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Shorten distance to consumers (commentary)

Shorten distance to consumers (commentary)

MY previous column reflected on the apparent tension surrounding agriculture and food. It is a conflict that has seemingly become more fervent in recent years.

The tug-of-war pits one side — which emphasizes the need to feed a growing population — against the other side — which is concerned about the underlying nature of our food system. It has been described as "an intensifying war between the farm sector and its critics over how food is made."

However, there is one key aspect to all of this that I didn't discuss in the previous column: trust.

Trust is an increasingly important consideration for any industry that produces and merchandises consumer goods.

The evolution is best described by John Gerzema and Miachael D'Antonio in "The Power of the Post-Recession Consumer" (Strategy+Business).

They wrote, "Consumer spending patterns are changing as part of a trend that has been quietly gathering strength over the past 10 years. Say hello to a lifestyle more focused on community, connection, quality and creativity. People are returning to old-fashioned values to build new lives of purpose and connection. They also realize that how they spend their money is a form of power and are moving from mindless consumption to mindful consumption, increasingly taking care to purchase goods and services from sellers that meet their standards and reflect their values."

Consumers vote with their dollars, and there's an ongoing shift in attitudes, values and expectations across a whole realm of goods.

The authors further explained that "confidence in all types of big organizations, including big government and big business, has declined nearly 50% in the past two years," and the trend is showing no signs of retreat.

That's particularly true in the food world. That was reaffirmed for me recently while reviewing a food retailer's customer inquiries. Here's a sampling of the questions:

* Could you tell me a little more about how the cattle, pork and chicken are treated at the farm while being raised for meat for your store?

* Do any of your animals receive antibiotics/hormones, and if so, are they tested before slaughter to make sure this is not in their system?

* What farmers do you buy your meat and pork products from? I would like the name and address of your farmers.

* What chemicals are used in your meat products?

* Do your famers use gestation crates, and what is your position on this?

Clearly, a growing number of consumers want to know more about their food — where it came from, how it was produced and what's in it.

Accordingly, Gerzema and D'Antonio explained that "20th-century companies were in the information arbitrage business. They knew more about their product than customers did. ... Today, however, customers have equal (and sometimes superior) access to data. As a result, transparency becomes all the more crucial. Today's stakeholders can see through a glossy cover-up. They crave a true, authentic story. They will be interested in how a company thinks and how it makes decisions."

None of what we're seeing in the food business is unique; it's consistent across the broader business environment.

What's surprising, though, are those who simply want to avoid the tough subjects. They're hoping that consumers bury their heads in the sand and settle for the status quo and it'll all go away — but we're working from a trust deficit; consumers are inherently skeptical. The defensive mindset is a failed strategy.

That's particularly pronounced given the highly personal nature of food purchases. The food system has an even higher standard to uphold when it comes to trust and transparency. Going forward, there'll be a need for even more honest dialogue and open discussion.

So, whatever it is, we better be talking about it out in the open. Pretending it doesn't exist doesn't solve the problem or remove uncertainty for consumers. Any suspicion of that happening will only serve to create more distance between the food industry and its consumers.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:21

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