Sunday, February 25, 2001

A Prune Is Still A Prune

There can be no doubt that when it comes to food, taste rules. In a blindfolded test, more of us would prefer cookies to crackers, apples to broccoli, ice cream to cottage cheese. But other senses come into play as well: sight, smell and touch also influence what attracts us and what repels us to different edibles. And while it has little to do with the senses, there is also no denying that the name of the consumable plays a part as well. After all, putting aside all other factors, which do you find more attractive, Spam or gelato?

While all of these issues come into play when you're cruising the aisles at your local market, looking for items to stock the larder for the coming week, it is the last that would seem the most fungible. And yet, it can make the difference between a purchase and pass by. And so, for a certain set of growers and food processors, the big news out of the Food and Drug Administration is not that a new cancer drug has been approved or that mad cow disease is not a threat on these shores. Rather, it is that the agency finally gave its long awaited approval to rename prunes to dried plums.

In the works for years by the California Prune Board (who will obviously now need new stationary and monogrammed luggage), the name change was sought as a way of counteracting flat sales. While there was steady consumption by the over-65 set, it seems that younger consumers shied away from a food with an old fogy image and name. Recognizing that a moniker more in tune with a healthy lifestyle might do something to kick start sales, the Board petitioned the FDA in May of 1999 to make the change. Little progress was made, until the state's senators, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, lent their support to the cause. Now, some 18 months later, we have the coming out party.

Why the delay? After all, nothing was happening inside the box to the fruit: no different chemicals or methods were being use, no artificial colors being added, not even a dramatic new de-pitting scheme. Rather, according to Richard Peterson, the group's executive director, the FDA wanted reassurance that "consumers would not be confused and that we would educate them." Forget standardized test scores, school vouchers and merit pay: perhaps this is what happens when the White House makes the e-word a "top priority."

The conundrum faced by the manufacturers was how to re-brand a food so that legions of Medicare consumers wouldn't cause a panicked stampede on the Shop Rite, while at the same type attracting yuppies in SUV's to the newest health snack. After lengthy negotiations with the government, new regulations were issued that call for concurrent use of "prunes" and "dried plums" for about two years. After that, a manufacturer can go either way it chooses, even packaging the same product under different names for different markets. That means that a box of the shriveled dark fruits can be called prunes in Miami Beach, while the same box can carry the label dried plums in the Hamptons. Mind you, the change is optional. So there can still be prune danish, your boss can still be prune-faced, and your fingertips can still wrinkle up like a prune after hours in the water.

On the surface, this would seem to be an innocent enough adjustment. But should it be successful, it could open the floodgates to all kinds of changes. After all, there are numerous foodstuffs which languish needlessly on your supermarket shelves as much because of their identities as for their taste. Aside from the aforementioned Spam, there's headcheese, turnips and tripe, to name just a few. But if this plum thing works, just give them each a snappy French influenced name, mark them low in fat and calories, and watch them fly out of the store.

This identity updating is a tried and true method to capture market share. Perhaps the best example is hanging in your hall closet. Odds are that just 10 years ago you wouldn't have been caught dead walking around in anything labeled "polyester." It was natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, or go naked. Now, if you're like the rest of the country, you have numerous Polar fleece garments hanging there, from vests to jackets. But check the label closely on that $185 Hard Wear anorak or the zip-out lining of that $265 four-season Gortex parka. The fibers may be labeled virgin, but it's still polyester.

But for some things, the name change just doesn't work. British Airlines has renamed their economy cabin as World Traveler, but the seats are just as uncomfortable. Classic Coke was supposed to be the alternative to New Coke, but New Coke tasted so bad that Classic went back to just being Coke. And Rob Van Winkle may have changed his name to Vanilla Ice, but he couldn't change the fact that he had no talent.

In fact, even the Prune Board recognized the limits of their campaign. While you'll soon be able to find whole dried plums, pitted dried plums and even chopped dried plums, it's worth noting that they gave up the fight when it came to the liquid form of the product. After all, like military intelligence and jumbo shrimp, dried plum juice seemed to be an oxymoron just waiting to happen.


Marc Wollin of Bedford will eat peanut M&M's whatever they call them. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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