“Convenience is king,” she added, “but 63 percent of consumers say they do not eat the recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables. Consumption is flat.”

Better information on use, nutritional value and health benefits could help move that marker up.

“Consumers also think fruits and vegetables are expensive. That’s just not so. And they are easy to integrate into menus.”

She said care and handling information should also be included on packaging since “some consumers are concerned about spoilage.”

Consumers should balance price versus quality, health versus flavor. “The industry can use packaging as a portal for these messages.”

“Food safety,” she added, is a crucial issue. “It’s a scary topic and hurts the industry. It is one of our most critical issues.” The EWG has added fuel to the fire with its “dirty dozen list of safety issues for consumers.” That’s also an issue the produce industry should address and present facts instead of scare tactics.

“One person sick is too many,” Christie said. “But 37 dead (from foodborne illness) is outrageous.” The industry must address the problem and find solutions.

Genetically modified organism (GMO) foods also generate discord. “It’s a huge debate in California,” Christie said. “But as food demand increases dramatically over the next 30 years, we will need all kinds of foods.”

Competition between GMO, organic and conventionally grown foods is not useful and divides the industry.

A recent study by Stanford University shows that battles between conventional and organic foods are virtually pointless. Organic products have no significant nutrition or health benefits compared to conventional. One of the study’s authors, Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, an instructor in the school’s Division of General Medical Disciplines and a physician-investigator at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, said people should aim for healthier diets overall. She emphasized the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, “however they are grown,” noting that most Americans don’t consume the recommended amount.

Christie said the produce industry has “allowed the media to define who we are. It’s time to take back our brand. Tell the real story. We need to invest in science and technology.”

Technology will be the game changer and will play “a significant role in food production and marketing. We have new retailers and on-line purchases. Virtual stores have witnessed a 130-percent increase in on-line sales in Europe and Asia. Mobile phone apps are used in virtual grocery stores.

“We have connected consumers, the most sophisticated consumers ever.” She categorizes digital shoppers into two groups — “digital immigrants,” those who adopted digital technology later in life, and “digital natives,” those who grew up with the technology. Many of those digital natives make decisions through social media. “They are big buyers and have changed the market.”

To reach that market, Christie challenged the produce industry to become “engaged, informed and to collaborate and co-create. And remember that your online reputation is crucial.”

She encouraged the industry to embrace change and to prepare for it. “If you’re asking the same questions that you asked last year in your business planning sessions, you’re already behind,” she said.

“Consider a new term, ‘glocal,’ which means think globally but act locally,” Christie said. “Take into account the influence of the consumers and develop the ability to communicate with them.”

Change may be challenging, but that doesn’t mean fruit and vegetable producers, packers and others in the food industry have to stand by and watch. As Dylan intoned: “…you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin'.”

rsmith@farmpress.com