How well protected are our growers and shippers if a full-fledged, media-driven, food-safety crisis were to hit our domestic marketplace of over 300 million people?

Like most rural volunteer fire districts, we have the capability to handle targeted preventions and extinguish small fires. But a hot blaze, driven by a rising wind, in dry timber would soon be beyond our ability to control.

This is the crisis management reality for apples, pears, and cherries as well as for the entire sweep of the United States produce industry.

We have only a handful of people now working for the produce industry who would be trained and available for service in a time of real need. Beyond the small staffs of such industry groups as the Northwest Horticultural Council (our available staff can be counted on the fingers of a millworker’s hand) and the United States Apple Association, important help for a sudden and negative media story about one of our fruits would come from the informal national communications group known as PICN, or the Produce Industry Communicators’ Network.

Joint project

Founded in June of 2004, PICN is a joint project of the United Fresh Produce Association of Washington, D.C., and the Produce Marketing Association of Newark, Delaware. The two principal leaders of PICN are Amy Philpott, United’s vice president for marketing and industry relations and Julia Stewart, PMA’s new public relations director. (Some in our industry may remember Julia from her days at USApple, when she went by the name Julia Daly.) Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, based in Watsonville, California, is another experienced communication expert in this multiple ­commodity effort.

The Northwest Horticultural Council is an active member of the alliance, PMA, and United.

PICN is a network of produce industry trade associations and private company communicators who can be brought together quickly by way of conference call to survey an emerging adverse issue in the media and give advice on how best to handle the problem at hand. Sharing basic information, defining who is in charge of the situation, and then sorting out and defining the message to be taken to the media to counteract a negative food-safety news event, are within the ambit of work of PICN. It is a volunteer, informal mechanism that can greatly help an industry such as ours when under unexpected attack.

An important point to keep in mind is that PICN has no budget. Should specific technical expertise be needed, advertisements in newspapers purchased, or television buys made, the money would have to come from some association, commission, or individual firm(s) within that part of the national produce industry directly facing the crisis. While the limited reserves at USApple and the Northwest Horticultural Council and other tree fruit industry state promotion commissions (e.g., Washington State Fruit Commission) and federal marketing orders (e.g., Pear Bureau Northwest) would be put to work if our own industry were to be threatened, these funds likely would be fast exhausted if the crisis was severe and not brought under control quite quickly.

These are turbulent times in our society in terms of all things related to the nation’s food supply, especially as they may pertain to the health of children. Confidence in our governmental agencies with oversight of food safety, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is at a low. Stories that carry a message of danger find an audience ready to believe.

Green activists

PICN and others who worry about media and public relations in the current climate are not only focused on the large, dramatic story that breaks unexpectedly on a widely watched show like 60 Minutes or on page one of the New York Times. Attention and thought is being given to how best to handle egregious stories placed by "green" activists in small papers and on the Internet’s ubiquitous blogs and Web sites, all of which can have an immediate contagion threat to other media outlets. Should they be ignored? And, thus let stand a slander on our healthy fruit? If we respond, does that just add legs to the original story and serve to excite further negative media interest?

Who should respond?

Another aspect of the question involves who should respond—an individual shipping firm whose label may be the subject of the story, or an association speaking for the entire industry? Or, for example, if the allegation is that a certain chemical used by some of our growers is unsafe, should not that chemical’s registrant take some responsibility for defending its product? In this regard, it was nice when Dow AgroSciences chose this route when its product Lorsban (chlorpyrifos) came under attack in an inflammatory story—with an accompanying photograph of a scientist in the Pike Place Market holding up an apple—that ran on January 30 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

While our industry’s members should think through these serious questions and prepare, we must not be frozen by fear or spend undue money in preparation for events that may never happen. Instead, we all should reflect on the proper balance to be struck and then act to do what is most prudent.

In the meantime, let’s hope we avoid that hot fire on a windy day.