The Imperative Of Increasing Produce Consumption to 500 Grams Per Day Per Capita Does The Industry Have The Long Term Perspective That Is Needed?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 14, 2022

We have worked with ICA’s Maria Wieloch, as she is not only an exceptional industry leader, but a rare trifecta, having presented at our events in London, Amsterdam and New York on a diverse range of topics:

ICA’s Maria Wieloch Headlines Educational Seminar At London Produce Show; Talks About Halloween, Easter And How To Lift Produce Consumption 

Global Trade Symposium Welcomes Maria Wieloch, Who Will Give Insights On Produce Category Management At ICA Sweden

2018 London Produce Show’s Thought-Leader Breakfast Features All-Star Cast of Industry Luminaries

Lessons from Sweden: Leading food retailer steps up sustainability initiatives

London Produce Show: ICA scoops international award for marketing produce to kids

Now, as the industry and the world open up, Maria joins us with word of an important and, indeed, extraordinary effort being made at ICA to help the health of its customers by increasing produce consumption.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Maria Wieloch
Senior Category Manager
Fruit, Vegetables and Flowers
ICA Sverige AB
Helsingborg, Sweden

Q: Hi Maria, how wonderful you’ll be coming back to the London Produce Show as the show reconvenes. 

A: I’m so happy to have this virtual time with you and to reunite in person soon. I’m super thrilled to be able to join the Produce Show in London. I miss the buzz of the industry and engaging with all fellow colleagues, suppliers, and wonderful people of produce.  I haven’t seen the industry in… it was Madrid in 2019 I think the last time I was in a big fair. It’s been a long, long time.

Everything is really opening up here and over in Europe…We’re also looking forward now to Berlin, the big Fruit Logistica fair there. And first we have London. 

Q: Let’s give attendees a sneak preview of the latest insights you’ll be sharing with attendees on your bold strategies to increase produce consumption. You’ve been aggressive in pinpointing winning formulas. ICA Sweden won the International Award for Marketing Fresh Produce to Children at the 2018 London Produce Show, recognized for an imaginative initiative over the Halloween period, causing a stir with a line of monster-themed fruits and vegetables that generated notable sales and media attention.

Translating the innovative concept to the Easter holiday proved less successful for several reasons, which you forthrightly delineated at LPS19. In any case, you’ve opined that sustaining increased consumption long-term is the challenge. What do you have up your sleeve to make it happen?

A: All Swedish operations within ICA Gruppen have adopted a new health strategy based on the ambition of making it easier for our customers to live a healthy life, in line with their situation and circumstances. The strategy focusses especially on children and young people. One target is to significantly increase produce consumption to 500 grams per day by 2025. 

Q: You face an uphill battle, based on a compilation of consumption stats over time remaining somewhat status quo. The recently released Eurostat report, Freshfel Consumption Monitor, and U.S. consumption data generally confirm this dilemma, acknowledging a range of variables in assessing results… [See Philippe Binard Q&A to gain further perspective]

At the same time, ICA Sweden’s health strategy seems to encompass a much broader umbrella with produce consumption as an important component in ICA’s mission to help consumers live a healthy life…

A: Yes, it’s quite an aggressive goal, I must say, and the goal was adopted with the ICA health strategy shift in 2020-21, so all last year, first of all. 2020 was the year that we really took on the ICA health strategy, which is not only about increasing consumption of fruit and veg, but it’s also about reducing sugar and using less antibiotics in the meat industry, because that’s also a problem.

So that’s for the physical health, and then there’s a part on the psychology side, where we work with other parts of our organization. You know, we have a bank and insurance as well in our ICA group, where they will do some strategic adoptions to make sure that people lead a healthy life there as well.

But if we go to the 500 grams a day when ICA adopted the health strategy, it’s important, of course, to have a goal that’s measurable, and 30% reduction in sugar, it’s very, very, concrete and very measurable. Then the next step was, okay, how can we find a good goal to measure health with produce, because that’s not the easiest thing. But we have authorities that recommend you should eat 500 grams a day.

When we twisted and turned about it, we thought, well, this is actually a very good goal because it’s easily communicated. It’s something a lot of people know… it’s a part of growing up, we have the five-a-day, which is commonly used by kids and so on. After a lot of discussions, we agreed this is a goal we feel we can adopt.

As the biggest supermarket chain in Sweden, we also feel obliged to make a difference, because the health facts are not going in the right direction –not related to COVID, but to other issues. There are a lot of health issues connected to foods, but also to people not leading a healthy lifestyle and moving and everything.

Q: Where does produce consumption fit within that spectrum and in your sphere of influence? [As reported on the ICA Gruppen website: “With around 1,300 stores and a market share of around 36%, ICA Sweden is the leading grocery retailer in the country. The business is operated in cooperation with independent ICA retailers. Each owns and operates their own store, which makes it possible for them to tailor concepts and offers to local demand. There is also extensive collaboration on things like expansion, sourcing, logistics, IT and marketing communication, enabling economies of scale…]

A: Well, the moving part maybe is difficult for us to affect, but food is something that we definitely can affect… that we should take a part in trying to affect, so that fit really well in the health strategy ICA wanted to adopt.

But, of course, this is a goal people know about, and we’ve known about it for some time. The troubling part is that consumption has been quite flat for a while, a long period of time. We’ve seen a slight increase in the past year, but when we do the analysis, we believe that’s mainly due more to other things, not health, but sustainability.

We have Greta Thunberg, the young girl who is influencing the whole world in sustainability. She’s Swedish, so it’s been really vivid and alive here… She’s this schoolgirl who started doing strikes. Every Friday, she would stand outside of our Parliament for the future of the climate, and it’s grown to be this humongous movement all over the world – it’s called Fridays For Future. It’s been going on for one-and-a-half years, I think.

Q: And you see a direct link with Greta Thunberg’s activism and increased produce sales at ICA?

A: She’s huge. But she’s young, so she had a big impact on the kids and the whole movement, so we saw a small shift in sales connected to that because it’s due to sustainability, which was already linked to produce, and people were doing Meat-Free Mondays and all of that.

Q: This also was taking place during the pandemic…

A: But then you had COVID, which kind of just threw the whole world upside down, and everything we knew just stopped and everything went into limbo, and then people started to find new ways to function, and new perspectives on health. There are a lot of theories on how to eat and act to not get sick. And I don’t know what is true or not, but, of course, we know that produce is a big part of a healthy diet.

The good thing is that all this correlates with our agenda. We launched the goal of 500 grams a day, but how do we get this to happen? That’s the tricky part. Last year, we did a lot of research. We understand that we do a lot of things that have an effect here and now, but not a long-term effect. When we do all these campaigns and everything, we drive sales, of course, and we drive consumption, but it’s not getting the daily intake increasing.  

Q: So, a campaign could create excitement around produce to stimulate more purchases in a category or across the department, or perhaps a campaign may jolt sales in one area at the expense of another. Is prolonged increase consumption at issue?

A: We say that we have a consumption of approximately 365 grams per person a day in Sweden, and it’s been on that level for a long time. And it’s not that we haven’t done anything, or that our competitors haven’t done anything. So, last year, we were doing a lot of digging into why, and what do we need to do.

We’ve concluded that what we’re doing is good, and to keep on doing that, but we need to find other ways as well, and really find the triggers to changing people’s behaviors, because that’s what it’s all about.  It’s about not just saying this is good for you so you should eat it, because people know it’s good for you. We must find the other mechanisms to get people to do a behavioral change that’s going to last over a long period of time.

Q: Did you assess those mechanisms, and perhaps more challenging, ways to implement them that can make a difference?  

A: The interesting part here is that all of 2021 has been a year where we explored behavioral science, and this is not something new, it’s just that it’s not been connected that long to sales and marketing. When we do sales and marketing, we always go to the PR firms or a specialist in marketing, and that’s good, we need those institutions as well. But this time we turn more to science and psychology, trying to understand what we need to do to make it easier for our consumers to make the right choice. And it’s not merely by saying, this is good for you.

In fact, when we dug deeper into this, there actually is a big part of the customer base who gets a bit annoyed when we tell them what to do, what not to do, and this is good for you, and this is bad for you. And they get kind of put off by that and say, okay, if you’re going to shove that down my face, I’m going somewhere else for shopping.

Q: There’s some irony there as well, since ICA Sweden’s new health strategy integrally relates to the health benefits of produce…

A: I think that’s also the hold on the society now with all the social media and everything. You can have your own truth, so everything can be so channeled to me, and my way of receiving things that the broad marketing perspective is more difficult. There are a lot of people who have very sharp preferences, and that’s possible now with the media landscape, and with the algorithm on the phone and so on.

Q: Here you’re talking about customized messaging in a complex new world. Sounds like produce industry executives could benefit from a degree in behavioral economics and behavioral science and marketing?

A: We need to find different ways to reach different kinds of consumers. We’re really working on how to do that now. If you look to behavioral science, a lot of the techniques are there. It’s been applied in other industries. I think insurance has been using this behavioral research for quite some time, because insurance is not the most fun thing to dig into as a consumer.

They have to make it easier for me as a consumer to make the right decisions and behave in the right way.  There is a lot of behavioral science connected to sales and marketing. So, we’re now just scouting this and finding out, okay, which of these different techniques are we going to adapt.

Q: Can you outline some of the techniques… you referenced insurance… you’re looking to apply those mechanisms in how you sell produce to influence eating behaviors?

A: Insurance is just an example of an industry that’s been using these kinds of techniques for a long time, and it’s not been so common in our part of sales. We’ve been more focused on here and now, and also using arguments very much connected to health, and this is good for you because of this, and this is bad…

One of the behavioral science techniques is making the product accessible in the stores. So instead of having the unhealthy snacks at the cash register, put carrots, put berries…you’re changing the decision environment for the customer, making it easier for the customer to make the right choice.

By adding berries or apples in the checkout lane, if you have a hungry kid there, you’d maybe, God forbid, give them Snickers, but if you have an apple there as well, it’s easier for me to make that better choice of taking the apple.

Q: Not necessarily if your hungry kid sees the Snickers next to the apple… but I see your point. This seems like a merchandising strategy that involves buy-in at a higher level, as part of the ICA health strategy… dolling out shelf space, and the competition for prime real estate from different departments? Do you have all the stores on board?

A: We have to make all parties understand that this is the way to go, and then do some tests and confirm that it’s actually helping boost sales. But the thing about behavioral science is that it doesn’t pay unless you stick with it – you need to keep going to establish a long-term change… I probably have the same breakfast routine during weekdays for the past five years, and it’s not something I’m changing very easily because it takes time to change behavior.

Q: This reminds me of a seminal study presented at one of our earlier trade shows on the science of taste, and the need for repetition to impact eating habits, which can be engrained at an early age… 

A: It’s the same every year… by January, everybody’s going to start exercising; New Year, new challenges, everybody buys a gym card. But if you don’t continue, you don’t change your behavior, you just do it for a month, and then you’re done with it.

It takes time to change behavior, and this is what we’ve come to terms with, and that’s why we need to find what techniques are we going to be using at ICA, and then, also sticking with them, and doing this within the whole of the company, because we are a big company.  

And we need more than just my part, which is the produce part. I need my marketing department to understand, I also need the stores, you know, we have our free shop owners, they do what they want, that’s the business model. I need to get them to also understand that this is something we need to work with as well.

And I need the industry to start realizing as well that, okay, we need to do campaigns here and now to drive sales, and to have consumption always top of mind. But if we take all of that away, we still need to change the behavior of the consumer so that the consumer has the consumption of 500 grams a day, even without us having promos the whole time.

Q: How is the reception so far from your independent stores? Where are you in this process of this metamorphosis you describe? Are you testing concepts, do you have other examples of these strategies you’re putting in place?

A: Well, we are in the midst of setting some examples up, but for now, we’re keeping that to ourselves. What I want to put out there is this is something that we want to challenge our competitors and the whole industry to really look into because we cannot, as ICA, do this alone– we have consumers shopping everywhere, of course. We have loyal consumers, but we also have consumers who shop everywhere.

This is not a one-man show, so that’s why I want to address this to the industry. I want everybody to understand that if we’re serious about people’s health and helping people to go to 500 grams a day, the whole industry needs to adopt some new strategies. And that’s up to every company to do what they feel is the best, but the answer is not only in campaigns here and now. It’s actually in changing behaviors, it’s called nudging, you probably heard it, it won the Nobel Prize for Economics a couple of years ago. And this is what it’s all about. This is nudging people to change their behavior, to make choices that take them towards 500 grams a day.  We need to help the customers on this path…

Q: You’ve been making a point that many consumers don’t want to be told this is good for you, so are you looking to what things need to be emphasized, which is  taste and convenience…You mentioned earlier a jump in sales because of sustainability attributes, but notably used the word slight…

A: There are different customer groups. Some still want to understand what’s good for you and not, and need help, but that cannot be the only message, and that’s kind of been a message I feel our industry has been focused on. It’s tasty and nutritious, that’s been the main headlines for promoting fruit and veg.

We just need to be a bit careful on where we say it and how we say it, because we know that we scare some people by doing this. But at the same time, can we do it in a manner where we also talk about health in another context?  

I can tell you one concrete example that we did from the beginning of the year. We have a very old school thing, one of these calendars you put on the wall, where you have a picture, and then you have the days of the month, and we still do that at ICA because we have customers who really like it. It’s a good way to give it away at the cash register by the year end, so the consumer takes it home, and then they put it on the wall.

We have a very good marketing department they take beautiful photos. And this year, it’s all about fruit and veg, otherwise, it can be a different thing. But this year, it’s about 500 grams a day.

So, every month you have a new product, and there are great pictures, and some recipes, but it’s also very easy. For instance, five things you can do with carrots that maybe you wouldn’t think about. And then connected to this, there is also possibility for the shops to create recipes with the same look and feel, and so, it’s a theme throughout the month, and for this photo shoot, because a lot of customers don’t understand how much 500 grams a day is, we did pictures of hands holding 500 grams.

Q: Very clever to have a visual on what 500 grams translates to in servings. I suppose having the calendar on the wall subtly reinforces this messaging day after day…

A: So, it’s all seasons – we did one for spring, one for summer, one for autumn, and one for winter. It’s very easy, you know by seeing the hands holding the produce, this is how much you need to eat. This is also nudging. We don’t shove it down people’s throat, we just show them, okay, it’s not as hard. So, when they go to the shops, and they see hashtag 500 grams a day, we start to get them thinking, okay, they can do that. They can easily collect the amount that’s shown in the hands, instead of saying have this carrot filled with vitamin A and B and C. Okay, that’s good, but it doesn’t really help the customers in choosing the carrot…

Q: Are you able to pivot off your fun, innovative marketing to kids that spiked sales during Halloween, or is this approach limited to short-term gains?

A: We want to bring a new take on this – because I still think that the kids’ marketing is a really, really great thing, but the Halloween campaign was kind of standing alone, it wasn’t part of a bigger purpose. Also, during COVID times, you were not allowed to go to the stores, and the campaign’s success all depends on making a good explanation in the stores…

Q: Right.

A: So, we paused it, and said, let’s see how we can maybe bring it back in a new context, because it ran over a couple of years as well, we need a break. But still, educating kids is one thing, because they want to be educated, and also kids love to get to know more about food. We know that they influence the parents too, so that’s a good thing.

But we also have to work in behavioral techniques…If you give kids 10 ways of using an apple, it’s more likely that they’re going to start eating apples than if you just had them eating it straight up.

Q: This crosses paths with Brighter Bites, an innovative program in the U.S. we’ve covered extensively that targets kids, and takes a scientific, behavioral approach to increase consumption long term.

It did plate waste studies, measuring what kids eat and throw away at school lunch, and the results were enlightening. For instance, where if you hand kids a whole apple, they toss it in the garbage, but they will gladly eat sliced apples. What about the way the products are being developed… are you working with suppliers on that or changing the types of products that you’re offering?

A: Frankly, these two COVID years have been about getting produce to the stores because of so many difficulties, and we have some suppliers that suffered from a lot of people being sick and so on. But this is one of the things we’re going to look into as we start to travel again and see the industry, and what’s happening from a product development perspective, that’s what I’m looking forward to so much, to be able to see everybody in London.

I’m sure there are a lot of companies that have ideas that they now want to present to us in the industry, and I’m really looking forward to being able to network and see those things.

Q: Since increasing produce consumption is part of a broader health initiative across ICA, are you doing integrated programs with other departments?

A: We have a central organization, and then the stores basically organize themselves however they want. And we have a lot of discussions, of course, because we want this to be alive in all the different departments. The reduction of sugar is more in other foods, the processed side. So, we have good dialogue, and this whole behavioral science strategy is probably something we can use in the rest of the company as well. But we’re starting it off by looking at how can we influence the customers.

Q: If your behavioral science approach is effective, its implications could ripple beyond the produce department…

A: Yes, it may…if you take the example of having produce at the cash register that scoops something else out. So, we must have a good whole view of the department and the store, and also prove that this is good for the profit of the stores, because, of course, this needs to be profitable as well. So, it’s a goal for the health of the people but, of course, it needs to pay as well, but that’s in every business.  

Q: Do you have a system in place where you can track and measure results and be able to show what’s effective, what’s working and what’s not working?

A: When we do experiments in the shops, it’s a lot easier because then you only do it for the isolated shop, but we are currently looking into the aggregated data on how to measure it, because we are a big company, and we are close to being at 1,300 individual stores.

There’s not an easy way to track, because, of course, if you had the barcodes on everything that would be fine, but we have loose produce and that makes it a bit difficult. So, we’re still working on that part, but we have a good view on where we stand as a whole and especially at the store level to monitor in a better way. We are in the process now of doing some case studies, and I might have more to share in London…   

I think it’s a good topic, just getting the discussion going in the industry and have our suppliers understand that we need to do things differently, especially from a marketing point of view. We want to do marketing campaigns that give sales here and now, but also have a part of the budget going into things that you maybe don’t see the results in the same month because it takes time to change behavior.

But that’s the only way I think we’re going to go to 500 grams a day. Of course, there is always a small population that just make up their mind and change, but for a whole lot of people, it’s going to take time. Otherwise, we would have seen the shift, because people know it’s good for you, and they know it’s good for the planet.

So why don’t we just eat more produce then? Well, there is something that makes it difficult, and we need to find those barriers and nudge people in the right direction to help them make the right choices, making it easier for them, and not just by doing it with price or saying that is good for you. So, finding the mechanisms, and there are a lot of different mechanisms.  As an industry, we need to work from different angles…

We have dieticians in the stores and that’s working, but again, that’s appealing to the people who want to eat nutritiously.

One of the easiest examples is just where you place produce. We know that if you put broccoli or cauliflower right by the fresh pasta or by the fresh meat ,that’s one of the mechanisms that really increases consumption of vegetables. But this involves working with different departments, and then to get it to stick, and always be in the same place, so customers go there and see it.

We need to have patience in this, because just putting it there once, well, it needs to be there until the behavior has changed for consumers. We need to adapt a more patient strategy all over the industry as well, keep it going, and not just do it as the flavor of the month.

Q: Right, cross merchandising and integrating produce throughout the store…

A: Yes, I don’t know how much it’s done in the U.S., but it’s not very common in Europe. But it’s one of the behavioral techniques that, when you read is often used as an example of how to get people to eat more produce. We know that it’s effective, and we know that it’s not being done to the full extent.

Q: Right. Sometimes it’s due to bureaucracy or corporate structure where it could be challenging.

A: That’s definitely the case, but then we need to come with evidence, showing that it’s also profitable, which I’m positive that it is. But it’s not only that, the industry is aware, and everybody understands that we need to make this shift, if not just for the health, also for the planet, because we hear reports every day of emissions, and CO2 and everything connected to different things that we need to change in the way we’re eating. But that’s a different discussion…

It’s a lot about making produce easily accessible to make the better choice. I read a study that showed when people go to a workshop, and there’s cookies on the table, they eat the cookies, but if there’s cookies and fruit, they’ll eat the fruit; but if you put the fruit bowl outside of the room, people will not just go out to have the fruit. That small step is putting a barrier between you and the fruit, making you eat cookies again. If you would take the cookies away and just have the fruit, people would just eat fruit. It’s about nudging people in the right direction and changing the environment of behavior.

We don’t have all the answers now, and it’s going to be trial-and-error, of course, but we’ve done a good deal of research trying to choose a path, and now we just have to go with it.

Q: Are you connected with the ICA and Min Doktor pilot project for better health?

A: That’s also in the health strategy of the ICA group, as we talked about earlier, we don’t just have stores, we have pharmacies, and varied business areas so we can work on health.  

And that’s really the fun part, because I feel we’re just in the beginning of this, and that’s very exciting to see then, okay, how can we connect pharmacies in a year or two to work this way to help people making the choices of fruit and veg without pointing fingers at them?

Some people do still want that direction, so we have to take care of all our customers. But it’s just a different way of thinking about it, and opening your mind to new ways of working, and again, being patient. That’s maybe the key word here, that you need to try new things, and it takes time to change your behavior.

You can just go to yourself and see how many times you’ve maybe tried to quit smoking or tried losing weight or tried starting to exercise and why have you failed, and then the times that you succeeded and why. I do that sometimes myself, when I’m in my home office, I put on my workout gear when I get out of bed, because when it’s on, I change my decision structure, well you don’t have a decision anymore, the decision is already made for you, now go out and do it.

Q: Sometimes it’s easier to take small steps… In turning to behavioral science and nudging techniques, what’s the best approach to keep kids eating more produce?

A: I think start easy, start with the low hanging fruit. Trying to get people to have one extra carrot a day or an apple a day is great.

Of course, we should continue exploring the wonderful world of produce and all the varieties. There are different kinds of people, but for the most part, it’s about adding that extra 140 grams per day, which is not that much…So, not making it too difficult for people.

It’s like my workout, if I make it easy for myself, I’ll work out. If I make it easier for consumers by showing them the hands with the amount, it’s a very smart way of just demonstrating it’s not that hard; you don’t have to work that hard, it’s just this amount. But then you have people like me who eat a lot of fruit and veg that need to be inspired on what to do, and how to do it, and 10 different ways of using a pointed cabbage.

Q: Right, two frames of thought, one is to keep it simple, sticking with the tried-and-true, and just giving people some easy ways to increase their consumption, and then this other concept, out-of-the-box creative, new, unusual varieties…maybe playing to different audiences…

A: Maybe different audiences, but then I understand there is a need for novelties, for companies to have new varieties and so on. We should continue to do that for many different reasons, because of crop resistance, to find hardy and better growing varieties and so on. But sometimes I think focusing more on the easy and what people already like and trying them to get to eat more of that.

But we know all about category management. You also need the new varieties to lift the whole category. That’s why I also say, we need to do what we’ve done successfully up till now. We need to continue that, we shouldn’t stop – we just need to realize that there is also another dimension that we need to capture, and together try to find out how we do that. That would summarize it.

When I talk to producers, it’s a new type of discussion on the short term versus long term, how do we work on the two dimensions together.

That’s really, the challenge in this. You have to have the promos here and now, which costs money for everyone, and then you need to also have the marketing money to drive the behavioral change, which maybe is hard to show exactly what you’ve done, but it’s going to drive the change.

Q: Often people want quantifiable results right away. They’re looking at the numbers…

A: Of course. That’s how it works, but that’s why we need to find a way to do both, because the short term will raise the money for the long term, hopefully.

Q: So, as we conclude, what are some of the goals or things that you’re hoping to achieve when you come to the London Produce Show, maybe just some thoughts to inspire attendees?

A: I would say just to bring a new dimension again to the discussion on how to increase consumption, because that’s always been my goal to find new ways to getting people to eat more fruit and veg, because I think that’s a key to a lot of things in this world.

We are the future. It’s the best industry to work in because we have this goal now that we need to do together. So having discussions that go beyond promos here and now and trying to get people to engage in understanding what nudging and behavioral science can do for us as an industry. That would be my take on this, and I’m still learning new ways of working because we’re facing challenges as well with the weather situation everywhere and with prices going up on raw materials, transportation costs…

We’re in the situation now where we see some heavy price increases in some products, so we really need people to increase consumption to 500 grams a day, that really needs to be the standard. Otherwise, it’s going to be tough.

Q: Throughout the years in our publications and at our trade shows, we always bring in the latest research, and there’s many topics that have channeled behavioral change…

A: Yes, this is not something new, but I think we need to really embrace it this time if I should say it like that. In the the past it’s been fragments here and there, and now we’re trying to take it on full force, seeing the bigger picture and really hold on to it this time.

Q: Yes, as you’ve pointed out, it can’t just be a one-time thing. It takes time for people to change their taste buds, as studies show especially children need to keep trying that same vegetable over and over again, I think it’s a repetition of at least 10 times…  

A: It goes for my husband as well. I can say for myself, it took me half a year to learn to appreciate sweet potato. I know that’s a base food in the US. I just set my mind to it, even though I found the texture too mushy, because it’s so nutritious and full of these vitamins and the colors and the antioxidants and everything, and now I love it, I have sweet potato almost every day. I conditioned myself to eat it. So, there you go.

And it’s in the very early years where the taste buds are really developing, and everybody who has had small kids knows that this is also the most difficult time. I think focusing on children is very important. I saw a disturbing study on how kids’ health has deteriorated during COVID. My heart just goes out to the kids, but it’s also the future consumer. If we have a small time period where we can get kids to like produce, we have to seize that moment as an industry.

As a big company, we have an opportunity to help families with kids to eat healthier and to make a difference. And I think as a society, we all need to just do it. It’s a big cost for society, all the diseases related to not being healthy.

As the biggest supermarket in Sweden, we have a possibility to impact people’s lives, not just at the stores, but since we have pharmacies, and we have the bank, and we have all these different areas working together, we think we can make a change, a positive impact on people’s lives.  

Q: Is it fair to have an overriding statement about the importance that the produce department and produce plays in this strategy?

A: Absolutely. It’s one of the three goals of our health strategy. I think we have a very leading role in ICA’s health strategies too, because that’s the science. One of the biggest changes that you can do for your health is by eating healthy and, of course, fruit and veg is a big part of that.  It has a very big impact. So, we need to find a way with our great produce departments to get consumers in the habit of eating 500 grams a day, and that’s where the challenge is that we need to take to the industry.


The issue of increasing produce consumption is one that has challenged the produce industry and public health authorities for a long time. Retailers also want to be seen as advocates for something that is so obviously beneficial for the health of their customers. But — and here is a dirty little secret — for many retailers, which after all sell everything, promoting produce is just PR.

ICA, on the other hand, is an exceptional company; it is genuinely dedicated to this cause.

At many stores, if cash-register displays of candy are replaced by fruits and vegetables, that will not likely increase the store’s overall profitability. If consumers trade away from meat and buy more lettuce, again, that is not likely to increase a store’s profitability. The truth is, in America at least, stores profit most if customers scratch their itch to do something healthful by buying vitamins in a bottle – one of the most profitable items in a grocery store!

See, the health issue around produce is not just that they have unique phytonutrients, so one should eat them; it is that you should fill up on them so you will eat less of other items.  Most stores earn higher profits on, say, deli meat and cheese, than they do fruits and vegetables, so if consumption patterns actually change, growers of produce may do well, but supermarkets might make a little less!

And yet, ICA, sees its role differently and is willing to work on the assumption that doing all it can to encourage a healthy consumer base is its moral obligation and, all things considered, its store owners and ICA itself will do fine with a shopper base of healthy  consumers.

We are very lucky in the industry to have a produce executive like Maria Wieloch and a retailer like ICA. Changing what people eat is simply a task incompatible with the necessity of increasing this week’s earnings, and precious few retailers are willing to take a long term perspective.

Please come and listen to Maria. What she is talking about is the road for prosperity for the fruit and vegetable industry, and it is the kind of work that retailers who care about their customers and care about the world simply must undertake.

We thank Maria Wieloch and ICA for being willing to take on this important task and for being willing to come to London and share with the industry the task undertaken.

Make sure to register for the London Produce Show and Conference and listen to Maria by signing up here

If you would like to promote your company, your products, and the services you sell, you can still get a stand right here

And, of course, you can be an industry leader and help us underwrite the cost of the event by signing up to do a sponsorship right here.

We look forward to seeing you in London!







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