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Honesty and Ethics in Food Marketing

September 19, 2011

There are many businesses of all sizes trying to make a profit in a bad economy, and marketing has become full of buzzwords to get the consumer dollar. All is fair in marketing right? We shouldn’t question or criticize?

Some time ago in southern California a vendor at a farmer’s market was caught selling produce they didn’t grow. Another sold organic pesticide free berries that in fact tested as having four different pesticides on them. Still others buy produce at grocery stores, drive to farmers markets and sell – at higher prices of course! Fair? I don’t think so! It’s not fair to the customers and it’s not fair to the other farmers. We believe if you pay for something that is raised a certain way that’s what you should get! It’s why we started custom raising.

So when a restaurant comes forth and presents an advertising video – complete with a Willie Nelson ‘soundtrack’ – talking about serving “humane” meat with “food with integrity” it caught my attention. I asked questions because, from this side, I was curious not only about the farms supplying but also the repetitive use of “when available” as a qualifying phrase.

What happens when it’s not available? This was a question which I asked Chipotle on their Facebook page. It was ignored, with a request that discussion be taken to the discussion board. That was done. Critics said a corporate business wouldn’t lie but ag folks would and what proof did I have. Suspicion. Unanswered questions. Dodging the question. Then removal of my comments completely and booting off the page. I guess discussion and engaging the public isn’t their view of social media. That’s all fine and good except the questions remain.

Now those of us in agriculture are called on by the public to be honest, transparent – and we try to achieve that on a daily basis. As a small operation it’s difficult to stand for food choices! So from a marketing standpoint we try to be honest about what we do, what we offer and who we are. We’re not the place for everyone…and that’s ok! We love getting requests from restaurants as it enables us to grow further, gets their customers ‘home raised’ food and we do everything we can to accommodate them as well as private customers. So it’s upsetting to see indications that others seem to give lip service to it.

From their 2010 Annual Report, Chipotle notes they “face challenges associated with pursuing Food With Integrity. For example, current
economic conditions have led to natural chicken and steak supply shortages. It can take longer to identify and secure relationships with suppliers meeting our criteria, and there are higher costs and other risks associated with
purchasing naturally raised or sustainably grown ingredients. The growing time for naturally raised meat and sustainably grown vegetables can be longer. Herd losses can also be greater when animals are not treated with
antibiotics and hormones and field losses can be higher for organically grown produce. Given the costs associated with natural and sustainable farming practices, and recently due to decreased demand as a result of the
weak economic environment, many large suppliers have not found it economical to pursue business in this area.”These challenges are real – we’ve talked about them here!

Now in a report about niche pork producers (which we’ll be when we get land) comes the annual pork production for ‘natural’ meats. “The authors estimate that the larger 4 niche marketers are: Niman Ranch Pork, Thornton, IA; Beeler’s Naturally Pure Pork, LeMars, IA; Coleman Purely Natural Brands, Golden, CO; and a broad grouping of Berkshire swine producers and marketers. Based on the authors’ estimates, these marketers may slaughter 7,000 to 10,000 pigs weekly or 360,000 to 500,000 pigs annually. If these 4 marketers represent approximately 70% of all niche markets, the current US niche pork market may be as large as 500,000 to 750,000 pigs annually. Most of the marketers report more demand for pork than the supply of pigs can provide at this time. ”

That’s just pork – with regard to chickens, again from their annual report “As a result of ongoing supply challenges, we had to suspend serving naturally raised chicken in certain markets beginning in the second quarter of 2010. We expect additional supplies of naturally raised chicken to become available during 2011. We define naturally raised as coming from animals that are fed a pure vegetarian diet, never given antibiotics or hormones, and raised humanely.”

Now with chicken suspended (and we don’t know if it was reinstated based on this) were people told that? Regular readers here have heard previously there are no hormones fed to chickens and hasn’t been for decades. So as this is in the very public eye it does raise questions as to marketing.The Wall Street Journal noted a price increase citing ” food costs comprise 32% to 35% of its overall costs, up from 32% in the first quarter. Until now, the fast-casual chain wasn’t passing those higher costs along to customers.”This is in addition to increased costs following issues with hiring practices.

If it’s dishonest for those farmers market guys to sell grocery store produce for farmer’s market prices (and we believe it is!) then what makes it ok for a restaurant to market ‘natural meats’ “when available” without full disclosure that some of those meats served might indeed be from CAFOs? Does it matter? If you’re paying increasing prices for a particular food does it matter if you’re getting something else?And if food choices really don’t matter then what do we make of the public demand for more small farms – who really supports them?

All businesses need to make a profit in order to stay in business. However, if one restaurant is marketing what sounds good, with questions that are legitimate (and unanswered) questions then is it really what it seems to be? If you pay $15 for a meal thinking it had “humanely raised” pork and found out well supply was low that week so it’s from a CAFO but you weren’t told does it make a difference to you? Is marketing claims enough, or do you question?

There are restaurants that buy direct and can tell you exactly where and how their food supplies were raised. I applaud Chipotle for making the effort, but the response (shut up and go away) for asking questions is really not what was expected. There is reasonable doubt that they have as much integrity as claimed.

And beyond that how do we small operations even attempt to overcome that when or if it doesn’t matter? If it is whatever sounds good that doesn’t make it what *is*. There may well be other restaurants doing the same…but it seems to be pretty deceptive and certainly not something those of us in agriculture wouldn’t be called on.

We strive to be honest and address questions – people can see what we do from the comfort of their home. Does it matter? For food choices we believe it does. We don’t want to see other companies, big or small, water that down or in any way degrade the communication path and trust others put in us.

This is a longer post than normal – but it is an important issue. Does marketing matter more than honesty? What do you think of the questions and information presented? Does it matter how it’s presented?

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