In today's environment of suffocating margins and increasingly cut-throat retail competition, it's understandable that grocers are looking for every edge to add value to each category. But today, more than ever, consumers want real value. They are harshly questioning anything that doesn’t contribute to that value. The real value you can offer them is the trust that you’re bringing them wholesome, food that’s responsibly and thoughtfully produced and delivered. Some of today's "absence labeling" food marketing trends, however, may be risking that very trust. Roper Public Affairs, for instance, surveyed 1,001 U.S. consumers, reminding grocers of what consumers most value in their store.
Slapping point-of-purchase merchandising information on product categories to take advantage of questionable marketing claims popular with the media and alternative food-system advocates may seem an easy upsell. But trust is a perishable commodity, and it is not in human nature to be thankful to the person who reminds us we were played for a fool. Here are five current marketing claims that could leave you in that vulnerable position.
Local. Despite its apparent popularity with both shoppers and retailers, "local" is an issue that could turn to bite. Recent research shows the trust issue is beginning to surface, particularly when those products are found in national chains and big-box stores. Shoppers are often incredulous to discover some definitions of "local" refer to products sourced only within the borders of a state or as far away as 400 miles. In addition to that problem with definition, local carries additional threats to the grocer. The "community food security" and “community-supported agriculture” movements that often lie at the heart of local-food advocacy don’t permit a valid role for food chain middlemen--that means you. Local food in the eyes of those small-chain advocates usually means direct-to-consumer and farmers markets, not a locally supplied supermarket.
Hormone-free. Increasingly loose play with the "H" word in food labeling is inviting the credibility fiasco that has arisen from the rbST-milk labeling issue (“From cows not treated with rbST, but there’s no significant difference shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows”), or the hormone-free chicken puffery (growth hormone use has been illegal in U.S. chickens for nearly four decades, so every chicken is raised without hormones.) The fact is indisputable: The hormonal growth promotants that are approved for use by farmers in the United States have decades of research behind them to prove they pose no threat to human health. So grocers can try to build the case that "hormone-free" is really meant not as a health and wellness claim, but as a sign they support the small- and natural-farming movement. Unfortunately, virtually all consumer research shows shoppers still associate hormone-free with a health claim. That paradox invites suspicion as the truth of their safety comes to light.
Antibiotic-free. Like hormone-free, antibiotic-free is a risky gamble. The wellness claims of antibiotic-free are simply not sustainable. For instance:
Antibiotic-free is another social issue trying to disguise itself as a wellness issue, and taking your credibility along for the ride. Bills just introduced into Congress — the fifth misguided federal attempt in a row now to impose this draconian legislation on farmers — relies on rhetoric routinely fed to the public and regulators by political activists. Their agenda reaches far beyond antibiotic use, advocating market over-regulation, animal rights and radical labor activism. The antibiotic prohibition is a stepping stone to those broader objectives, and it is not based in good science.
Animal welfare approved or humanely raised.
Advocates of small-scale, nonindustrial alternatives say their choice is more humane because it's more natural. The claim is dubious, and aptly demonstrates how little today's consumer understands about the traditional realities of farm life. Even "free range" chicken farmers, for instance, must cage those birds on pasture in order to protect them from the devastations of predators that can literally wipe out every bird in a flock overnight. Free-range pigs are routinely re-introduced to an old-fashioned practice that confinement barns rendered unnecessary: The "nose ring," which prevents them from tearing up pastures and fences by exhibiting the natural behavior of rooting--but only by making it painful for them to do so. Minus the use of chemical antiparasite products, animals on organic, free-range farms typically experience clinical cases of parasitism and are driven to literally run for their lives from hordes of biting flies that remain well-controlled in conventional operations. And one of the dirty secrets about organic animal production is that a suspected but unconfirmed number of animals often go unmedicated even though they are sick and suffering because the farmer would otherwise sacrifice his more lucrative organic premium by treating them with a modern medication. The truth is, animal production has always had a brutal and bloody side. To farmers, it's a part of nature that doesn't go away by labeling them "animal welfare approved."
"Sustainable" is the Miss America of food label claims: Like world peace, surely no one can be against it. But the questionable definition of sustainable puts grocers who freely buy into it into a precarious position. The reality that many don't perceive is that "sustainable" was co-opted years ago by a movement of "green capitalists" like John Elkington, who believed that those bent on "social justice" who couldn't beat the capitalist should instead join it. In doing so, they developed an "improved capitalism" that would deny the tenants of failed socialist policies in name but would support the spirit of them in practice. The resulting irony of a "sustainable" system that purports to help the world's poor only by charging high prices to wealthy Westerners is not lost on those like physician Henry I. Miller, a fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford and a founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, who called today's infatuation with organic and sustainable food little more than "Affluent Narcissism." Clumsy, shorthand attempts to fool consumers into believing social justice can be added to a food like an ingredient threatens your credibility in two ways. First, it may appear to be empty “greenwashing”--self-serving marketing in the name of environmental protection that really protects only your bottom line. Second, it needlessly adds to the cost of food at precisely the moment when consumers are most sensitized to cost. It's another suspicion-rousing irony noted by Missouri farmer Blake Hurst, who noted, “In the many places around the world where organic farming is the norm, a large proportion of the population is involved in farming. Not because they choose to do so, but because they must." Promoting a "sustainable" vision of returning the world to the system of farming that the majority is laboring to escape threatens to present you as hypocritical.