Monday, December 6, 2010

Give 'em What They Want

When I worked in the restaurant industry, I came to learn the difference between a good server and a great one. A good server is attentive and quick to give the guest anything they ask for. A great server is intuitive and delves a little bit deeper to give the guest what they want.

That’s a key distinction. When I mention I’m on a diet and order a salad, a good server brings me the salad, with dressing on the side. But a great server suggests the chef’s specialty stir-fry instead, which has fewer calories than the salad but a lot more flavor. The great server figured out that I didn’t order the salad because that’s what I actually wanted, but because I didn’t know there were better options available.

I’m reminded of this often as I read news articles about public attitudes toward food and farming. A recent survey ('Ethical Eating' Goes Mainstream) showed that 69% of respondents were willing to pay more for “food that promises to be produced to higher ethical standards.” In fact, 12% were willing to pay a premium of more than 10% to choose these “ethical” foods.

According to the survey (more details here), 57% believe that a food product with a claim of “No trans fats” on the label is likely to be ethically produced. Around half the respondents believe that claims of “No supplemental hormones,” “No Antibiotics,” “Minimally processed,” and “GMO-free” are signs that a food product is ethically produced.

So as food producers, does that mean that we should switch to minimal processing, and forego GM products, trans-fats, antibiotics and hormones? After all, that’s what consumers are asking for, and we are in the business of producing a product for consumers. It’s perfectly reasonable for any forward-thinking businessman to ask himself, if we don’t give consumers what they are asking for, will we still be in business in a decade?

Or should we look a little deeper and try to figure out what the consumer truly wants?

In the survey that I mentioned earlier, well over half the respondents believed that “ethically produced food” is healthier, safer to eat, and better for the environment. And more than 9 in 10 said that, in order to qualify as an “ethical food,” that product had to avoid harming the environment, meet high safety and quality standards, and avoid the inhumane treatment of animals. Fair enough.

So when you boil it down to its core, what is it that consumers really want? Do they want GMO- and hormone-free foods? Or do they want food that is safe and healthy, and is produced in a way that is respectful of the humans, animals and earth that it touches?

It might be easier to forget this whole discussion and just get rid of hormones, slap a label on your product announcing the change, and voila! You’re ethical in the consumer’s mind. But is it the best option? Are GMO- and hormone-free foods really safer, healthier and better for the environment? How about antibiotic-free and minimally processed foods? Or cage-free animal products (also mentioned in the survey)?

More pointedly, if you are a producer, is the food that you personally produce safe, healthy, and produced in a way that is respectful of the humans, animals and earth that it touches? If it’s not, then maybe you have some work to do. But if it is, and I believe that most of the food produced in this country is, you also have work to do, but of a different sort.

See, giving consumers what they really want takes a lot more effort than just giving them what they’re asking for. It means that once you’ve figured out what it is that they actually want, you have to be able to provide it, and then you have to educate the consumer. It means that you have to explain to anyone who will listen how your practices ensure the health of the environment, and how you ensure the quality and safety of your products. It also means that if you find things to improve on (and there are always ways to improve), you work on improving.

But in the end, everyone benefits: the producers who are truly producing food ethically can continue to do so and keep improving; consumers can be content in the knowledge that they are not indirectly causing harm to their world; and the environment and livestock benefit when producers are implementing practices that are actually beneficial, rather than simply hopping on the latest consumer bandwagon that has minimal real impact (or worse, negative impact) on the health of the environment and livestock.

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