I’ve got to give her credit — Trish Sahlstrom, a vice-president of A&W, recently walked into a room of beef farmers in Saskatchewan to talk up her company’s ‘Better Beef’ campaign on beef produced without hormones. It’s a good niche to sell beef, but as I’ve said before, framing it as ‘Better Beef’ is where the problem lies. Many farmers and ranchers across Canada agree, which likely making the room Sahlstrom walked into a tense one.
But one of the important take-aways comes from Sahlstrom at the podium. It’s a take-away that needs to sink in to the mindset of every industry – dairy, beef, grains, vegetables – all of them. When asked, Sahlstrom said it isn’t the company’s job to educate consumers.
A statement like that is a big deal. Not because I agree or disagree with it, but because of where that puts farm practices and consumers. To be clear, I’m not picking on A&W on this. It only takes a few minutes at the grocery store to see dozens (hundreds?) of claims — from Sobey’s Certified Humane campaign, Loblaws Free-From ads that highlight pork raised without added hormones (something all pork features), to gluten-free, farm-raised, GMO-free and natural. Retailers sell, they don’t educate, nor do they see any need to do so.
But selling, without the education, leaves agriculture is a tough spot. Retailers are the most common connection consumers have with their food. It is almost impossible to get every consumer to visit a farm once in their life. They’ll visit a restaurant or grocery store nearly every day and in between be inundated with marketing claims, pop-ups, billboards and talk show hosts all trying to get the dollars heading their way.
I don’t blame anyone for wanting to grow in a crowded marketplace. Food is among the most competitive environments to be in, given the amount of money we have to spend on it to survive, however, if education or knowledge is not going to flowfrom the most common touch-point consumers have with food – then who should be responsible for education of food, farm production and healthy eating?
Here are where I see the options, going backwards on the food chain:
Restaurants & Grocers:
What is clear in the last few years is that this group doesn’t want to educate. They may appear to be in some of their advertising – however it is thinly veiled attempt to market and sell. Don’t get me wrong – they make the most sense — I just don’t believe the majority of them can be trusted with the job.
This middle-man group has been off of consumer radars for many year, but is starting to feel the heat of the spotlight. And this isn’t a comfortable heat. Processing is becoming a bad word as consumer reach for ‘natural’ (not realizing even what it means to them) and campaigns in animal abuse at the farm level often target the processor in an attempt to apply hard pressure back from the consumer. Many processors are unwilling to open their doors, all in the name of food safety or a competitive advantage, which means we have a link in the food chain that’s out of step in a world of gotcha journalism and need-to-know-now thinking. I think processors have a role in consumer education, but they need to first get comfortable with this spotlight. That is a few years away.
Farmers discovered a few years ago the need to open up their barn doors and shed light on misunderstood farm practices. The challenge so far, as I see it, is the 2% of farmers that make up the population reaching the other 98%. As much as I know farmers feel good about working to reach out, it is an incredible challenge to have an impact when we know that a consumer is going to walk away from a conversation about food with a farmer and then be hit with news stories, opinion pieces, advertisements and marketing claims that all have the power to erode the confidence they may have left the farmer with only a short time before. Farmers’ role needs to continue, but farmers can’t do it alone.
Governments are in a tough spot as they try to protect the public while at the same time trying to hold a job beyond four years. Those two don’t always go together. Education in the classroom is one role, and one I think needs to be addressed. While it is important for students to get a wide range of options, I often question whether or not true life skills should be moved up the importance ladder. Direct focus on money management, healthy living and food preparation are all often left off the curriculum. Even physical education, where the focus can often be in how to play dodge ball, rather than how to get more involved in physical activity when a student gets home or wraps up their high school career. Then of course, the question becomes where does food and food production fit? Should students have to focus on balancing price, quality, welfare, environment, growing populations and try to solve the problems of where to grow what food, rather than simply leaving high school with the idea that some foods are good, some are bad, and modern, large-scale production is questionable at best? It needs to change.
While education by government is one role, regulation and legislation is another. I’m not a fan of overbearing governments but there is a role in maintaining a bit of order — especially when it comes to marketing gimmicks and the how-to behind growing and raising food. Governments need to become more nimble at responding to this – especially when new claims become common buzzwords. Gluten-free shouldn’t be posted on products that never have (or could) contain gluten. Natural should be defined. Consumers are being told one thing by groups with deep marketing budgets to the point it is impacting their values and opinions. Should a marketing budget be able to do that?
Whomever is involved in food and farm education, need to realize that more needs to be done — today. Perceptions are spinning so quickly out of control that it is time we worked on finding a solution from everyone involved in the chain.