Posted by StreetWise in Magazine ArticlesThe U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (US-FRA) waded deep into issues of animal welfare and GMO (genetically modified) foods during the June 10 “Food Dialogues” in Chicago, a discussion it hosted regarding the marketing efforts of food professionals in response to consumers’ increased demand for information about their food.
Elisabeth Leamy, a 13-time Emmy winner, author and investigative correspondent for the Dr. Oz Show and former consumer correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America, moderated the conversation at the Hotel Intercontinental. Panelists (See Below) included representatives of the beef, pork and dairy industry as well as marketing experts and the grassroots organization Roots of Change, which works with state and local agriculture departments.
The word “integrity” implies “fragility” for agribusiness because food consumers can be anyone from babies to the elderly, said Clarke Caywood of the Integrated Marketing Communications Department at Northwestern University. The law allows for the lowest standard so integrity requires the highest moral level.
West of Loop blogger Emily Paster agreed. “If you put your story out there, you have to be confident in the knowledge there is no secret that will come out through work by a dogged journalist.”
Perhaps it would be easier to define “integrity” by what is not, Leamy suggested.
The panelists ticked off their marketing pet peeves. One of them is “partial truths,” or the term “hormone-free pork,” for example. It’s a non sequitur, because neither pork nor poultry producers use hormones, said Wirtz, who raises pigs both outdoors and in confinement buildings on his north central Iowa farm. Ditto for “gluten-free orange juice,” because gluten is found only in grains like wheat, rye and barley. The agribusiness experts also disliked “copycat wording” such as “multigrain,” which could actually be multiple kinds of refined, bleached flour.
Dawn Caldwell, a beef producer from southeast Nebraska, saved her ire for “demonizing ads that tear down food to build up their own.” Her case in point was Chipotle’s Scarecrow ad campaign on You Tube regarding “industrial” beef versus “humanely raised” beef.
“Not that [the ad] wasn’t artistically and creatively done, but there is so much untruth in that commercial. We don’t medicate if we don’t need to but of course we vaccinate to prevent disease. I hate that we’re portrayed as something cold and dark with factory smokestacks because it is so much not the case.
“We love what we do but we have to stay in business financially,” Caldwell said. Her family raises 200 animals on a “whole lot of corn and some pasture.” If the herd were purely put to pasture, or grass-fed, she could raise only one-third as many “and I would have to charge a heck of a lot more than if corn-fed to earn my money.”
Caldwell checks back with buyers of her young steers and usually gets repeat business, she said. Overseas restaurant buyers have commented on the cleanliness of her operation, she said.
Pigs raised in Wirtz’s confinement buildings are treated just as well as those raised organically outside, he told Leamy. However, the labor component for the outdoor pigs is double that of those raised in confinement. One reason is that the buildings have deep-pitted floor systems for waste much like city sewage treatment, he said. It eliminates the job of shoveling out the barns.
“As a farmer we are only responding to what we think the consumer wants,” he said. “For a long time we thought the consumer wanted cheap food. If all of a sudden cost is not the defining factor, if you take these technologies away, those costs will come back in. If you are willing to pay that cost, as farmers we are more than happy to raise it for you. We see differentiation in consumer desire to be a huge opportunity.”
Young people in particular, Wirtz said, may have more time than money, so they welcome smaller opportunities to stay in agribusiness.
Their situation is similar to urban agriculture, which is labor-intense but less so in terms of infrastructure than when compared to conventional agriculture.
Otherwise, however, the differences between rural and urban agriculture have widened, Randy Krotz, CEO of the USFRA, said afterward. The organization was formed three years ago to bridge the widening gap between urban/suburban dwellers and the one million Americans who live on farms.
“The Mayor [Rahm Emanuel] has talked about food deserts but we can’t just solve them with the vegetable farm down the road because that vegetable farm is not producing anything seven months out of the year,” Krotz said.
What were the Food Dialogues trying to accomplish?
“That consumers should be able to go to the grocery store and not feel guilty about the food they purchase,” Krotz responded. “They should have knowledge of the food, not necessarily listening to the marketing message but hearing from the livestock producers, having that voice be heard.”
Krotz said the industry is shifting from price-based choices about food to one based on how it was produced, particularly among Millennials. Wirtz said he was distressed, for example, when a film crew played light-hearted music for his outdoor pigs but forboding “dum de dum dum music” when they went into the confinement building.
And he was incredulous that the filmmakers worried about whether the pigs could have happy sex lives instead of mere breeding for food production.
“A lot of this is gut emotion,” responded Dimock, the Roots of Change activist. “It’s important to meet people where they are.” Consumers want to see humane treatment in their food marketing but not necessarily a grow house or a veterinarian, Moskowitz said. “They want to be able to see some certification without necessarily knowing all the details.”
Is it a matter of “trust, but (let someone else) verify?” Leamy asked. “In some cases,” Moskowitz responded. After the Food Dialogues, during a lunchtime discussion over a USFRA film about farm families highly invested in land and equipment, Dimock said that “sustainability” is “the ability to produce food forever – as long as humans are on the planet.”
However, Dimock said the current system contributes to loss of topsoil, and to water pollution, water shortages, obesity and people working at Walmart and living on food stamps. The reality, he said, is that agribusiness is fighting “a lot of proxy battles over things like GMOs that actually cover for much deeper issues [such as] the concentration of power and wealth. We argue about GMO but a lot of the fear underneath is that there are fewer companies in control of the genetics in crops.”
Wirtz said, however, that most GMO research has benefitted farmers in terms of pest or weed control. “If we get output that affects the quality of the food, I think GMOs will not be quite as nasty a word when consumers can see the benefit.”
And Caldwell said that GMOs allowed her family to produce crops to feed their cattle in Nebraska, which could be construed as desert terrain. “Those of us who do not get as much rain can still have a crop.”
Dimock, however, said that ending the resistance to labeling GMO foods is the one thing he would like to see so that consumers get what they need.
“New vernacular” was Moskowitz’s No. 1 desire.
“I think we need leadership in the food industry to collaborate with consumers, come up with more terminology that allows them to quickly understand what they are getting. Just having ‘organic’ is not enough. We run the risk of having a long list of attributes. We need to simplify it for consumers and give them something so they can understand what they are looking for very quickly.”
The Food Dialogues Panel:
• MICHAEL DIMOCK, president of Roots of Change
• MIKE DONAHUE, former CCO of McDonald’s, now owner and brand architect of LYFE Kitchen
• ALAN MOSKOWITZ, Director, Communispace
• CONNIE TIPTON, CEO, International Dairy Foods Association
• DAWN CALDWELL, family farmer from Edgar, Neb.; communications manager for the Aurora Cooperative; Lady of Ag blogger
• CLARKE CAYWOOD, professor and tenured member of the Integrated Marketing Communications department, Northwestern University
• EMILY PASTER, food writer, West of the Loop
• CHUCK WIRTZ, pork producer from Whittemore, Iowa