The month of June marked the continuation of the US. Farmers & Ranchers Association’s (USFRA) countrywide series of town hall- style forums, an attempt to hone in on the key issues plaguing the agricultural community.
The latest Food Dialogue forum on Integrity in Food Marketing took place in Downtown Chicago and included a diverse group of panelists ranging from family farmers like Dawn Caldwell and Chuck Wirtz to communications specialists like Alan Moskowitz of Communispace and Mike Donahue of LYFE Kitchen to name of few. (Check out the full line-up here)
The panelists shared their varied perspectives which included some jaw dropping commentary from Alan Moskowitz of Communispace who believes that “Consumers do not want full transparency” and that “brands don’t have to reveal all of the skeletons in their closet.”
(Insert streaking bolt of lightning here ____)!
But regardless of the individual perspectives, it became increasingly clear that the collective streams of discredited journalism and media attention from key stakeholders in the farming industry has contributed to the brokenness of the food production eco-system. And here’s the top 3 ways integrity and credibility can be restored to the food industry.
1. Consumers need to know the food system in order to trust the food it produces
Doesn’t seem like a stretch that consumers want to know how their food is produced, right?
But with questions like “how much is too much information” shaping the panel discussion, it became clear that the compact and “need to know basis” approach to educating consumers about the food industry processes has rendered consumers even more perplexed. And while some consumers have taken on the challenge to educate themselves about the industry, it has become increasingly difficult to sort factual information and standard practices from viral sensationalized stories.
Thorough, clear, and factual journalism about the food industry can certainly take what seems like a complicated and obscure process and make it comprehensible for the average consumer.
And while bananas stamped with QR codes with basic information regarding their place of origin is a small step in the right direction, consumer confidence in food production will not be restored until consumers are thoroughly educated on GMO’s, pesticides, antibiotics, and the process of raising livestock. Information targeted at consumers should be adjusted so that it is thorough and all- encompassing to illicit genuine transparency.
2. Farmers should actively share their farm practices and farming choices with consumers
Emily Paster, a Food Writer at West of the Loop, stated that “consumers [of organic products] want to feel confident that they are paying for a positive impact,” and hence the organic labeling is what is in place to assure them that they are in fact paying for the execution of a specialized process for growing and raising food.
However, conventional farming practices are not outlined as clearly. As a result, conventional farmers like Chuck Wirtz feel demonized for having a large farm that raises 40-50,000 hogs. When in fact, the size of his farm does not equate to poor stewardship of his land and livestock; it is merely an opportunity for multiple generations and siblings to create a livelihood for themselves and their individual families by working together on the farm.
Conventional farmers can benefit from credible journalism that thoroughly outlines the food production process for consumers similar to that which is outlined for organic farming. As it stands, production and marketing of organic food is defined by what it does not include which sends the message that anything other than organic is the antithesis of what it means to produce healthy and environmentally friendly food. It is this disconnect between actual farming practices and impression that tarnishes the trust between consumers and farmers.
3. Brands should share the benefits of the food they market with responsible messaging
Of the 3 stakeholders in the food industry, the Brands are pivotal to developing integrity within the food industry.
Food Brands serve as the middle agent for consumers and farmers, and yet their messaging has consistently failed both parties. While the cyclical flow of the economy requires that farmers produce food and consumers purchase them, big brands and companies have convoluted the flow of information for individual gain. The result is excessive labeling of products and confused consumers, which in some instances, results in the loss of customer loyalty.
While consumers want to know what is in their food, what has happened is that the excessive labeling of foods has created mistrust in the industry. Sure consumers have a right to know if a product is a GMO or includes High Fructose Corn Syrup, but when 100% Orange Juice is labeled Gluten Free or Chicken labeled Hormone Free, it calls the credibility of the entire system into question. The reality is that all 100% Fruit Juice is Gluten Free and poultry (both organic and conventional) are raised without the use of hormones due to FDA regulations. Consumers want to be in the know, but there is danger in providing irrelevant information which can be construed as manipulative for the sake of obtaining more purchasing dollars.
The 2014 Food Dialogue forum here in Chicago was an excellent start to illuminating the misconceptions in the food industry, but by no means did it solve the issue of trust that separates consumers, farmers and brands. Only when there is an authentic, consistent and fully transparent information flow will there be restored faith in our fragile food system.
Click here to check out the Food Dialogues panel discussion online…oh yeah…and yours truly even asked a question to the panelists. The response from panelist Chuck Wirtz is definitely worth a watch!
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