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Sunday November 19, 2017

Oklahoma State University ag economists asked a sampling of more than 1,000 consumers in February two questions about some common "authorities" regarding livestock and meat production:

  1. How much do you know about these sources?
  2. How much do you trust them?

These 15 sources were ranked on a scale from “nothing” to “a great deal."

Click the thumbnail below to see where each ranks on the typical consumer's trust scale.

Who do consumers trust?

Prescribing vegetables and fruits for better health

Research has shown that more than half of shoppers who come in to fill a prescription will also buy related food products in the same trip. For instance, while picking up heart medicine, they buy a quart of low-fat milk. More affluent elderly shoppers, coupled with increased prescribing and awareness about preventable chronic disease, presents opportunities for the supermarket as "wellness center" to cross-sell wellness-related items. And to make the picture even better, when asked by the International Food Information Council to name the foods they thought offered health benefits beyond nutrition, 1,000 consumers didn't leap to the obscure. Instead, they named the basics found on your aisles: Fruits and vegetables; fish, fish oil, seafood; milk and dairy; whole grains, oats, oat bran and oatmeal; fiber; green tea; meat, red meat and chicken; water; herbs and spices; and nuts.

So why not take the opportunity to more obviously connect the dots?

A program in seven states throughout the United States and the District of Columbia has attempted a novel effort to do just that, by working with local health clinics to "prescribe" fruits and vegetables to patients suffering chronic disease--typically diabetes related to obesity or unhealthy eating habits. Health clinics and farmers markets work together to enroll overweight and obese children in the program. During each monthly visit with a health-care provider, the participant gets a "prescription" for $1 per day per family member, which can only be redeemed for locally grown produce at the partnering farmers market.

For the 2012 program, the most recent results available, follow up surveys showed:

  • More than 90 percent of patients said they were eating more fresh fruits and vegetables as a result.
  • Healthcare workers who asked patients during each visit to describe their daily fruit and vegetable consumption found 55 percent were eating more fruits and vegetables at their final visit than at their first.
  • Plus, 38 percent of child patients decreased their Body Mass Index between their first and last visit.

Although the Wholesome Wave program was intended to promote better access to Farmers Markets, which gives it a political mission, an independent community supermarket could learn much about adopting the concept into its own marketing program. Lessons learned:

  • Focus on community. The program likely succeeds because it is community-based. It encourages partnerships between doctors, nutritionists, community health workers, farmers, farmers market operators, and community members. Local, community-focused supermarkets should have a natural leg-up on that approach.
  • Take ownership. The local grocer will likely have to coordinate the program to see the benefits from it. In the states where the concept has worked, it has been spearheaded by an organization known as Wholesome Wave, an advocacy group for small farms, local food systems and farmers markets. The group does not advocate for better access to produce through supermarkets, beyond advocating for general increases in SNAP funding. Instead, it promotes farmers markets as healthier, higher quality sources than supermarkets. Grocers interested in capitalizing on the interest will have to pull together interested health providers and public or private funding sources to underwrite the program.
  • Use your store nutritionist as the point person. The Wholesome Wave program puts nutritionists in connection with the health-care provider and, in some cases, a community health worker who discuss the importance of healthy eating and active living, with a focus on the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Survey, survey, survey. Collecting and analyzing data from participants about the changes in their food habits and health indicators is an integral part of the current programs. It also helps justify continued funding. Data collection occurs throughout program implementation, for about 16 to 20 weeks during the peak of farmers market fruit and vegetable season. Primary care providers track weight, Body Mass Index, and fruit and vegetable consumption at each, compiling it all into a secure online database all participating clinics can access for generalized data.

Click here for more information.

Buy local food? Why?

"Nebraskans spend $4.4 billion on food each year. Yet only 10 percent stays in our state," laments Nebraska's agrarian populists at the Center for Rural Affairs. "Shouldn’t we expect most of the food we purchase to come from our state?"

Consternation over the excessive "food miles" your products travel in order to get from the farm field to your store have led those like the Center's authors to argue to consumers and regulators that food systems can only be sustainable and socially just if they originate within a set number of miles. But one vexing problem remains: How exactly to define the vague and soft term "local."

"'Local food' or 'regional food,'" the Center's authors have written, "have no precise definitions, nor is it legally defined in the way that legislation has defined 'organic.'  Some consider 'local' to describe food from a 50-mile or 100-mile distance from where it is sold. Others say a one-hour drive from the market or other place where sold. Thus, it is important to define what is meant by 'local' when using the term in food marketing or sales."

With so much confusion over a basic definition, what's a local-centric grocer to do?

Ignore it. Here's why.

Several interesting articles from one scholarly journal have recently attempted to get their hands around the meaning from both an academic's and a consumer's point of view. Some valuable lessons can be taken for the grocer interested in appealing to that class of shoppers:

  • In "Food miles, local eating, and community supported agriculture: putting local food in its place," Pennsylvania's Kutztown University scholar Steven Schnell argues that focusing on food miles cheapens and causes us to miss what's really important about why citizens seem to yearn for local food. "The dialogue over food miles...," he says, "has largely centered not on complex reality, but on a caricature, and a single variable stripped of its context." Local eating is not really about mileage, Schnell believes; it's about connecting people to a community. Trying to assign an ideal number of miles oversimplifies a complex process in which shoppers are trying to connect with  particular producers, particular markets, particular environments and particular people. Food, he believes, is simply one part of that "narrative" they tell themselves about where they fit in the world.
  • In "CSA membership and psychological needs fulfillment: an application of self-determination theory" a group of University of Wisconsin ecologists examine the pyschological needs driving why consumers join Community Supported Agriculture buying programs, subscription-based direct-buying programs that connect local shoppers with local farms. Through interviews with those buying members about why they join and leave CSAs, they suggest those local-buying programs meet shoppers' needs to feel independent and in control of their own lives, capable and competent in providing for themselves, and related to people and communities surrounding them. Although the Wisconsin researchers concede they have only scratched the surface of the deep psychology behind local food buying, they suggest the field is ripe for further research, including if, why and how shoppers better meet those psychological needs by shopping at a farmers market vs. at a supermarket.
  • In the article "Beyond agriculture: the counter-hegemony of community farming," British social scientists approach the motivations of local food buying by considering it as a new form of liesure activity, in which shoppers are at heart attempting to exert some rebellion against authority by participating, vicariously though it may be, in growing their own food. Sort of like an avid golfer who eventually turns a sport into work in order to set himself apart by excelling at something others cannot do, local-food advocates who are so involved they go so far as to volunteer their time to help plant and harvest at local community-supported farms are similarly disguising a non-essential liesure activity as hard work that sets them apart from the power anonymousing forces of modern society. By participating in local farming, they are "busy constructing meaningful lives outside of conventional work and leisure activities that bear all the hallmarks of a big leisure project, although it is no longer understood (or performed) in these terms," they write. "...the majority of the participants in the CSA did not routinely view their activities and deployment of time as leisure per se. Rather, they viewed their participation as a part of their wider lives, part of their personal project...[that] speaks to others about who we are, what we hold to be valuable and how we can make a difference.’’

What does that all mean to grocers looking for opportunity in the local food department?

In this broader sense, "local" is a double-edged sword for locally owned, community grocers. You can't fake the authenticity consumers are longing for when they buy local. So the fact that 90 percent of locally sourced food is originating with farms grossing more than a quarter million dollars annually puts grocers riding that train at risk of appearing to be inauthentic. On the other hand, if consumers are looking for a means to stay rooted in time and place via a sense of community, few retailers are in better position to lead that than the community focused grocer.

As this essay explains, if true, then the "food" portion of the "local food" movement may be a case of the marketing tail wagging the dog. Grocers who see locally sourced food as only a small part of fulfilling their commitment to the community, through community relations, employee relations and true contributions, will put themselves in the lead in capturing the loyalty of those local-focused consumers, regardless of how many miles the food they offer travels to get to them.

Do farmers markets really improve farm incomes?

Farm-to-consumer marketing programs like the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska and USDA's Know Your Farmer Know Your Food are founded on the premise that increasing the number of food shoppers who buy directly from farmers helps the economic viability of small farms. "Whether consumers are purchasing tomatoes at a local farmers' market or picking some apples at a roadside stand, they are contributing back to their local economy," said Casey Foster, ag promotion coordinator with the state agriculture department.

But you may be surprised to find that cherished assumption has little scientific backing.

Ag Economics researchers from Louisiana will publish a study in an upcoming issue of the journal Agricultural Economics challenging the widely held notion that encouraging the food chain to cut out the supermarket middleman makes for healthier economics for farmers. In contrast to the “plethora” of journal articles studying the consumer at direct outlets like farmers markets, the researchers say, research is almost nonexistent about the behavior of the farmers themselves and how direct marketing affects their farm business income.

Specifically, no previous studies the Louisiana team uncovered focused on how farmers’ management and marketing skills affect their decisions to use either roadside stands, or on-farm stores, farmer’s markets or community supported agriculture programs, vs. less-direct markets like direct sales to local grocers, regional distributors and state branding programs, or some combination of the two. None of the studies they reviewed have examined the impact of marketing and management skills on the financial performance of the farmers’ business when they market through such non-conventional channels.

So the Louisiana researchers pulled data from the nationwide 2008 Agricultural Resource Management Survey collected by the Economic Research Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service of USDA. After excluding data for farms organized as non-family corporations or cooperatives and farms run by hired managers, their results found:

  • One in 10 of the farmers used only direct-to-consumer selling like roadside stands and community supported agriculture subscriptions. Seven percent used indirect methods like selling to a local grocer. Four percent used some combination of the two. That leaves 79 percent of farms in the 2008 figures using no direct-to-consumer sales.
  • Farmers who sold direct reported earnings that were on average significantly lower than earnings from the other marketing strategies. The average earnings of $273,011 are about 75 percent lower than earnings for farmers who do not engage in any direct sales.
  • Their statistical analysis at least implies that farmers with higher skills or more experience in marketing likely prefer to sell through intermediate channels, like selling to a local supermarket. Farmers in the direct-only category typically were those using the fewest marketing techniques compared to others. More than half of the exclusively direct-to-consumer farmers did not use any advanced marketing tools like marketing advisory services, options, futures, on-farm storage, contract shipping, networking or farmer cooperatives. The researchers suggested this may be due to the fact that selling through intermediate markets often places specific quality and quantity requirements on them, which necessitate the use of those more advanced marketing skills in order to succeed.
  • Overall farm sales for farmers who sold only directly to consumers actually fell--by an average of 2 percent. That compares to a 20.5 percent growth rate for farmers with no direct sales.

A food-safety reality check

Dick Raymond, Nebraska’s Chief Medical Officer from 1999 through 2005 and USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety under George Bush, took note of five common perceptions about food-animal production and the possible effect on human health at a recent symposium on antibiotic issues, sponsored by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, in Kansas City. The reality, according to the Loup City native, falls far from the perception:

Perception: Modern food is poisoning us.

Reality: Media hits regarding food-borne illness outbreaks have been up 150 percent in the last decade; media hits for food recalls--driven by the likes of Peanut Corp. of America, Wright Egg Farms and Jensen Family Farms--have risen 250 percent in that same time period. But what has the actual rate of foodborne illness done in that same time period? It has fallen by 29 percent. “Food safety in this country is the best it has ever been, and part of that is because of modern animal husbandry practices and food safety technologies,” Raymond argues.

Perception: Confined animal feeding operations are bad.

Reality: Driven by criticism such as the highly visible Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, the average shopper has been skillfully led to the conclusion that today’s intensive, indoor animal-raising system creates a threat of increased risk of food-borne illness—a threat that must be staved off by frequent use of antibiotics to control infections. But the important back story those like Pew ignore is the food-protection success story that technology brought along with the American farmers’ move to intensive production, including:

  • Selective, controlled and planned breeding that made the ability to use the best genetics to improve productivity and change traits to give consumers what they wanted, even while driving average costs down.
  • Greater production, and all the attending benefits, from taking animals out of  inclement weather and hot/cold extremes.
  • Indoor feeding and growing facilities to limit exposure to vermin, parasites and disease-carrying wild animals and birds. (Think “bird flu.”)
  • Hog maternity pens that protect naturally submissive mother pigs from naturally dominant mother pigs, ensuring adequate access to feed and water.
  • Better transportation systems, resulting in less stress for animals and promoting more humane handling.

As those technological improvements benefited the farmer’s productivity, according to Raymond, the real value of intensive, confined animal feeding is the food-safety improvements that resulted:

  • The risk today of catching trichinosis by eating undercooked pork—the perennial disease caused by exposure to wild animals and garbage feeding of eras past that has been eliminated by indoor housing--is history.
  • Children no longer die and people are no longer sickened by common diseases spread by milk, like brucellosis and tuberculosis.
  • Studies show Salmonella is less common in conventionally produced chicken than free-range chicken. The rate of Salmonella infection in the conventional poultry chain, as evidenced by USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service testing on young chickens, was 2.7 percent last quarter, down from 16 percent in 2005.
  • Illness from E coli O157:H7 foodborne illness are down nearly 50 percent and at an all-time low in 2010.

Perception: We do not give antibiotics to healthy people to help prevent them from catching disease; we shouldn’t do the same with farm animals.

Reality: For those opposed to the Food and Drug Administration-approved use of antibiotics for disease prevention and control in animals raised for food, Raymond counters, he points to “hundreds of examples” of how antibiotics are used in human medicine for these purposes, including

  • Preventively administering penicillin to hundreds of college dormitory residents living nearby a single student diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.
  • Giving an antibiotic before dental work to a patient who has an artificial heart valve, in order to protect against the possibility of germs entering the bloodstream and infecting the heart.

The medical literature is filled with examples of such preventive use of antibiotics in human medicine. Why would some people suggest animals don’t deserve the same protection from a known risk? Raymond asks. Biological tools like antibiotics help keep animals healthier by preventing or controlling disease as well as treating actual disease. This is not only good for growth and production but also a humane practice that prevents diseases that could wipe out an entire flock or herd.

Perception: Up to 80 percent of antibiotics sold in this country are wasted on healthy farm animals.

Reality: Farmer Goes to Market has previously vetted this questionable claim, which Raymond notes is routinely repeated by members of Congress, The Pew Charitable Trust, Consumers Union and the media. The reality is that figure grossly overstates the consumption of antibiotics that are important to human medicine because it treats all antibiotics as equal. They aren’t. Of the numbers reported by FDA annually as sold for animal use (food and pets), more than 40 percent are in the tetracycline class. Tetracyclines are decades-old antibiotics that today are of very limited use in human medicine, with many better choices available. At the same time, the antibiotic classes that are considered critically important to human medicine—the flouroquinolones and cephalosporins—represent only 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent of the antibiotics FDA says is sold for animal use.

Perception: “Superbugs” spread by food are threatening to return us to a “pre-antibiotics” age.

Reality: This misperception arises because activist groups and the media mix their metaphors when it comes to the reality of how and why some germs develop the ability to resist certain antibiotics. Yes, the retail chicken and ground turkey meat monitoring samples collected by the federal government’s National Antibiotics Resistance Monitoring System reported in February found traces of Salmonella that were resistant to several antibiotics, Raymond concedes. However, the four most common antibiotics that Salmonella showed resistance to were tetracycline, streptomycin, sulfisoxazole and penicillin. None of those four drugs would be used to treat a Salmonella infection in a person. Meanwhile, none of the Salmonella found on meat samples were resistant to the particular class of antibiotics known as flouroquinolones, which is the first choice antibiotic in human Salmonella cases.  In addition, only 4.3 percent and 0.5 percent of the Campylobacter found on the meat samples were resistant to the macrolide class of antibiotics. Macrolides are the drug of choice doctors would use to treat human Campylobacter cases. FDA responded to criticism of antibiotic policy based on the report by the Environmental Working Group by saying “First-line treatments for all four bacteria that we track are still effective…. We believe EWG is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistance to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as ‘superbugs’ if these bacateria are treatable by other commonly used antibiotics.” Superbugs are real, Raymond says, but they are not food-borne and they are a direct use of humans using and misusing antibiotics, not farmers. The Infectious Disease Society of America recognizes that the list of true superbugs had no food-borne or animal connections.

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