A Little Bit Western


The Customer is Always Right. Right?!

Jul 15, 2014

I recently attended a beef production conference where the messages were positive, the information was credible and things pointed towards a good market in the foreseeable future. After years of ranchers sharpening their pencils down into sawdust, it looks like we might be able to go out and invest in a brand new shiny pencil. That way we’ll be ready for the next cycle.

One presentation was different from the rest and focused on a consumer-driven market strategy of a large retail burger chain. The company’s Vice President was there to shed light on their new free-fromadded-hormones market approach. This approach in itself is a whole different story for another time, but my issue with her message was her statement regarding consumer education. Asked about whether the consumers whose opinions this market strategy were based upon had basic knowledge of beef production, her answer was vague. When pushed a bit, she simply said “it’s not my job to educate consumers.”

Wait…what?

Consumers absolutely have a right, maybe even an obligation, to learn about how their food is produced so that they can make informed purchasing decisions. Perhaps at one time, consumers could ask farmers directly for information, or had personal experience themselves which provided a context for where their food came from. Everyone in the entire food value chain — the consumer, the processor, the retail VP, the primary producer – all have a role to play in understanding food production.

Today, consumers are basing their food choices on … the internet? What they see on Facebook? The cost? What their friends are doing? I’m not exactly certain I know what is driving consumer perceptions, but it worries me. In business, the customer is always right, but there is a fine line between responding to legitimate market demands and exploiting consumer innocence.

Recently, a late night comedian created a video of random people being asked about gluten-free (GF) diets. All of the people emphatically confirmed that they lived a GF lifestyle, citing how important it was to them. When their GF-enthusiasm died down, the comedian asked respondents what gluten was. Not one of them could answer. There are people who legitimately cannot eat gluten for serious health reasons and they probably wish like anything that they could. Yet, here was a group of mature adults who were eating a restricted diet without understanding what it was they were restricting or why.

Part of the reason I write this column, or engage with customers and the public on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube (and in person!) is to share day-to-day ranch activities and information about the food we’re producing and eating. Because I’m not just a producer. Like everyone else, I too need to eat in order to survive. I too like to feed my family a safe, balanced and diverse diet to keep them healthy.

Canadians are so very lucky to have a variety of food choices and affordable ones at that. Whether you choose food that is locally produced or imported from another country, organic or conventional, GMObased or vegan, take the time to examine your choice from the field up, starting with the people on the ground who are growing it. If it’s not the consumer’s job to learn about where their food comes from, and it’s not the retail Vice President’s job to educate them, and it’s not my job as a primary producer to do it…. whose job is it?

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