It’s a marketing problem when your food product kills people.
Maple Leaf grappled with this a few years ago and most people in the communications biz think their response to the 2008 listeria outbreak was a triumph. The company, many think, did and said the right things when a problem arose. In the end, a lot of people reaffirmed their trust of the commercial food system because Maple Leaf seemed to be taking safety seriously.
No one thinks that’s true of the fiasco at XL Foods in 2012. Public worry and anxiety was allowed to ferment and boil over, with the company not wanting to talk about its e. coli problem.
Suspicion about “industrial” food from “factory farms” has helped create a huge upsurge in interest in “local” foods. Sometimes this involves small scale farms making basic products, like whole slaughtered chickens, grains and vegetables. Generally it involves farmers’ markets in cities.
Sometimes it involves elements of the “foodie” movement, which is growing urban phenomenon of urbanites building much of their lives and identities around making food from scratch or buying and eating specialty food products. Often the word “artisanal” is used to describe the specially made micro-batches of meats, cheeses and other products that are treasured in urban foodie culture. Often these are manufactured on farms or in tiny processing facilities.
There’s both a culinary and a romantic element to the artisanal thing. The romantic element involves the dreamy images of “family” farms producing inherently wholesome food that many urbanites, especially those far removed from farm life, hold dear in their hearts. This romantic image is cast in opposition to big-bad-evil-monstrous-terrible-appalling-awful “factory” farming and “industrial” agriculture. Presently the U.S. fast food chain Chipotle is peddling this pair of stereotypical images in an ad campaign you can get a sense of here.
The culinary bit makes a bit more sense, with foodies seeking out delicious foods that haven’t been over-processed or blanded-out to fit the lowest common denominator tastes of the average grocery store shopper. It’s a form of snobbism, but a harmless one.
Harmless, unless it leads people into eating or producing unsafe products. And that brings up two contemporary events that should stand as a warning to the burgeoning local food movement.
The national news today is carrying stories about one death and dozen sick consumers who ate an “artisanal” cheese from a B.C. farm. That story is still unfolding and it’s unclear how the e. coli got into the cheese. But all the publicity isn’t exactly good for the local and artisanal food biz, just like Maple Leaf’s and XL’s weren’t for the mainstream food business. How this one is handled and evolves – the farm involved is talking about the situation, which is a good thing – is still unfolding, but hopefully it won’t lead to a general rejection of artisanal foods.
But it will certainly raise safety concerns in the minds of many urban consumers, because culinary enthusiasm is likely to be trumped by people wanting to stay alive. People are going to need to believe that small scale farms and food makers are capable of producing safe foods, and if they aren’t reassured, and there are a few more cases like this, this promising new market could be lost, or severely constrained. That’d be a sad development for farmers, because any new market is valuable and this one is just getting going in Western Canada.
That brings me to a story I’ve worked on recently, which is the Manitoba Agriculture department’s decision to seize and destroy a small farm’s specialty meat products. In this case no one was made sick and disease was not proven to lurk in the meat, so there has not been much bad press for the local food movement out of this one. But that might have been lucky, because both Manitoba’s acting chief veterinary officer at the time of the seizure and the University of Manitoba’s renowned food safety expert researcher told me the way the food was made was definitely risky and the province needed to act in order to stop risky food getting out to consumers and creating a potential problem.
The farm involved seems to be honestly trying to develop specialized, artisanal meat products, and wouldn’t knowingly make anything dangerous, but the high risk of doing something wrong is highlighted by the present B.C. cheese situation.
Governments need to find a way to allow people to make local foods and artisanal foods and get them into local urban markets, but it’s got to be done in a way that guarantees the food is at least as safe as food from the commercial system. Failing to do this will kill the market.