PAUL HOLMES: Cattle ranchers could learn from CA pistachio growers about harvesting buyer confidence

I don't know much about farming, but I know this: Pistachio growers are smarter than cattle ranchers.

I don't know much about farming, but I know this: Pistachio growers are smarter than cattle ranchers.

California pistachio growers, who produce the second largest crop of pistachios in the world, are asking federal regulators to increase oversight of their produce. They hope increased regulation will limit defects, set higher standards, and lower the rate of occurrence of a naturally occurring mold called aflatoxin that is carcinogenic, and so they have asked the Agriculture Department to reduce the permissible level of aflatoxin from 20 parts per billion to 15. "The industry is trying to get to zero," says one grower. "We have all seen what happens with food safety issues. We don't want it." There's no immediate risk to the public. No activist group is picketing pistachio farms demanding action be taken to protect consumers. No investigative reporters are preparing books warning of the death and destruction that could result if the poisoned pistachio threat is not confronted. In other words, there is no crisis. So what are the pistachio growers up to? They are being proactive. They're exercising a bit of foresight. They are demonstrating a commitment to protecting consumers, even though it might cost them a few extra cents for every ton of pistachios that they produce. The temptation to draw a contrast between this approach and the recalcitrance of cattle ranchers, who continue to defy sensible regulation despite a recent incidence of mad cow disease in the US, is irresistible. While the pistachio growers are moving to head off a crisis before one begins, the ranchers continue to oppose regulation that would bring US meat safety inspections up to the standard of other developed countries - this despite many overseas customers refusing to buy US beef until a real safety process is in place. I understand that resisting regulation is a knee-jerk reaction for most business leaders, and that regulation does have real costs - although they are rarely as severe as one-sided industry "studies" would have us believe. And I understand that it's hard for executives to accept that their critics might occasionally have a point (although resisting acceptance once that point is established beyond reasonable doubt looks like macho posturing). The proposed changes in pistachio regulation would cost the Californian producers an estimated $490,000 a year, they say. That would be a small price to pay for increased consumer confidence. But the industry has commissioned a study showing that increased demand and the avoidance of a future aflatoxin scare could yield more than $1.4 million a year in benefits. Maybe the pistachio people could share those findings with their cattle-ranching counterparts.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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