Eating Habits, Environment & Safety Concerns Affecting Produce Segment

Last week was the annual Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit so our social media channels were filled with friends showing innovative ways to feature fresh vegetables and fruit. We all know these two food groups are critical to our health, but what are the trends to watch that could affect the fruit and vegetable category?

According to Progressive Grocer’s 2018 Produce Report, category sales are flat. Yet the produce department remains one of the most important factors in a customer’s decision where to shop.

High quality fruits and vegetables are the #1 reason consumers choose a grocery store.

Imports are growing faster than exports and even faster than domestic production. If you’re a small farmer, this may not be bad news because the number of people wanting locally-grown fruit continues to climb. But this can spell problems for large farms as competition from imported produce not grown according to the same regulations governing the US agricultural industry can undercut profits and sales.

Food safety and labeling

Consumers are increasingly concerned about the safety of the food they eat and have an expectation it will be safe. These concerns are one reason behind a growing trend in the industry -- “source labeling.” Customers want more information about where the product they’re purchasing is from and, in many cases, how it’s grown.

The systems in place at the Centers for Disease Control mean we’re hearing about more concerns because they are reported much earlier in the process. That reporting combined with the proliferation of social media means consumers learn sooner about possible contamination. If fruits and vegetables have clear source of origin and other labeling, it can mean less anxiety since it’s easier to see if what’s in the fridge is tied to a recall.

We’ve written about food safety issues several times and urge all food companies to be prepared for a food crisis. It’s really not if it will happen, but when. Preparation is key to dealing with food safety issues that affect a company.

Food waste

Concern about food waste is growing as concerns about sustainable food sources and the impact food packaging waste is having on the environment. Restaurateurs like Tom Colicchio are calling attention to the issue with television shows and books. In fact, they’ve been doing so for several years, but the tipping point may have been reached.

In a new James Beard Foundation cookbook, Waste Not: How to Get the Most From Your Food, Colicchio and others point to ways consumers can use more of the foods they are cooking. They also point to ways to dispose of what’s not used in environmentally friendly ways. Think it’s not a problem? According to the book:

“If food waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest producer of greenhouse gases. Twenty-five percent of all the freshwater in the U.S. is used to produce food that is wasted.”

Fruits, vegetables and other food discarded by restaurants and grocers alone could feed many hungry people. That waste has a big impact on business profitability so it’s in the best interest of business people to solve it.

At large grocery chains like Kroger, imperfect produce programs are gathering steam. Yet they need to be profitable for grocers as well. So, in addition to selling imperfect produce, companies are removing items before they’re too spoiled to use. They’re using the quality parts of the product in salad bars, take-home meals, fresh ingredients for meal kits and more.

Meal kits

At the same time, consumers want healthy and fresh foods they feel they have less time to cook. Meal kit options are growing opportunity. Not surprisingly, those buying meal kits tend to be higher income, urban shoppers and often young parents. They are in a cooking time crunch yet want their families to eat well.

Most consumers are familiar with meal kit companies like Hello Fresh or Blue Apron, but research from the Food Marketing Institute shows many shoppers want a meal kit they can buy at their primary grocery store at the same time they buy other staples. Retailers are starting to capitalize on this trend as they package kits onsite for consumers. This takes advantage of an already established trust and relationship to help capture the customer. For the retailer, they can often use cut fruits and vegetables that might otherwise be close to being tossed, thus reducing waste and improving profitability.

Sustainable packaging

We’ve all heard the news about plastic straws, but it’s a symptom of a bigger trend where consumers are increasingly focused on the large amount of plastic we are throwing away each day. Much of it is not recyclable, and that is a problem for those wanting to choose products that help save the environment. This could result in one of the biggest changes in food packaging in years as food companies, retailers and foodservice operations need to find ways to package foods sustainably and inexpensively while still keeping the food fresh.

European governments seem to be ahead of the US when it comes to sustainable packaging, passing legislation that bans plastic straws and requiring more biodegradable packaging. However, as the plastic straw movement takes hold in the US, companies can see the handwriting on the wall. Many are looking more closely at ways to produce cost-effective recyclable or biodegradable packaging. Whether it’s insulated packaging made from jute or burlap bags, biodegradable packaging from casein or one of the many other options just coming to market, Americans are watching anxiously to see where the industry will go. Efforts by companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola and McDonalds to commit to recycling and reusing are met with equal parts optimism and skepticism.

These are just a few of the trends affecting the fruit and vegetable segment as we finish 2018 and begin 2019. These will definitely be trends to watch as our eating habits continue to evolve.

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The Barber Group

Gig Harbor, Washington


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