Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC), answers several questions regarding her agency’s work, including efforts to market orange juice (OJ) and other Florida citrus products. She fields additional questions of interest to the citrus industry, including about demand for citrus products, foreign OJ imports, and industry challenges and opportunities.
The FDOC is governed by the Florida Citrus Commission, whose members are appointed by Florida’s governor. The FDOC’s mission is to maximize consumer demand for Florida citrus products to ensure the sustainability and economic well-being of the Florida citrus grower, citrus industry and the state of Florida.
Q: How is the extra tax on juice oranges this season being used to help growers?
A: Believe me, we know how precious those dollars are today and we believe in accountability. All, and I mean every single cent, of those funds are being used to broaden our health and wellness messaging to consumers. We are expanding into additional e-commerce partners with the addition of Kroger. We are increasing the size of our target market of lapsed buyers, and we are using digital technology to reach category managers at retail to show them why Florida citrus makes sense for their margins.
Exactly one year ago, we stepped into new territory with e-commerce with a strong cold and flu program centered around Florida orange juice as “The Original Wellness Drink.” We continue to use the deep learnings of our scientific research to tell consumers why Florida citrus is good for them and always has been. As a result, we see the health and wellness legacy of orange juice stayed with generations of orange juice drinkers, and we are teaching a new generation the same lessons with sound science.
Q: Additional imports of foreign OJ in recent years have hurt Florida growers’ juice orange prices. What will be the impact of imports this season?
A: I wish I knew the ultimate answer to that question. When demand increases as it has this past year, the supply challenge follows. While it makes sense to secure responsible inventory, we are 100 percent focused on the premium nature of Florida. With 80 percent of our juice oranges going to not-from-concentrate, that market is a natural priority for us. We are very driven to see the entire orange juice category grow but recognize Florida growers must not see any devaluation of their crops if they are to continue.
Q: Will the recent surge in OJ consumption have a positive impact on Florida orange grower returns?
A: That is most certainly our goal. Our responsibility is to motivate consumers to buy Florida solids. We recognize those solids are sold in many forms on the grocery store shelves. We believe Florida’s premium quality contributes substantially to the taste orange juice drinkers love, and it definitely factors into their willingness to pay for what they buy at retail.
Q: How much has criticism of OJ’s sugar content hurt Florida orange growers? What is the FDOC doing to counter that criticism?
A: Interestingly, we have seen a very substantial drop of mentions about sugar content this past year. We started combatting those claims over the past few years by working to saturate media with the positive benefits of drinking orange juice.
It is very important to note that our scientific research has been very robust over those years, and we are positioned to see 16 peer-reviewed, published studies that firmly dispute consumption of orange juice as a culprit to a variety of health woes. In fact, looking at what has been published just last year, research sponsored by Florida citrus growers shows that orange juice consumption in children has no impact on weight status, and children who drink orange juice are more likely to eat whole fruit and tend to have higher quality diets overall than those who do not.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the Florida citrus industry from a marketing/sales standpoint?
A: Without a doubt, our challenges lie in uncertainty. It is not an overstatement to say we are in a historic period of uncertainty in almost every aspect of the consumer environment. When we took the leap into e-commerce, we knew consumers were starting to use those platforms more for their grocery needs, but absolutely could not have known how quickly a pandemic would catapult that business in the span of one year.
Every decision we make is founded on sound research, studying consumer habits, buying patterns, and focused on what we know about the distribution of Florida citrus products. We know one single issue, whether it be retaliatory trade tariffs or a worldwide pandemic, can severely impact our success. It is critical that we remain aware and in a constant state of learning to make sure we are agile in tackling what comes our way.
Q: What are the biggest opportunities for Florida’s citrus industry from a marketing/sales standpoint?
A: We are in an era of enhanced technology and we are all craving content, especially content that is positive. The story of Florida citrus is pure, it is positive, and it is being delivered to a world focused on health and wellness. Our story has not changed, but the environment in which it is received is almost literally a whole new world.
Q: Where do you see the Florida citrus industry in 10 years?
A: I love this question. First, if you haven’t heard me say it, let me start with “I believe in Florida citrus!” My view of the years ahead of this industry is very optimistic. We will continue to face the challenges of Mother Nature, pest and disease, and a sometimes fickle consumer. We are seeing expanding innovation in the battle against greening, our economic impact on the state of Florida remains great, and we are in an upswing in consumer demand. We’ll go through some turbulence in this next decade, but I have no doubt Florida citrus will stand strong and persevere to see many more.
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