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US: Consumer confidence mixed in wake of recalls
2011 brought several recalls to the produce industry that hurt its image in the eyes of consumers. Though the overwhelming majority of produce grown and sold in the United States is completely safe, the high-profile nature of 2011's incidents dented consumer confidence.
In September, a high-profile incident occurred when a multi-state Listeria outbreak was traced to cantaloupes. Since then, cantaloupe producers have had to contend with a faltering image.
“There's been a pretty heavy stigma,” admits Brad Palmer, Sales Manager at Fresh Quest, Inc.
Fresh Quest did not handle much cantaloupe last year, and the fruit it began offering in December comes from outside the US, but Palmer says those factors don't matter when it comes to consumer perception of melons.
“Business has been down in certain areas,” he says, “specifically in the Midwest where they're not pulling normal volumes.”
Similarly, a tomato recall in 2011 brought doubts to the minds of consumers. But unlike cantaloupes, not all tomatoes were called into question.
Marianne Fiori, Food Safety Coordinator for Mor Gro, a Canadian greenhouse grower of tomatoes, has noted no drop in consumer trust.
“99% of our customers are in the US,” she says, “and we've had no problem because we're in Canada.”
When it comes to cantaloupes, Palmer agrees that geography may have something to do with consumer trust.
“We've seen business down in the Midwest,” he says, “but not in the Northeast. The retailers we supply there seemed to educate their customers enough so that it's fine.”
He also notes that the food service part of their business has seen no significant drop-off in demand.
“Food service has hardly been affected. If consumers aren't buying cantaloupe in the store, then you'd think they wouldn't eat it in a restaurant or hotel. Maybe in that sense, they have more confidence.”
Those are promising signs for an industry that has taken a hit in the past year, and Palmer already sees hopeful signs going into 2012.
“The holidays are typically a slow season for melons,” he says, “so going forward, we should be getting back up. For a while, some major retailers didn't carry melons, and in December they started to again. So hopefully, all of these are good signs.”
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