The Choice Is Yours

Walk up and down the aisles of a grocery store and the variety of products on the shelves can be mindboggling. At the fresh meat and dairy cases, packages are stamped with details about how the animals are fed or raised, ranging from organic to grain-fed to cage-free. Over in the baking aisle, non-gluten flour and spelt can be found next to white flour, and cooking oils include high-oleic safflower and avocado. Consumer demand is the driving force behind the wide variety of food offered today, and many farmers are changing how they raise their animals or crops to fulfill that demand.

“Consumers want to know about their food, and more and more farmers are becoming comfortable with that conversation,” said Janet Cassidy, Ohio Farm Bureau’s senior director of marketing communications. “I don’t think it’s a fad. I think this will become the norm, and the key for farmers and consumers is to get to know each other.”

Lean pork
With consumers becoming more aware of the benefits of healthy eating, farmers have made changes to their production methods to offer lean cuts of meat. For pork, that started with “The Other White Meat” campaign in 1987, aimed at reversing a drop in pork consumption. The campaign raised awareness that not all cuts of pork were fatty and that some could be as lean as chicken.

In order to raise a leaner animal, farmers had to change their breeding programs and use more efficient and nutritious feed, said Dale Ricker, Ohio State University Extension program specialist in swine. Bringing the leaner pigs into heated barns made them more manageable and comfortable.

“Finished (growing) pigs have a thermal neutral zone of comfort. For example, for a 120-pound pig, that’s between 58-70 degrees,” he said. “As pork producers became more efficient with their feed, they saved on feed costs, too.”

To continue to engage consumers, the National Pork Board recently launched a campaign with a new tagline: “Be inspired.”

Low-linolenic soybeans
In 2006, the federal government started requiring trans fats to be listed on food labels, affecting the soybean industry. When soybean oil is partially hydrogenated to make it more gelatinous and give it a longer shelf life, the end product contains trans fats. Food companies started switching to oils without trans fats, causing the soybean oil industry to lose considerable market share.

Shortly after, the Ohio Soybean Council started a campaign called Soy Oil Ohio to promote the use of zero trans fat cooking oil processed from a new soybean variety, low-linolenic soybeans. Because these soybeans produce oils that do not need to be hydrogenated, they have little, if any, trans fats. The result was that some food companies such as KFC switched to the low-linolenic soybeans. The next generation of soybean oil is already in the works. High-oleic soybean oil will have no trans fats, be even lower in saturated fat and can be used for high-heat frying.

“The future of the U.S. soybean industry is really about being trait-specific and growing beans that the world market wants,” said Farm Bureau member John Motter, a soybean farmer from Hancock County. “I’m really excited about high-oleic soybeans because they answer customer needs like higher fry life. High oleic also has the ability to compete with other oils that aren’t even grown here in the U.S.”

The color of cattle
One farm product that has been popular with consumers for several years is Angus beef. The name Angus has become so well known that it’s marketed for hamburgers at McDonald’s and even hot dogs. The popularity of black Angus beef started with the Certified Angus Beef Program, the oldest of the nation’s branded beef programs. Having cattle qualify for the program brings a premium for cattle producers.

“Consumers really feel Angus, as a category, is a premium product,” said Tracey Erickson, vice president of marketing for Certified Angus Beef, LLC. “In recent years, you’ve seen explosive growth of Angus as a descriptor in the food industry.”

In order to qualify for the Certified Angus Beef Program, the cattle must be at least 51 percent black-hided and meet 10 science-based specifications, including modest or higher marbling (fat distribution) and less than 1-inch fat thickness. The successful marketing of the Angus name has led some farmers to breed more black cattle or crossbreed with Angus genetics to qualify for the Certified Angus Beef Program brand, said Elizabeth Harsh, president of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association.

However, she pointed out that not all farmers are concentrating on black-hided cattle because they are successfully marketing their products through other programs such as the Certified Hereford Beef Program. You’ll recognize Hereford cattle from their reddish, brown coats and white faces. Farmers may also select from a number of other cattle breeds taking into account factors such as how well the animals grow and a cow’s mothering abilities.

Quality assurance programs
More farmers are participating in quality assurance programs or being voluntarily audited in order to sell their products to certain retailers. These quality assurance and transparency programs grew out of consumers’ requests for a consistent and safe product, said David White, Ohio Farm Bureau’s senior director for issues management.

“Consumers want consistency in a product that is of high quality, produced in a safe manner and ensures animals are well cared for,” he said. “Companies have put in auditing requirements to make sure customers’ expectations are met across the board.”

The Pork Quality Assurance program, for example, was developed to enhance food safety but has been expanded to allow farmers to measure, track and continuously improve animal well-being. The Ohio Signature Beef program, which markets its beef to Whole Foods, has specific animal care requirements and the animal must be traced from the calf supplier to the processing plant.

Another program that has been around since 1997 is the Ohio Egg Quality Assurance Program, a program intended to minimize the risk of salmonella enteritidis. Nearly 95 percent of eggs produced in Ohio are from flocks enrolled in the program, which is administered by the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Ohio is one of only 10 states to have such a program, which sets standards for the production, processing and transportation of eggs. The program covers all aspects of egg production, including food supply, cage conditions, rodent, fly and manure control and processing equipment.

Niche markets
As some farmers meet broad consumer demands, others have catered to customers who have been willing to pay to have food produced under very specific conditions. Ohio Farm Bureau’s Cassidy believes consumers’ interest in how their food is produced became popular with the organic movement, which started decades ago.

“I think organics started the conversation between farmers and consumers because consumers wanted to know how their food was produced,” Cassidy said. “Once farmers got an idea of what consumers wanted, it became easier to know what to produce. Many farmers are listening to consumers in a way we haven’t seen before.”

That consumer demand is resulting in more specialty, or niche, farming. Farms are now starting to grow exotic items such as truffles, pawpaws (Ohio’s state native fruit), heirloom vegetables and goat cheese. Some livestock producers have focused on exclusively grass-fed cattle, because consumers began asking for it. Other farms are even catering to their clients’ religious or cultural beliefs. Because these production methods can be more expensive, farmers have to make sure consumers are willing to pay more for these products.

“The important thing to remember is that farmers and consumers both want choices. Farmers can only produce what consumers are able and willing to pay for,” White said. “Everyone should have access to food that meets their individual needs.”

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.

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