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The Wedge Effect

If recent reports are any indication, a growing number of consumers want to feel good about the food they eat – even if it means paying more for it.

For example, a recent Context Marketing survey of consumers in the San Francisco Bay area found that 70 per cent of the respondents said they would pay more for ethically produced foods. Of these, 57 per cent are willing to pay up to 10 per cent more and 12 per cent will pay an even higher premium.

Granted, “ethical” is a broad term. But when consumers were asked to explain how they defined ethical, almost all cited three main qualities: protects the environment, meets high quality and safety standards, and treats farm animals humanely.

Three-quarters of those surveyed said they view some ethical claims with skepticism and they are wary of some claims because they don’t mean what they imply. Try as it might, the hog industry has been unable to convince non-farmers that gestation stalls are better for the sows.

But when consumers are confident of the ethical integrity, 65 per cent said they are more willing to believe other quality claims by the brand.

This finding correlates with the survey questions about the growing support for locally produced food. Sixty-six per cent of respondents agreed that locally produced food is always preferable, and 42 per cent think that locally produced food is safer to eat.

Only in California, you say?

Just last week, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association released its first-ever survey of chefs. Local, sustainable and organic food choices topped the list of the menu trends for 2010. Also on the list was free-range poultry and pork (ranked seventh) simplicity (fifth), bite-sized desserts, and superfruits.

Ancient grains topped the up-and-coming food trends, along with gluten-free beer and vegan entrées.

“These topline trends underscore a growing restaurant focus on health, nutrition and the environment,” says CFRA president Garth Whyte. “Restaurant chefs are not only listening to their customers, they are helping to drive the trend toward health, nutrition and sustainability through innovative menu offerings.”

These consumption trends are pretty consistent with the message from health professionals to eat less meat and highly processed foods.

Per capita consumption of pork, beef and poultry in Canada is about 210 pounds per year. It’s even higher in the U. S. That works out to about nine ounces of meat protein per Canadian per day.

The Canada food guide recommends women consume about five ounces and men 7.5 oz. per day.

These figures present a reality that agriculture in general, and the meat industry in particular, needs to face. If people start following the guidelines, the market for meat will decline. An apparent willingness to pay more for what they do eat couldn’t come at a better time.

Rather than embrace this apparent shift towards less volume and higher-value food products, the reaction from mainstream agriculture so far has been to circle the wagons. Hence, the campaigns designed to make farmers believe the organizations promoting these changes, such as humane societies, environmental groups and consumer watchdogs, are first trying to tell them how to run their farms, and second, aiming to put them right out of business.

Farmers are willing recruits, mobilizing to counter these “activist attacks” on their livelihoods, such as the Missouri Beef Industry Council’s new website.

The site, located at www.farmerfreedom.com,was launched to

protect farmers’ freedom to operate and help ensure grocery shoppers enjoy a continued supply of low-cost, nutritious food, said executive director John Kleiboeker in a release.

The website features a YouTube video of a rancher launching a personal boycott of his favourite wine because the company gave money to the Humane Society of the United States.

Even if you believe the rhetoric that says these lobbyists are picking fights with agriculture so they can convince people to support them through donations, it is then counterintuitive to suggest they are part of a plot to shut the meat industry down.

The last thing a parasite wants to do is kill its host. If there is no enemy, there is no need to lobby.

And it is just as plausible to apply the same logic to the agricultural lobby machine, which in the case of meat, is pulling out all the stops to convince farmers their checkoff funds, which, by the way, are mandated by legislation in the U. S., are being put to good use fighting off those big, bad activist groups.

Let’s think about this for a moment. From the corporate shareholders’ perspective, the last thing you want is consumers and producers talking to each other. Imagine a system where consumers pay farmers a premium for healthier, less-processed food. That could mean cutting out the middleman. And who’s making all the profit in the food chain these days? [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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