Retailers shouldn’t cater to ‘fringe’ food attitudes

Canada is positioned to be a key player in a 21st century world looking for safe and nutritious food for a growing population, says Maple Leaf Foods executive Stephen Graham.

“Who is the richest country in the world able to produce food and protein?” he asked during a recent animal industry conference in Ottawa.

“(With rich arable land and abundant water,) it is Canada. We have remarkable gifts.”

However, he said these gifts cannot be taken for granted. The country has choices to make, Graham told the conference on how the livestock industry can help feed a hungry world.

“We have a strategic choice to make in Canada and we have to determine if we want to sell our land, our food or value-added food products,” he said.

“My vote is we need to do number three or number two but not number one. I think food has to be a strategic priority.”

Graham showed Maple Leaf advertisements to argue that value-added processed products, including meat, are part of the solution to hunger.

“In a world in which fresh water and food will become the most important strategic resource, Canada has the opportunity and responsibility to help feed and lead,” he said.

Consumers’ choice

Later, the president of U.S. operations for Elanco Animal Health argued that consumers who worry about how animals are raised or whether they are organic or injected with drugs should have a choice at the store, but they should not set the retailer agenda.

Rob Aukerman said Elanco changed its emphasis a decade ago from being a livestock input company to a food sector company.

Extensive research into American consumer attitudes over the past decade indicates that 95 percent of food buyers rate taste, cost and nutrition as their top concerns.

The “lifestyle buyers,” who are influenced by how the product was produced and if it is organic, are four percent of the market, he added.

One percent, “the fringe,” have agendas about food ethics and bans against technologies they oppose.

Aukerman said the food retail industry should provide options for the five percent minority but not let their well-publicized preferences rule retailer choices.

“Our message to retailers is satisfy the four percent into organic or natural or whatever, but be careful not to exclude technology that is key to the industry,” he said, citing the use of antibiotics in poultry.

“We need to do a better job of telling our story to consumers,” he added, while cautioning meat industry representatives in the audience against pitting one food philosophy against another.

“It is so important that we don’t make this a good food-bad food issue,” said Aukerman. “It raises an alarm among consumers that needn’t be there.”

He said estimates are that organic produce will represent 1.4 percent of the market by 2014.

“Our message is to satisfy that segment but don’t take the choice away from the much larger percent with different priorities.”

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