Consumers in the United States demand quality food. Consumers demand safe food—but more than demanding it, they expect that the food they feed their families is safe. Over the last several years, however, consumers have also been weighing in on other factors; they’ve been making their preferences known at the cash register and voting with their grocery lists.
Food choices today in the U.S. are almost endless, allowing consumers to purchase products that match their budgets, nutritional needs and their values. But with the majority of American consumers being at least three generations removed from the farm, there is increasing confusion and misinformation about the processing and production of food. Farmers and ranchers as well as food processors in general are vulnerable to the decisions made by misinformed customers and consumers.
Certain groups of food activists, particularly in social media, portray their campaigns as enlightened collaborations with the industry to improve the “status quo,” but this is not always the case. This highlights a growing challenge facing the food supply chain: The food industry must fully engaged in addressing consumer concerns and fears. There is a pressing need to correct the misinformation that circulates in the public domain and affects consumer trends and opinions—and ultimately—food companies’ bottom lines.
Not only do farmers, ranchers and processors have to continually ensure that they are producing safe food—as consumers have come to expect—but lately, they must also convince consumers that their food is being produced in a way that respects their values.
Or, put another way, practices considered “standard” in the industry, those practices considered to be humane by industry experts including scientists, veterinarians, behaviorists and others, are being publicly criticized. Yet, these criticisms are forcing the industry into a difficult position, as often, these same groups are demanding changes to standard industry practices, disregarding the impact they will have on food safety, the environment or food costs. It is important, therefore, for the industry to take a more active role in engaging and correcting this misinformation and mandating that safety be upheld, even when the public doesn’t understand that certain processes make food safer.
The importance of consumer confidence is not lost on any segment of the animal agriculture food chain or the food industry in general. It has become apparent that today’s consumer is hungry for information about where their food came from, how it was raised and how it was prepared. Retailers are purchasing products to sell and serve, and ensuring that they can “tell the story” behind those products to the consumer. An industry that has historically been reserved about communicating is now being encouraged to actively engage the public and have discussions about food.
Emily Meredith is communications director of the Animal Agriculture Alliance. To learn more about the Summit, scheduled for May 1–2, 2013, which will focus on proactive industry initiatives meant to increase consumer engagement with food producers and overall consumer confidence, please visit www.animalagalliance.org/register.>