Demanding Consumers

J.J. Baker is torn. He wants to grill some meat for dinner but can’t decide whether to have steak or chicken. He looks through the meat case at a Kroger store in Columbus and at the wide array of labels on the beef and poultry packages: organic, grain fed, grass fed, natural, raised without antibiotics, no added hormones, always vegetarian fed.

“Lots of choices,” he said before picking up a package of boneless chicken breast fillets with an Ohio Proud label on it and priced at $4.99 per pound.

With so many products in the marketplace, the competition for space on grocery stores’ shelves can be intense, said Tom Jackson, head of the Ohio Grocers Association. The key is for stores to know what their customers want and provide it, he said. That often means working with both large and small farms to obtain a wide variety of meat and dairy products, ranging from the conventional (and less expensive) products to the specialty (and often more expensive) products such as eggs from cage-free hens.

“Every grocery store, from big to small, is trying to be the neighborhood grocer. Everyone is trying to figure out who their customers are and meet their needs,” said Jackson, who has been in the business 51 years, starting out at age 10.

“I think every grocery store has the right to design its own operating philosophy. I respect Whole Foods very much; they are totally committed to how the food they sell should be raised,” he said. “Kroger has a different operating philosophy and does very well with knowing its customers. Every grocery store is doing all it can to be the neighborhood grocer and provide the best product for their customers.”

Buying local has been an integral part of Kroger’s operating philosophy for years, said Amy McCormick, the company’s media relations manager for its Columbus division. Kroger has been purchasing and even manufacturing Ohio Proud products since the Ohio Department of Agriculture started the program in 1993.

“We have had an ongoing commitment to buying local because it strengthens Ohio’s economy, and our customers have told us they want fresh foods,” she said. “It’s better for the environment, and local foods require less packaging and less travel, which saves on waste and pollution.”

Food safety is a priority for the Cincinnati-based grocery store chain, and all farms are required to follow federal food safety guidelines, McCormick said. The company has its own animal welfare council because customers have increasingly expressed an interest in how their food is raised. Because Kroger has dozens of stores in Ohio, it often buys produce from larger Ohio farms such as Buurma Farms in Willard and Groco Family Farms in Jamestown.

“Smaller manufacturers often can’t meet our needs,” McCormick said. “When it comes down to it, if we didn’t have the Buurmas and Grocos, we would have to go outside of Ohio. We feel very strongly about supporting Ohio’s agriculture, which is the state’s No. 1 industry.”

Whole Foods Market, the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods, started in 1980 and now has six stores in Ohio. The chain requires that the growers it buys from adhere to specific guidelines. For example, when Whole Foods decided to partner with Ohio Signature Beef to sell its meats in Ohio stores, producers had to make some changes in their farms’ operations. Whole Foods requires that the animals not receive supplemental hormones or antibiotics, are corn fed at least 140 days, are raised under animal welfare requirements and are traceable from calf supplier to processing plant.

Whole Foods only sells choice or higher cuts of beef, and the beef is advertised with “Ohio Signature Beef” or “Good stuff from around here” labels. In Franklin County, the Dublin store’s meat counter provides a chalkboard that lists the names and locations of the farms that supplied that month’s beef supply. Because it can cost more to adhere to Whole Foods’ standards, product prices can be higher than those of other grocery stores. For example, Ohio Signature Beef boneless ribeye steak is $14.99 per pound at Whole Foods compared with $12.49 per pound at Kroger for its Private Selection Angus cut. At Kroger stores, employees wear hats promoting their Angus beef, and signs above the fresh meat counters advertise “Steakhouse Quality.”

Luther Tweeten, professor emeritus of agricultural trade and policy at Ohio State University, said that while demand for organic, cage-free, grass fed and other specialty foods continues to grow, he doubts many more grocery store chains will take the Whole Foods approach.

“It’s simply too expensive,” he said. “The best approach is high yield. If we didn’t use fertilizers, food would be a lot more expensive, many more people would not be able to afford a decent diet, there would be more famine and the environment would be hurt because we would be pressed to use questionable land.”

The rising cost of food is among the three top concerns of consumers today, right up there with rising energy costs and the state of the U.S. economy, according to a recent survey by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), a not-for-profit corporation established to build consumer trust and confidence in the U.S. food system. The survey of more than 2,000 consumers found they were more concerned about food prices today than they were a year ago.

“This is the highest level of concern about the cost of food that we’ve seen in quite awhile, at least since World War II,” said Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer of CFI.

For the United States to continue providing safe, abundant and affordable food, all stakeholders in the food industry need to communicate and work with each other to maintain consumer trust and confidence, Arnot said. This “complex matrix of stakeholders” includes farmers, food companies, activists, governmental organizations, restaurants and consumers, he said.

For the past two years, Arnot has been talking with food industry leaders about how to maintain a sustainable food system. The key is to have balance in the food system and have practices that are ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable, he said.

“It’s really crucial to keep those three elements in balance,” Arnot said. “I think there’s increased recognition up and down the food system that they need to consider all of the elements and not just individual variables to maintain sustainability.”

The Ohio Pork Producers Council has been working on educating consumers about how animals are raised for food, said Jennifer Keller, the group’s director of marketing and education. She noted that since 1989, pork producers have participated in the Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) program, a producer education and CFI’s certification program. In 2007, PQA evolved into PQA Plus to reflect increasing consumer interest in the way food animals are raised.

“We spend a lot of time promoting modern pork practices – talking about the benefits of barns, where there is always clean feed and water available. Having pigs in barns protects them from sunburn, cold in the winter and diseases that are carried by animals outside the barn,” she said. “Even though barns and farms have become bigger, the vast majority are family farms. Barns allow farmers to care for more animals than they can outside. Farmers want their kids to be able to go to college, and it takes more animals and more ground to pay some of those bills.”

Arnot said consumers are becoming more interested in how food animals are treated and want morenformation about how their food is grown and processed.

“What we’ve found is that consumers trust farmers but are not sure about how they farm because they are three generations removed, and farms have become larger and more sophisticated,” he said. “Farmers are figuring out ways to connect with consumers to provide them with reassurances that their production practices are consistent with the expectation of today’s consumers.”

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.