Thursday, June 3, 2010

Names, Labels and Trust

As a food producer I like to keep up on all the food stores and retail flyers to see how my products are sold and marketed. It’s fascinating to see how a few knife cuts, different packaging, name changes and labels along with a few hundred or even thousand miles alters the image of a farm product and thus its profit margin. Image sells, and it’s no more obvious than at produce isles with fruit and vegetables symmetrically stacked and all blemish free. We expect the best and we want a deal, and the store delivers. I have no problem with this except the way in which many of the products are marketed. Name brands carry a lot of weight in the food industry, so does image and lately labelling. I don’t mean the ingredient list, but how a product is named.
Eggs are the classic example. “Free Range” or “Free Run” implies they are free to roam about and with the aid of a barn yard picture of loose hens on the egg box, or a video of chickens loose in a field much like the Real Mayonnaise ad, people think these chickens are free outdoors. In virtually ever case it means they are free to run about in a barn, but they will never step outside, see the sun or scratch for worms. Legally it is correct, but with our tricky language and suggestive pictures the truth is twisted significantly.

On my way to Kelowna the other day I passed a truck with the logo Sunshine Eggs, and chuckled as the only thing that came close to sunshine with the eggs would be the yolks. But only if the chickens were running outside with access to greens and bugs, then the yolk would be a nice orange and not the usually washy pale yellow one expects from regular barn eggs.
In a recent flyer I saw a classic, “Fresh Farm Fed Chicken”. Do they feed them somewhere else normally, and these ones were different because they were fed on a farm? Worse yet, if they are fresh are the rest of the products stale? OK, I know I’m playing with the words, but so were the guys selling you the eggs in the previous paragraph. With all the slick wording and imagery it is easy to be duped into buying something that is not all together what it seems.
Even in the organic produce section things can get tricky. With main stream agriculture entering the organic market, there are many feedlots feeding organic grain and receiving certification as all the rules are met. Also thousand acre lettuce and greens fields are now common down south and it arrives with the same carbon foot print as the commercially grown produce. We end up having to trust slick labels and cute pictures. Is this how you really want to buy the most essential thing you purchase, and your health and life depend on? When buying a new car, stereo, TV, or house we are encouraged to be informed consumers, researching, comparing and asking lots of questions. Yet when we go down the food isle all that goes out the window, price is everything, because there is no way of comparing products as there is no information about where it was grown or how, and if it has labels they are confusing, inadequate, or avoid answering what you need to know. They do not have to say if it is genetically engineered or even if it has been irradiated. It seems if it didn’t kill us last week we can keep buying it, trouble is these effects add up over along time and are difficult to prove. You have to eat, so you have to trust its ok, but people are starting to question and want to know more. Movies like “Fast Food Nation” and “Food Inc” are helping to lift the veil on our food supply and expose the true social cost of our food.
The farmers and people need to reconnect, to build the trust that has been lost. It would be great if you knew the names of the farmers that grew your meat, eggs, milk and produce, and where they lived. If you could ask them questions about how they grow your food and what they think about the food industry. The answers they give would help you decide if they are trustworthy to grow the food for you and your family. Maybe ask if you could visit their farm and see for yourself, chances are if they have nothing to hide the answer will be yes. Farmers also need this communication as the direct feed back from their customers helps them to produce what you want.
How and where can this happen you ask. Start at the Farmers Market, chat to the farmers on their stands, get to know them and ask the questions you wish answered. Learn about their products and why they are better for you and your family. Locally bought and consumed lowers the social costs of food and all the milage associated with most supermarket food.
Starting on the May long weekend I will be attending Salmon Arm Friday morning Farmers Market with our farm “Harmonious Homestead and Ewe”.
Come over and chew the fat about food, farming and feeding families, I’d love to meet you and tell you about us, and get to reconnect my gate to your plate.

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