It’s obviously a real call to action for the industry. You’ve seen consumption numbers over the years; they’re not growing. We need to take action on a different intervention and, as I said earlier, marketing works and we need to create more share of voice and be in that game. We have great products to talk about.
(East Coast Fresh is a fresh produce processing company in Savage, Maryland, that went to market with the “eat brighter!” marketing plan earlier this year. The company puts Sesame characters on packs that appeal to kids, such as fresh-cut watermelon, fresh-cut pineapple, celery sticks and carrots. To learn more about the “eat brighter!” campaign, which also works in tandem with the First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, visit pma.com/eatbrighter.)
The Shelby Report: Along the lines of marketing and increasing consumption, we’re seeing more packaged produce and in smaller portions. What’s your take on this trend?
Think about the pace of the world, honestly, and you’ve seen since 2011 there are now more women working in the country than men and that drives demand for consumer convenience. …The way I think about it is Mom wants to be seen as the hero. How I define that is putting nutritious, healthy meals on the table and doing it under budget. The opportunity to balance both of those is really, really important. Suppliers are taking advantage of solving the convenience challenge that families are having, particularly Millennial moms as they focus on their careers and obviously continue to look for ways to be role models for their children—to be able to balance that in a way where, again, you can put healthy, nutritious meals on the table, and suppliers are looking at some real neat, innovative ways to answer that demand.
Packaged produce translates to less time, less waste and more variety, and it’s a trend that is on the rise. In fact, more than 70 percent of U.S. households consume bagged/packaged salads. And, considering the hectic pace of the average American’s daily routine, reliance on the convenience and variety offered by bagged salads and other types of ready-to-eat vegetables and fruit will be a key factor spurring the U.S. market for these products from $5.5 billion in 2013 to $7 billion by 2018, according to Packaged Facts’ “Branded Packaged Produce and Salads: U.S. Market Trends” report.
Consumers can incorporate these healthy bagged foods into their diets without the washing, peeling, trimming, chopping and other steps often required when preparing fresh produce. Waste and spoilage are minimized. Value-added products packaged with condiments or toppings that complement the specific blend of fruits or vegetables take the guesswork out of how to serve the dish or the meal.
Interestingly, bagged/packaged salad consumers are exceptionally likely to exhibit foodie attitudes and behaviors, notes Packaged Facts research director David Sprinkle. Consumers with adventurous palates have the opportunity to sample foods they may be unfamiliar with, such as quinoa, soba noodles, edamame and especially greens like those often found in spring mix (e.g., mizuna, tango, arugula, radicchio, lolla rosa, tatsoi, chicory, frisee or mache).
Additionally, the report reveals that consumers of branded packaged produce and salads are well above average in many health-related respects. They are trendsetters as well, trying any new diet or health food, and knowledgeable, as friends seek their advice about health and nutrition.
You said there were three areas that PMA is putting special focus. In addition to food safety and marketing to increase consumption, what’s the third?
Second to food safety in terms of what keeps people up at night is the war on talent. Industry talent is something that is very near and dear to the PMA Foundation’s heart but, more broadly, PMA in general. We really cannot grow this industry if we don’t have the talent to sustain our companies. As you know the average age of a farmer in the United States is 68 years old. We are responsible for, as an industry, inspiring young people to find that this kind of line of work, or our industry, is appealing. There are so many areas of opportunity across the produce industry that don’t normally meet the eye. We talked about several of them…marketing, innovation, R&D, technology, scientists, sales, operations. It is such a broad industry, very similar to consumption. We have put tactics in place to kind of tell that story—either working with colleges and universities to attract talent; we have programs in place that we do outreach with colleges and universities, or middle managers in organizations to inspire them to stay in this industry and make it a career of choice. My dream would be someday that we are the preferred industry in which to work. As you think about the next generation…these young people want to make a difference in the world. In fact, I’d say they have bigger dreams today than I did as a kid, and I think we have the perfect industry to realize some of those dreams.
You put a big focus on education, then.
If you look at the PMA Foundation, their mission is to attract, develop and retain talent. So all of the programs are built in service of those three pillars within their strategic direction. First, let’s attract people to our industry; then we have programs to develop them; and then once they’re developed and great contributors to the industry we want to make sure we hold on to them…
It sounds like you have a good plan in place.
It’s all in flawless execution, right? (laughing) That’s where we are today. We’re excited about the direction that the PMA Foundation is taking the industry, and we have some great partners both on the retail and supplier side in supporting us in that effort.
Sort of on a separate note, but something that is impacting the industry at large, is the historic drought in California. It’s been the hottest year on record in the state. What is the produce industry doing on that front?
On the technology front, we had a couple of really great forum sessions this year as it relates to technology. And part of that is exposing the industry on the technologies that are out there today—the innovation that’s happening behind the scenes—to ultimately help with water conservation. We had an event in Tampa most recently called “Tech Talks” and then we had one out in California, actually. It was our tech symposium where we brought together a lot of the different innovations around technology and technology platforms for people in California, yes, but people across the country to say how can I be more efficient, how can I be more effective with my water, how can it be filled with the most nutrients to ultimately get the highest yield with the least amount of resource support as it relates to water? There’s a lot happening on the tech front. I expect you’ll even see more given these conditions in California don’t seem to be subsiding anytime soon.
Editor’s note: The PMA Fresh Summit Conference & Expo will be held Oct. 17-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California.