It’s happened again: another negative news story about fresh produce. This time around people have gotten sick from tomatoes. The public should be notified of potential health hazards, but the unintentional consequence is that news coverage of food-borne illnesses can affect sales of all produce of the same type.
Whether it’s due to a lack of information on the problem’s source, or inaccurate reporting by the media, consumers can naturally get confused and opt not to buy at all because of uncertainty about what’s safe and what’s not.
That’s when savvy, local growers should—and do—get proactive. Almost immediately after the news broke about salmonella-tainted tomatoes, Massachusetts farmer Mike Smolak was on Boston’s WBZ radio telling the public that locally grown tomatoes are safe. It really didn’t matter that native tomatoes weren’t quite in season yet; the message was clear and surely helped mitigate the damage to sales well into the growing season.
If you were to consult a lawyer, he or she would probably advise you never to promise that your products are safe. That might leave you open to a lawsuit in the unlikely event that someone became ill after eating your produce; you should give legal concerns careful consideration.
As a business owner and a marketer, though, managing public relations risks is just as real and as important to your bottom line as other kinds of risks. When a PR crisis like this hits, it’s a simple business decision to craft a response and get your message out to the public. Doing so helps you and your farming neighbors.
There’s another interesting aspect to the tomato situation, this one from a consumer’s perspective, and that’s just how much of a staple tomatoes are to the American diet. From fine dining to fast food, fresh tomatoes are on almost every menu in some form or another, a fact that most people probably never noticed until tomatoes were banned.
Surely the earlier fresh spinach recall didn’t have as much impact on consumers as the absence of tomatoes. Of course, those of us who live in the North miss locally grown tomatoes in the wintertime, but at least we have tomatoes shipped in from warmer climes, such as they are. It’s hard to imagine another fresh fruit or vegetable that is as widely consumed as tomatoes.
It’s no secret that many people are passionate about tomatoes. Every summer native tomatoes are one of the most anticipated crops, along with sweet corn.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, tomatoes rank second only to potatoes in U.S. vegetable consumption, and some 30 percent of consumers report consuming fresh tomatoes on any given day. The more affluent consumers are, the more likely they are to consume fresh tomatoes.
United States annual per capita use of tomatoes and tomato products increased nearly 30 percent over the 1980s and ’90s, and was estimated at 92 pounds per person in 2000. Processed tomato products, including sauces, ketchup, pastes, salsa and juice, account for more than 80 percent of the total.
All of this points to the importance of local food production in all regions of the United States. While smaller farms might not be able to supply tomatoes in large quantities, they can not only fill niches, such as for heirloom varieties, but they can also play a role in addressing food security concerns. If local growers can fulfill consumer needs when any kind of interruption in our national food system occurs, it’s good for growers and consumers alike.
The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.