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Saturday March 24, 2018

Where nobody is a food expert, and everybody is

If the election of Donald Trump and the conversative-populist movement that unpredictably brought him to office accomplishes nothing else, it stands to even further weaken the average American's trust in traditional institutions. For better or for worse, according to an annual Gallup poll, less than a third of Americans on average say they have either "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in 14 traditional institutions, including the military, the police, the church, the medical system, the presidency, the supreme court, public schools, banks, organized labor , the criminal justice syste, TV news, newspapers, big business and Congress. It is the third straight year in a row Gallup has reported that phenomenon. But Trumpism is less the cause than the result—Congress, banks, organized religion and the news media have all suffered a decline in public trust for a decade now.

And the result for 2017 and beyond: Absent those trustworthy institutions, everyone has now become his own food and farming expert. Expect this often unsettling trend to continue, affecting your food sales. Witness:

Mercola, Food Babe and David Wolfe. Joseph Mercola, the 61-year old osteopathic physician, natural-foods purveyor, and founder and video star of Mercola Health Resources, who once famously advised his readers to avoid grocery stores if they want healthy food, shook off a mid-April 2016 $5.3 million settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over false-advertising accusations. According to the Chicago Tribune, Mercola sold tanning beds for up to $4,000 apiece by reassuring consumers not only were they not harmful, but in fact actually reduced their chances of getting cancer. Mercola's website empire continues to flourish, though, offering unsound advice on health issues from vaccination to flouride in water to organic food. By one estimate, his site continues to attract an estimated 5 million to 7 million visits monthly. And he still lists more than a quarter million Twitter followers and 1.5 million Facebook followers.

Similarly, Vani Hari, a.k.a. "Food Babe," the internet blogger who grew a guilty penchant for fast food and disdain for science into an estimated 3 million viewers and a best-selling book deal, and David Wolfe, informercial star turned "rock star of the superfoods and longevity universe" whose Facebook following now outnumbers the entire state of Nebraska five times over, continue to flourish by pandering to the worst suspicions about food and health.

Critical media—gone. Whether you love or hate the mass media that the Trump movement has so successfully positioned as disloyal opposition, there's little arguing that business has been so economically hollowed out that meaningful journalism is on the ropes. The information vaccuum being created is being filled by more partisan sources, often without being recognized as such. One recent example: The National Grocers Association's Education and Leadership Weekly newsletter in January included the story "Should we be labeling genetically modified foods?" Although an important question, and one Farmer Goes to Market has examined in the past, the "custom-content" story written for NGA members based its reporting on questionable claims from an activist organization with no balanced critique of the dubious science behind those claims. Get ready for more of that style of advocacy journalism disguised as news.

Rogue agency Twitter feeds. In testament to the dilution of trust in institutions, a curious phenonomen accompanying Trump's election starkly illustrates even the government institutions themselves no longer trust their own authority. President Trump's reported attempts to put a "gag order" on agencies including USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency—reports which themselves now appear to be "fake news"—spawned "resistance teams" of agency scientists and other employees who took to their own Twitter feeds to post "unofficial" discussions of issues they believed were being repressed by the new administration, from climate change to food and drug issues.

Sustainability according to the marketing department. With little to no meaningful regulatory definition and an apparent public appetite to hear them—even if apparently no true consumer demand can be proven—the world of product claims about food justice, sustainability and health have become the Wild Wild West, where everyone's rushing to stake a claim. Case in point: The new HowGood label, which in the past three years has expanded its services into grocers in 26 states and more than 250 stores, including a highly visible Giant Foods pilot project. The 20-year-old system, which attempts to boil up to 70 different indicators down to a simple good/better/best labeling system, includes measures of pesticide use, fertilizer control and animal welfare. But it also includes more shadowy measures of packaging, "labor accountability," "reputation index," and simply how much information a company is willing to divulge to them.

Amid this trend toward the shattering and scattering of food authority lies some good news for the grocer, although it's a mixed blessing: Gallup's surveying does show Americans retain some trust in institutions, in particular, the military, the police and you—small businesses. So opportunity to lead exists. But the bad news is that it's not hard to squander that fragile trust. A recent survey shows almost half of consumers say they don't trust what food labels tell them. Today's food marketers trying to sell product claims are borrowing the grocer's credibility to do so, and if those claims don't live up to customer expectations, it could be that trusted retailer who ends up holding the bag.

Some perspective on U.S. food prices

The American Farm Bureau Federation’s 31st annual informal price survey of classic items found on the Thanksgiving table indicates the average cost of this year’s feast for 10 will be down by 24 cents, coming in at $49.87 vs. last year’s average of $50.11. The big ticket item – a 16-pound turkey – came in at a total of $22.74 this year. That’s roughly $1.42 per pound, a decrease of 2 cents per pound, or a total of 30 cents per whole turkey, compared to 2015.

That good news for consumers comes even as CNN Money takes note of stock-price increases for several upscale grocers rising in response to the election of President-Elect Donald Trump. CNN interprets the trend as the market betting Trump's economic plan will lead to more inflation, particularly inflation in agricultural commodities and, eventually, food prices. And any hint of significant food-price inflation typically spurs calls to improve Americans' "food security" by, among other measures, guaranteeing basic income levels and increasing food-relief programs.

But how bad is America's food inflation?

USDA makes a series of charts available that disect its food-expenditure figures over time. They demonstrate that although food prices have inflated over the years, American consumers continue to enjoy food at a relative share of personal income that's a fraction of other countries, and is overshadowed by other consumer expenditures.

Food spending compared to others

Food spending compared to others


Are you complicit in selling fairy-tale farming?

Mercy For Animals, the nonprofit animal-rights group behind several recent undercover animal-cruelty videos, which Farmer Goes to Market has reported on, has officially called the match: Cage-free eggs are now inevitable.

In a blog post written nearly a year ago, the group"...dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies," quoted the United Egg Producers president as conceding the U.S. egg industry now has no options but to go cage-free.

How did Mercy for Animals take UEP, over the course of less than a decade, from spending $10 million to fight California legislation requiring cage-free to agreeing to back a system nationally that it not only predicts will increase egg farmers' housing costs by two to three times, but also stands a good chance of actually making chickens less healthy, less productive and more stressed?

Are college students a lucrative market?

As Nebraska's 140,000 college students settle in for the new academic year, marketers eye their impact on the food system — and their bottom line. From Cody, Neb., population 156 people, where volunteer students are manning the town's last grocery — now a non-profit — to Toronto's Sheridan College, where time-stressed college kids can order their university food via app and avoid standing in lines, to small college towns throughout the country where local businesses hope the return of students will lead to higher sales. "We've got students [here] who, like most college students, have discretionary income," a Maryland marketing professor told the Baltimore Sun. "They're going to buy food, they're going to buy music, they're going to buy clothing."

But is the campus outlook all that rosey?

Mercy For Animals, the nonprofit "...on the frontlines fighting to protect farmed animals, ...dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies," put out its latest cinematic drama in late June. The footage, shot this spring by a hired MFA plant pretending to be a farm worker at Washington's Briarwood Farms, a supplier for egg distributor Eggland’s Best, edited together footage of people engaging in questionably cruel behavior with somber and brooding images of caged chickens, artfully gloomy background music and poetically suggestive narration. It all combines to further the group's constant narrative: The system of caged-hen production is unacceptable.

This June video followed the same model of MFA's past works targeting not only poultry, but also pigs, milk cows, turkeys, veal calves, and even ducks. They all skillfully use isolated depictions of animal cruelty (some real, some implied or staged) by individuals to cinematically indict the wider system of intensive animal production or individual practices like caging hens, keeping pregnant pigs in individual stalls, beak-trimming to prevent cannibalism, or confined housing.

Their ultimate goal? To name and shame suppliers to large companies, who can then be pressured to announce changes. Those announcements can then, in turn, be used to coerce smaller, less powerful retailers and food producers into submitting. All are designed to make food production more burdensome and more expensive, even as they do little to really improve animal welfare.

Eggland’s Best's director of quality assurance told Fortune he was skeptical about the authenticity of this latest video. He said MFA contacted Eggland’s Best numerous times prior to publishing the video, promising that if the company publicly committed to cage-free eggs, the group would edit the narration to spin in favor of the company. If not, the story would position Eggland's as cruel and inhumane. “It seems a little bit like this is a set up,” the director said.

"Following pressure from caring consumers," the video narrator of the final video breathlessly intones, "many of the biggest companies in the world, including McDonalds, Kroger, Walmart and many others, committed to stop cramming hens in cages. But not Eggland's best."

Meanwhile, the Independent Grocers Alliance, which represents over 1,000 retailers nationwide, joined the growing list of retailers who have caved to the group's pressure, announcing, "It is our goal to source 100 percent cage-free eggs for IGA by 2025 based on available supply. IGA, its retailers and its wholesalers do not tolerate animal abuse of any kind, and we expect our suppliers to adhere to accepted industry standards."

Although it's understandable to be sympathetic to a retailer who feels they can't win against the public spectacle of a well-financed juggernaut like Mercy for Animals, pushing back against this corporate extortion is critical to the health of the food system in the long run, says lawyer and award winning author, Wesley J. Smith. A senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and an expert in bioethics regarding both animals and humans, Smith's A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement tears apart both the tactics of the animal rights movement and its underlying, flawed philosophy.

"Animal rights activists have very successfully positioned themselves in public society in a way that is false," Smith told us shortly after publication of his book. "Most people think it's about just being nicer to animals, which of course is an important human endeavor. But the purpose of the animal rights movement literally is to end all domesticated animals and put all animal industries out of business."

MFA's video protestations about poor animal welfare notwithstanding, animal-rights groups like Mercy for Animals aren't really interested in the welfare of animals, beyond how much it furthers their animal-rights mission. In fact, Smith argues, animal-rights activists hate the animal-welfare movement, because it recognizes a moral superiority of humans that gives them dominion to judge welfare by their own standards. "In animal rights dogma," he says, "animals and humans have equivalent moral value. What animal rights activists have done is they have hidden much of their true agenda behind the good reputation of animal welfare."

Corporations like those that MFA praises in the video which have acquiesed are playing into their strategy, walking a dangerous line by agreeing to standards that science demonstrates have little to do with welfare, but ultimately advance the ideology of animal rights.

MFA attracts viewership and sympathy by cinematically creating an illusion that animals are human, worthy of equal moral consideration, and then evoking pity for them and outrage on their behalf from the consuming public. Those emotions are then channeled to further the mission of dividing the food chain against itself. They know that when the modern food chain is united in its shared goal to feed everybody as efficiently and as effectively as possible, there’s no stopping it in that goal. In fact, consumers who understand what’s at stake won’t let it be stopped. But when those animal-rights groups successfully pit consumer against consumer, consumer against retailer, retailer against farmer, big farmer against little farmer, pet owner against animal farmer, and on and on, they can pick off otherwise unwinnable targets one by one. Understand that argument, and retailers can begin to understand there's no adequate defense in the middle ground of appeasement.

Grocers: Where does this all stop, in your opinion? Is this newfound attention to animal cruelty really consumer-driven, or is it artificially created by a small minority? Were you to resist on your consumer's behalf, what support would you like from the farm commodity groups? Farmer Goes to Market will follow up on these questions and more. In the meantime, leave us a comment below or, if you prefer to remain anonymous, send us an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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