Food Conversation is All About You, the Consumer

By Lindsey Foss

With approximately 20,000 regional, national and international guests in Iowa for the World Pork Expo last month, what do you think a recurring theme of discussion was?

You.

In a seminar titled, “Farm to Fork: Healthy Animals, Healthy Food, Healthy People,” three panelists discussed how shoppers’ choices impact farmers, retailers and all those involved in the farm-to-table process.

Age of the Consumer

The three-day trade show is the largest of its kind in the world; combining educational seminars and swine shows with a lineup of musical entertainment and a bevy of juicy grilled pork to go around. Farmers, veterinarians and pork businesses of all shapes and sizes take part in the annual event to get a firsthand look at upcoming products and services available to the industry.

Yet, despite highlighting so many emerging trends and technologies in modern agriculture, one thing that can still be made more efficient is outreach to you, the consumer.

Justin Ransom, Ph.D., a supply chain strategist and former senior director of Quality Systems, U.S. Supply Chain for McDonald’s, opened the discussion with a history lesson in the evolution of the food supply chain. Ransom explained that, as a culture, we’ve moved through the “Age of Manufacturing” in which mass production made industrial powerhouses like Ford and Boeing successful, into the “Age of Distribution,” when we saw the rise of global connections and transportation systems. 

From there, we entered the “Era of Information,” with heavy-hitters like Google and Amazon leading the marketplace and controlling information. Fast forward to today’s society and who leads the supply chain? 

You guessed it: you.

The “Age of the Customer,” as Ransom calls it, has transitioned control into consumers’ hands and empowers shoppers to dictate all stages of the buying process; ultimately deciding whether a brand or retailer catapults into success (think Southwest Airlines or Chick-fil-A), or fails due to a lack of understanding its customers’ needs (R.I.P. Blockbuster).

This model translates into the way consumers view the food supply chain as well, and the same expectations for listening to consumer questions and concerns play a role in the relationship. Ransom advises that agriculture will need to continually evolve, just as other industries adopt a customer-first approach. 

“How do we change the conversation so that we have a stronger position in providing the goods and services they want?” he asked. “I can tell you it’s not going to be by doing everything we’ve done the same for the last 100 years.”

Age of Confusion

Fellow panelist Tamika Sims, director of food technology communications for the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, identified a few current barriers in the dialogue about food purchasing habits, including navigating fact from fiction.

“Today’s consumer is one that wants to be informed: they want to know where food comes from, how it was produced and they want more information on ingredients,” said Sims. “Consumers want to make healthy and informed decisions about what to eat, but often who they hold in high regard to give them advice about food is not who they most likely talk to. This is where the consumer can start down a ‘road of confusion’ when it comes to food and beverage choices.”

In its 12th Annual Food and Health Survey, IFIC found that eight in 10 consumers are confused by competing claims in what to eat and what to avoid. These findings are underscored by the Iowa Food & Family Project’s 2016 Consumer Pulse Survey in which 88 percent of shoppers reported seeking out information on food labels, yet 89 percent of Iowans considered food labels confusing. Consequently, the confusion leads to doubt and distrust in food purchases among a majority of consumers.

The Food and Health Survey also showed that not only are consumers confused by conflicting claims, but also by their sources of information. About three-quarters of consumers say they rely on friends and family to some degree for nutrition and food safety information, topping other sources such as health professionals, news and the Internet. However, only 29 percent place high trust in family or friends as information sources, far behind sources such as registered dietitians, other health or fitness professionals and health-related websites.  

Age of Understanding

So, what is the ag industry doing to help cut through the noise?

“There’s a growing and sometimes significant disconnect between those of us in animal agriculture and the consumers eating our food,” said Dr. Carissa Odland, panelist and veterinarian at Pipestone Veterinary Services in Minnesota. “We need to show [consumers] how much we care if we expect to be understood.

“We in agriculture need to be able to ‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk;’ both pieces are critical.”

For Odland, “walking the walk” often means trading her science hat for her mom hat to show why she personally cares for animals and how the farmers she works for take extra measures to ensure the comfort and health of their livestock, too. From outreach with local bloggers to getting involved in community events, Odland’s No. 1 priority is more about seeking to understand consumer concerns rather than seeking to be understood as an ag professional.

According to Ransom, it’s that customer-centric approach that’s going to make great strides for improved perceptions and trust of the industry. 

“I often reference a Henry Ford quote: ‘If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’ Collectively, we need to determine what the future looks like.”