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Campaign to Boost Consumer Confidence : Grocers Try to Revive Produce Sales

Times Staff Writer

Fearing that some shoppers may shy away from the produce section altogether after the recent apple and grape scares, California grocers will unveil a major offensive today aimed at winning back consumer confidence in fresh fruits and vegetables.

The effort is expected to include broader quality-control work, more food inspections and a stepped up program of food education for shoppers and produce workers.

“We intend to move aggressively to ensure the safety of the fruits and vegetables we sell to Californians,” said Don Beaver, president of the California Grocers Assn., a Sacramento trade group. He declined to reveal details, but said, “This is going to be something new, and it’s going to go much farther into the food safety issue.”

The announcement came as Chilean grapes once again were plentiful in many Southern California supermarkets, including the Hughes Market and Lucky chains. But, Beaver said, grocers decided to act after some of them experienced a drop in produce sales last week.

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Supermarket produce departments contribute from 23% to 32% of sales, the industry estimates.

Sales Declined

Beaver said the group decided to act “when we found sales of fresh fruits and vegetables being affected.” The grocers were quickly joined by the state Department of Food and Agriculture and 12 major growers organizations in planning what he described Monday as “a five-point program” to renew shopping confidence.

“We hadn’t been affected (by food-security concerns) at the retail level until, really, starting with the apples,” Beaver said. “Then we saw sales decline real fast.”

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Then the same week that school districts began banning apples from student menus out of concern that chemical residues might harm children, government inspectors on March 12 discovered two cyanide-tainted grapes among a shipment of Chilean fruit unloaded in Philadelphia. (Inspections had been stepped up after the U.S. Embassy in Santiago received two telephoned threats that Chile’s fruit exports would be poisoned, and they continue at a pace five times more intense than formerly with security also tightened in Chile.)

“Chilean fruit was a good hunk of our produce departments when those two grapes were found,” Beaver said, “and now with some California fruits and vegetables about to come in, we didn’t want to go through the summer with sales down. We can’t sit around any longer and be defensive.”

Besides the grocers and the state, a dozen major grower and produce marketing organizations are participating. These include California Farm Bureau, the state’s largest organization of family farmers, Irvine-based Western Growers, Sunkist Growers in Sherman Oaks, California Grape & Tree Fruit League, California Citrus Mutual, California League of Food Processors and California Cattlemen’s Assn.

Henry J. Voss, farm bureau president and himself a peach grower, said much of the quality control work and food inspections now being done will likely be broadened, just as with the checks on Chilean imports.

Retailers, too, can be expected to do more to educate consumers in the store--and their produce staffs as well.

Barbara Buck, speaking for Western Growers, said the marketing association supports extending government reporting requirements on use of agricultural chemicals to those whose use is currently unrestricted.

“The point we want to get across is that pesticide use and practices are changing, and that we’re encouraging our members to come up with new ways of controling pests without using pesticides,” Buck said.


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