This Week’s Column: Farmer & Food Public Relations

Food is food. The statement may seem obvious enough, but there exists in our society today a very real tug of war for the hearts and minds of consumers over what exactly constitutes that which seems so obvious. Use of terms like “all-natural,” and niche markets like “organic,” or “hormone-free” have given farmers and food marketers many opportunities… and a few headaches. The biggest challenge facing food marketers today is to avoiding poisoning the minds of consumers while attempting to claim a competitive advantage.



All of us in business want a competitive advantage. If a product has a feature missing from their competitors’ product, they will use that differentiation to sell more product, or sell product at a premium price point. This was traditionally very difficult in the farm & food market as most food products would typically be classified as a commodity, in other words something where the market-based price is more or less forced upon the producer, with little room for premium to be earned.



Think about buying meat ten years ago: your choices were basically beef, pork, or chicken. Once you’d settled on which you wanted, your choice was pretty straightforward: ribeye or t-bone, pork chop or tenderloin? Today, however, the choices in the meat case alone are voluminous. Differentiations in quality grade, production practices, and perceived value of branded products make the selection process much more in-depth, and in theory, enjoyable. By speaking to various customers with different tastes and preferences, farmers and food marketers have given themselves the opportunity to differentiate their product and in theory earn a premium.



Here’s where we run into trouble. Some food marketers, you see, find that the easiest way to differentiate their product is by hurling invective at their competition. Take for example the case of organic milk. For years, organic activists (note I’m not categorizing all organic farmers as activists here) have attempted to persuade consumers that non-organic milk was somehow less healthful, nutritious, or wholesome that regular, commoditized, Vitamin D milk at the grocery store. In so doing, they enticed a segment of the populace to purchase the organic product at a significant price premium.



This pricing point, however, encouraged additional production of organic milk; so much so, in fact, that a surplus of organic milk exists in the market today. That, in turn, has led to those organic activists like the Cornucopia Institute, to single out the largest organic farms to allege that they are somehow bending or violating the national organic standards set by USDA. The point that these activists are missing, however, is that consumers aren’t buying enough of what they’re selling.



The organic market has collapsed, thanks in no small part to the economy. Organic foods, and any “luxury” food items, fall by the wayside when consumers have fewer dollars to spend. In our parents’ time, this meant more ground meat purchases and fewer whole muscle cuts. In today’s food marketplace, that means more traditional products, and fewer purchases of niche products like organic milk.

The problem with radicals like Cornucopia attempting to smear larger organic farmers is the presumptive and dismissive nature some industry activists take toward “outsiders” attempting to get into a particular niche or specialty area of production. If Dean foods wants to market organic milk, and American consumers want to buy that product, that’s the function of the market, isn’t it?



Beyond my concerns about organic activists are the larger groups of food marketers attempting to denigrate food producers they deem somehow “less worthy” of the consumer dollar. Take the well-publicized case of Chipotle. Formerly one of my favorite stores (I haven’t purchased one of their burritos in over two years), this restaurant chain long ago adopted the “holier than thou” tactic of advertising. Suggesting that meat served in their restaurants is superior because it comes from animals completely pasture-raised, untreated with antibiotics, without the use of growth-promoting supplements. To make those purchasing decisions, of course, is perfectly fine, and is no concern of mine. To lie to the American public by claiming that meat raised otherwise is less wholesome, nutritious, or tasteful, however, is scandalous.



Claiming that food produced in mainstream production facilities tastes better is not only a matter of opinion, it is weak marketing in and of itself. A segment of consumers will prefer to buy meat from untreated animals for the same reasons some parents refuse to allow their children life-saving vaccinations. Personal and cultural practices are just that: personal decisions. To suggest to the masses, however, that your average hog farmer produces a meat product that is less healthful, nutritious, or flavorful is an untruth unverifiable by science to this point. The relevant body of work suggests that food is food, plain and simple.



Production practices and processing methods are matters of choice for each producer and processor to use to their best advantage in producing a safe, wholesome, and profitable product. Food choice is a wonderful thing for consumers, as it gives us a much wider array of opportunities to enjoy the bountiful harvest of the American farmer. I am wary of food marketers who attempt to sell their own premium product by slandering the commodity product of a competitor. If my product isn’t strong enough to sell without tearing yours down, I’m not much of a businessman in the first place.



Food is food. If you enjoyed some today, thank a farmer. All farmers.