Arsenic in apple juice. Apples, pears, and cherries on the Environmental Working Group’s latest “Dirty Dozen List.” Canned fruit contaminated with BPA, a chemical in the lining of cans. A dangerous synthetic pesticide—pick your specific agricultural chemical—should have its registration pulled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Brushfires of these and other similar media headlines aimed at all consumers, but with special impact on parents with young children, seemed ever present this past year. What to do about these and other future threatening flames?
While some of the stories covered by newspapers, cable talk shows, social media, and the Internet are based on honest questions over product safety or of environmental concern, many are not. Many are driven by well-funded national advocacy groups intending to incite—and then cynically use—a consumer scare to achieve a desired public policy decision in Washington, D.C., with the added happy bonus—from their vantage point—of serving to elicit additional donations from alarmed citizens.
While solid risk analysis and the evidence provided by good science should be the critical factors in federal regulatory decisions, the weight of public opinion is also often measured by agency bureaucrats when controversial decisions are at hand. Advocacy groups know this, and often seek to stoke the fires of public opinion toward desired legislative or regulatory outcomes—such as the banning of a particular agricultural chemical. Sometimes the fire burns so hot that grocery retailers preemptively act and pressure their suppliers to do away with this or that controversial production tool or practice. The blackened embers of the plant growth regulator Alar flare to mind.
Growers and shippers rely on the U.S. regulatory system to register products for safe use in the orchard or packing house. They are at a severe disadvantage in media-driven conflicts. They are not scientific experts. They are not trained public speakers. They do not have a simple way to fund national media campaigns to counteract incendiary factual errors fanned by entrenched advocacy groups. They are quite naturally focused on the hard work of getting the harvest in and, once off the trees, to market.
Many general industry trade associations, such as the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association, and the U.S. Apple Association, do good work to present the grower/shipper side of the story when an adverse national media issue does erupt.
However, I would like to highlight the importance of one other, and perhaps less known, group involved with addressing these public relations problems. It is the Alliance for Food and Farming. A nonprofit association based in Watsonville, California, the alliance traces its start back to1989. It works on difficult public communication issues of industrywide concern to fruit and vegetable growers, mainly those touching upon the use of agricultural chemicals or the environment.
The Northwest Horticultural Council is an active member of the alliance, as are PMA, United Fresh, and USApple.
The alliance is led by board chair Matt McInerney of Western Growers. Public relations experts Marilyn Dolan, Teresa Thorne, and Rosi Gong comprise the staff. Its Web site address is www.foodandfarming.org.
The Alliance for Food and Farming makes a point of answering, when possible, unfair media attacks on the fruit and vegetable industry. For example, last year, it put together a public relations effort to attempt to counteract the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen Campaign.” It provides its members a useful daily summary of pertinent and current media stories called “Food Safety in the News.” It stands ready to assist its members in times of crisis management.
The Alliance for Food and Farming also provides a useful platform for leaders in the fruit and vegetable industry to come together to share ideas and to map out strategies to counter harmful and unfair public attacks. Our working together with other produce commodities, and across many state lines, simply makes good sense.
The Alliance for Food and Farming has a 2012 budget goal of $250,000. In comparison, the annual budget of the Natural Resources Defense Council is about $95 million.
To meet its modest 2012 budget goal, current alliance members need to consider increasing their annual contributions. And, this communications arm of our nation’s produce industry also needs new members: more fruit and vegetable companies and organizations ought to be financially supporting the good work of the Alliance for Food and Farming. Suppressing the fires requires more water.