Should U.S.-grown produce come first?

Should U.S.-grown produce come first?

Do U.S. buyers and consumers need to show more love and loyalty to U.S. produce?

I was visiting with a Texas grower-shipper the other day. While mentioning his concern about the labor supply, he also brought up the need for retail and consumer support for domestic produce over imports when both are available.

He said domestic growers need the loyal support from retailers, foodservice operators and wholesalers to choose domestic and stay with domestic as long as the supply is there.

The marketer mentioned that it was his impression that Canada’s retailers are much more loyal to Canadian produce than retailers in the U.S. are faithful to American growers.

“I would love the U.S. to model Canada.” 

He told the story of a New Jersey supplier making calls to Canadian customers and offering substantially cheaper prices than those buyers could get from their own growers. But no dice. 

“They (Canadian retailers) say, ‘Well, you know, we’re paying more for local, but we couldn’t get away with (buying U.S. produce),” he said. “That is something that needs to happen here in the U.S.,” the shipper told me.

I asked a Canadian produce veteran about that sentiment.

“My sense is in the U.S. (buying domestic) is a trend, whereas in Canada it is a way of life,” said Mike Mauti, retail consultant and managing partner of Toronto-based Execulytics Consulting. He cited examples of lower-priced imports taking a backseat to relatively more expensive local produce, notably strawberries and asparagus.

Mauti said there may be a number of reason for Canada’s loyalty toward local. Some could be:

Historical: Mauti said there was a time when local was the only source and for some commodities that was not that long ago. “There are still old timers around that can remember those days,” he said.

Price: Before significant improvements in refrigeration and logistics, local was less expensive. “In many categories (lettuce, cooking vegetables, apples, etc.) this is still the case,” Mauti said.

Economic: “For a Canadian to choose American grown (or any other locale) over local means taking the money out of the country and supporting a different country’s economy,” Mauti said. “In the U.S., choosing California grown over Ohio grown keeps the money in the U.S. economy.”

In my view, for U.S. consumers to care more about buying domestic, several retailers would have to make promoting USA produce a competitive play. That won’t happen, because most are competing with “local,” not country of origin. For diversified grower-shippers with operations in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, I would think many of those multinational outfits don’t feel that loyalty to domestic produce accomplishes much for them.

U.S. grower associations could try to rally consumers to the theme. 

Apart from that, consumers could make a passion of choosing U.S. produce if a foreign country of origin sparks a visceral negative response. 

Those scenarios seem unlikely anytime soon. Based on the U.S. track record, quality and price ultimately will have the most sway with retailers and consumers.

Tom Karst is The Packer’s editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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