With today's "health conscious," "local oriented" and "highly educated" shopper, producing, cooking, selling and serving "good food" is not just added value, it's a necessity, correct? "Everyone has an “inner locavore” you can tap into for 2013," gushes one Midwestern on-line green-grocer guide, "...you can’t go wrong if you increase your support of local and artisanal, it is a good thing!!!"
Maybe. But these three examples demonstrate the dangerous ground that can be created when retailers try to redefine "good food," particularly when they do so by proclaiming them better and more wholesome because they don't contain some traditional elements of the bigger food chain. It's a learning experience for "absence labeling," and the caution it should warrant for any retailer participating in it:
Chipotle restaurants, following nearly a decade of touting its "no anbitiotics" pledge, floated a trial balloon last week announcing it could start buying beef that came from cattle treated for a disease using antibiotics.
Citing an inability to source a reliable supply of beef that meets its no-antibiotics policy, the chain said it was reviewing its commitment to only selling beef that had "never-ever" been given an antibiotic. Instead, it may now allow beef suppliers to treat an animal "when necessary."
Despite openly marketing its products as antibiotic-free, Chipotle has always hedged its commitment in the fine print, saying its "Food With Integrity" and "Responsibly Raised" campaigns mean the company avoids antibiotics or added hormones "whenever possible."
But such on-again/off-again commitment to a marketing claim based on food safety uncovers the catch-22 nature of this kind of absence labeling: If it’s not OK to feed what you've clearly identified as a potentially hazardous ingredient to your customers when you can afford to pay a higher price to avoid it, why is it suddenly OK to feed it to them when you can’t?
Panera Bread Co. raised the social-media backlash of some farm advocates earlier this month when one popular blogger discovered the heart of the company's new "antibiotic-free" chicken campaign featuring a chicken shaped like an antibiotic capsule. Dairy farmer turned blogger Dairy Carrie wrote of the campaign's promotional materials:
It doesn’t take a genius to understand what you’re really saying here. I mean surely Panera Bread Company’s new campaign isn’t actually calling farmers and ranchers lazy?
Who in the world would approve this message? This idea sounds more like one of those interns who gets pissed off and tries to take down a company via twitter. I mean really, who in the world would approve a marketing campaign that insults the very people that provide every scrap of ingredient that makes your product?
But wait you say, Panera isn’t calling all farmers and ranchers lazy! They are just calling the ones that use antibiotics lazy! I used antibiotics to help a sick calf get better last week, my friends the organic farmers had a cow with pneumonia and they gave that cow antibiotics to make her better. They had to sell her, but she lived. Does that mean we are lazy? Is it lazy to take care of our sick animals?
Panera quickly reacted to her post and the accompanying #pluckEZchicken Twitter campaign, promising to remove the offending images from the campaign. Social media response to her campaign was strong and vocal. Dairy Carrie pledged to keep pushing until the entire no-antibiotics campaign was gone.
"When I said it was time to #PluckEZChicken I didn’t just mean to ax the bird. I want to see this kind of fear driven marketing stopped dead, starting with Panera," she said.
Hyatt Regency earned the description as the "white tablecloth Chipotle" when its Food Thoughtfully Raised marketing campaign was criticized by the online publication TruthInFood.com. Food Thoughtfully Raised promotes Hyatt's in-house restaurants' use of "hormone-free" milk, "cage-free" eggs, sustainably raised farm products and others. Truth in Food author Kevin Murphy took the hotel chain to task for casting doubt on the safety and wholesomeness of food derived from the traditional food chain.
"I voiced my criticism of the Hyatt’s Food Thoughtfully Sourced campaign," he writes, "arguing that, like Chipotle’s Food with Integrity, it created a false dichotomy dividing our food system in two, with one side being the pristine, natural and organic side and the other technological, conventional and ultimately evil. I reminded [Hyatt VP of Food and Beverage Susan] Santiago of the positive impact “conventional” agriculture has on the...world. She agreed and sought to assure me Food Thoughtfully Sourced was not meant to pick sides in today’s food battles but simply reflect customer demand."
Santiago's response, related in a follow up story here, was less than conciliatory. "Your readers’ comments were duly read," she said. "...however I must decline the opportunity for further interviews. We are passionate about our F&B philosophy. We are constantly listening to our guests, and responding to their dining needs and wants through the many options we make available at our hotels."
Those comments, which you can read here, were almost universally critical of the honesty and credibility of Hyatt's marketing campaign.
"Please stop the current state of your food marketing, Hyatt," one farmer pleaded. "The food you serve is from animals who are treated no better than animals in other systems. Sensational news stories can lead us to believe that there are a set of good farms and a set of bad farms, but in fact the vast majority of farms are great families working to produce healthy food in a humane manner."
"'Food Thoughtfully Sourced' is a slap in the face to every farmer in America, and an insult to the intelligence of Americans in general.... Farmers don't tell Hyatt how to run their hotels. Why should Hyatt tell farmers how to run their farms?" asked Mischa Popoff, author of Is It Organic?
So far, Hyatt has clung steadfastly to its campaign, despite the flood of comments and an online petition urging them to Thoughtfully Reconsider, which you can find here.
As shoppers race toward health consciousness and healthier food choices, writes University of Nevada’s Patricia Alpert, fancy packaging and the utilization of buzz words—like organic, multigrain and zero trans fats--may lead them astray. Writing in February’s issue of the academic journal Home Health Care Management & Practice, the doctor of nutrition and head of the university's physiology department cautions against 7 food categories that have become "imposter" foods. These formerly healthy foods have now been hijacked by other ingredients that may increase their fat, sodium, sugar and empty calorie content to the point they may disappoint and even shock those health-conscious eaters should they discover the truth. Here are Alpert’s top imposter health foods to be wary of:
Yogurt. Although a rich source of calcium and vitamin D (if fortified), often low in fat, and containing bacteria that help digestion, a closer look at the ingredients may show a large amount of processed ingredients and sugar, especially for the yogurts with the fruit on the bottom. Some contain as much as 26 grams to 8 teaspoons of sugar per serving, which can deactivate those friendly bacterial cultures. Worse yet, if yogurt is sold as a parfait with granola and fruit, the fat and sugar content increases phenomenally, Alpert warns. Some carry up to 45 grams of sugar. Frozen yogurt may be dosing shoppers with as much as 20 grams of sugar for every half cup consumed. Many also contain hydrogenated oils such as palm, soybean or cottonseed oils.
Granola cereal. When granola debuted in the ‘60s, Alpert writes, it was in fact a healthier choice than other, heavily sugared cereals that lined shelves at the time. But by today’s standards, the fat and calorie count actually makes granola a poor breakfast choice. Just a quarter cup can add 130 calories, a high-fat, high-calorie count that comes from added oils that may include saturated coconut oil, nuts and added sugar. Supplement it with the typical dried-fruit addition and you’ve added even more sugar and calories, she warns. Her caution applies to granola and cereal bars, too. Many contain saturated fats, sodium as a preservative, high sugar and artificial flavoring—without even adding the perceived benefit of adequate fiber. “Many of these bars contain such a small amount of granola that it should be considered a candy bar,” she notes.
Protein bars. Here’s another bar which time-strapped shoppers increasingly reach for as a lunch alternative that may be a health imposter. Protein bars are not all created equal--many have between 300 and 400 calories per bar and may contain more protein than necessary, especially if shoppers eat more than one bar at a time.
Sushi. This traditional Japanese food benefits from the category’s aura of healthy, low-fat, high omega-oil content of dark fish. However, sushi has now been so successfully “Americanized,” Alpert says, that the healthy typical tuna or salmon California roll and bowl of miso soup is now often complemented with a large serving of rice, seaweed, tempura battering, mayonnaise or cream cheese, avocado, sauces and fried shrimp. Suddenly then, the formerly 35-calorie dish transforms into a 320-calorie roll with as much as 17 grams of fat. Add the high sodium content in soy sauce and you have a health-imposter disaster in the making.
Dried fruit. A half cup of dried fruit provides a daily serving of fruit and makes a great snack—high in fiber, providing many necessary vitamins and minerals, convenient to pack, not constrained by need to refrigerate, and even providing a bit of sweetness to cooked cereals or trail mix. But when manufacturers add sugar to the dried fruit—especially cherries and cranberries in order to counter the tartness—those added sugars can increase the calorie count of dried fruit by as much as 50 additional calories. The difficulty in decoding dried fruit labels comes, Alpert says, because manufacturers don’t have to disclose how much added sugar has been used to increase the fruit’s natural sugar. Corn or fructose-corn syrup, juice concentrates, malt sugars, dextrose, sucrose, maltose and lactose tend to hide the sugar content in plain sight for consumers who can’t decode the meaning of those terms. Add a yogurt-covering, and you’ve only heaped on the sugar without adding any of the healthy components of yogurt found in containers.
Wraps. Lunchtime shoppers have been successfully conditioned to select the wrap over a traditional sandwich as the healthier choice, believing them a substitute for the two slices of bread that aren’t good for you. But, the white flour and hydrogenated oils actually make a 10-inch wrap equivalent to adding an additional slice of bread to a traditional two-slice sandwich. And spinach tortilla wraps? They may sound healthier in theory, but they’re typically really made from white flour wraps mixed with a combination of blue and yellow dye and only a sprinkle of spinach powder. Adding a prepared vegetarian or chicken patty to replace the old-fashioned red-meat sandwich? Not so fast, she warns: Many vegetarian meat substitutes are highly processed, high-additive and high-sodium.
Smoothies. It’s not clear when fruit smoothies became associated with health, Alpert writes, but today’s commercially sold smoothies are typically pure sugar, no-fiber, no-protein drinks served in oversized cups disguised as healthful bevarages. They typically contain a small portion of healthy fruit ingredients, overwhelmed by empty calories and supersized until they contain anywhere from 95 to 125 grams of sugar—somewhere in the neighborhood of a candy bar containing 750 to 1,000 calories.Photo credits:Yogurt: Flickr/Lynda GliddensGranola: Flickr/Stef NobleProtein bars:Flickr/TheImpulseBuySushi: Flickr/Paul MayneDried fruit: Flickr/Kristof AbrathSmoothies:Flickr/Rusty T. Anton
Despite some recent food-borne illness outbreaks dominating the evening news, the real story your shoppers may not have heard is this: Overall, food is safer now than it likely has been in history, and for the most part, it continues to get safer. Here are a few success stories your customers may not have heard:
■ The number of food-borne disease outbreaks reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2009 and 2010 — the latest years for which tracking summaries are available — was down almost one-third compared to the yearly average for the five-year period before, according to the Center’s latest report on common food-borne illness outbreaks.
The 675 and 852 outbreaks reported to CDC for, respectively, 2009 and 2010, resulted in about 30,000 cases of illness, 1,184 hospitalizations and 23 deaths. (CDC defines an outbreak as any reported disease that can be traced back to a common food and agent that sickens at least two people.) Only about two-thirds of the reported outbreaks were pinned on a specific cause—and of that two-thirds, only about three-fourths went beyond merely suspected to confirmed by labwork. Of those confirmed causes, norovirus was the most common cause of an outbreak, accounting for more than four in 10 outbreaks and nearly four in 10 illnesses.
Norovirus, which typically causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain is estimated to affect around 267 million people every year. Although it does kill more 200,000 people annually worldwide—generally those in less developed countries and the very young, elderly and immuno-suppressed—in healthy people it usually cures itself without hospitalization or treatment. CDC notes the reported decline in food-borne disease outbreaks reported came largely because of a drop in norovirus outbreaks. Because norovirus can be spread in many ways, including not just food and water but also direct contact between persons and even contact with a table or floor that’s been contaminated by someone carrying the virus, pinning down a source of outgreak can be difficult and demonstrates the complexity of tracking, reporting and eventually controlling disease outbreaks that may or may not be foodborne. In 2009, the CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System transitioned to a new online data entry system. That system began taking reports of outbreaks attributable not only to food and water, as the previous system, but also to disease transmitted through water, person-to-person contact, contact with animals, environmental contamination, and indeterminate means. That change in reporting, CDC suspects, may have led to more appropriate classification of outbreaks that were previously blamed on food when in fact they were caused by other sources.
Among outbreaks in which CDC was able to confirm both a cause and a food vehicle, the largest number of outbreaks was attributed to the bacteria Campylobacter in unpasteurized dairy products, followed by Salmonella in eggs, and E. coli O157 in beef. The pathogen-food pair most responsible for number of sicknesses were Salmonella in eggs, Salmonella in sprouts and Salmonella in vine-stalk vegetables. CDC notes the large number of outbreaks caused by unpasteurized dairy products is consistent with findings that more outbreaks occur in states that permit the sale of unpasteurized dairy products; 60 percent of states now permit sales of raw milk in some form.
Among the 766 outbreaks with a known single setting where food was consumed, only 21 percent were caused by food consumed in a private home. In contrast, nearly half were blamed on food consumed in a restaurant or deli.
■ CDC's latest report, in April, from its Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, or FoodNet, reports the results of surveillance in 10 U.S. sites for all laboratory-confirmed infections caused by selected germs that are commonly spread through food. With one notable exception--vibrio, a bacterial infection usually associated with eating undercooked seafood--all other foodborne pathogens remained below target levels set by CDC for reduction based on levels from 1996 through 1998.
The incidence of infections caused by Cryptosporidium, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli O157, and Yersinia all remained essentially unchanged from the previous two years. After substantial declines in the early years of FoodNet surveillance, the incidence of Campylobacter infection has increased to its highest level since 2000.
The March issue of the peer-reviewed journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy is a special issue on healthy lifestyles, particularly focused on the perennial issue of obesity. It has several interesting studies that refute some common assumptions, including:
USDA researcher Karen Hamrick, working with Ohio University Economics Professor Charlene Kalenkoski, examined numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey data, which measures all activities in sampled households over a 24-hour period, matched against results from adults 20 years or older who had completed the the Eating and Health Module of the BLS survey. Hamrick discovered that consumers who face “time poverty,” that is, those who had a shortage of discretionary time left over after taking care of the necessities like sleeping, personal grooming and work, had as you might expect, different eating patterns than not-time-poor individuals. The surprise in her findings? Being time-poor was associated with a lower likelihood people would purchase fast food. Those time-poor individuals were 4 percent less apt to turn to fast food. Though Hamrick’s study didn’t attempt to gauge the stated reasons for choosing fast food or not, she guesses her seemingly illogical finding may owe to the fact that fast food involves losing time by waiting in line. She did find that time-poor people tended to eat less, which helps support her hypothesis, eating and drinking about 2.6 times per day vs. 2.9 for the full sample. One bit of good news: Hamrick suggests that if time-poor consumers are too rushed to either prepare meals or to stand in line at a fast-food restaurant, the next logical source of their meals may in fact be prepared meals from grocery stores.
USDA researchers looked into whether increasing the amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefit levels would incentivize inner city poor to travel to outlying areas to shop for food at supermarkets and big boxes, or simply spend the additional funds at local alternatives. The authors used monthly county-level data on SNAP redemptions by store type over a three-year period and mathematically modeled the percentage of SNAP redemptions at superstores as a function of maximum monthly benefit levels, after accounting for confounding factors like food prices, store density by store type and other economic and policy factors. They found that increasing SNAP dollars can potentially encourage SNAP participants to make use of lower-cost, less accessible food shopping alternatives, however that willingness is heavily influenced by the cost of getting to the stores. Their suggestion? In light of the apparent lack of political will to increase SNAP funding, government should consider expanding flexibility to convert a portion of their benefits as “access dollars”—that is, allowing them to use them to buy gas, bus fare and other transportation costs.
Arkansas ag economists examined the relationship between food deserts and child obesity, using data on obesity rates in a panel of 230 school districts in Arkansas, determined from school children’s measured height and weight. The school districts were classified as food desert districts by developing district-level measures of food access based on food store location data. Controlling for a variety of other factors that could confound the results, the researchers estimated there was no statistically significant difference in childhood obesity between schoolkids in food deserts or not in food deserts. “So should private and public initiatives targeting the food desert and childhood obesity issue be discarded, given our results?” the researchers asked. On the contrary, they argue exactly the opposite: “Given the importance and enormous attention this issue has received, not only from researchers from various fields but also from policy-makers and the current First Lady of the United States, there is no question that more work is needed….”
Research by ag economists at University of Nebraska-Lincoln analyzed how changes in income and food access affected actual purchases of fruits and vegetables by households. The authors used a the Nielsen Home-Scan panel data set to study the actual shopping patterns of households and attempt to disentangle the effects of food access from the effects of income. Their results suggest that improving access to food would, in fact, make the non-poor residents in a food desert buy slightly more fruits and vegetables. However, increasing access to food stores, according their study, would only be expected to cause the poor people in the former food desert to increase their consumption of unhealthy foods, with no change—or even a decrease—in consumption of healthier foods like fruits and vegetables. Government policy actions aimed at alleviating healthy food accessibility or affordability problems in isolation are not likely to be effective, the authors caution.
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.