To skeptical consumers, and likely many farmers, too, marketing and integrity may seem the perfect oxymoron. After all, it wasn't that long ago that tobacco companies sold cigarettes with health endorsements from doctors.
But a panel on Monday agreed that integrity is essential in the marketing of food to a public that's increasingly uncertain, if not downright suspicious, about the safety of the products farmers raise.
"Food is now politics," said Mike Donahue, chief brand and communications officer of LYFE Kitchen, a chain of restaurants trying to marry the concept of fast food and farm to fork sustainability. "You can fight over food at the Thanksgiving table because everyone is a critic."
Integrity in Food Marketing was the topic for the latest Food Dialogues event put on by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, in Chicago Tuesday. Trying to bridge the gap between producers and consumers, a panel waded into the thorny waters of how marketers are informing consumers about what winds up on their plates and how it gets there.
Moderator Elisabeth Leamy, a contributor to the Dr. Oz TV show, found the eight panelists split when she asked for a show of hands about whether marketing was helping or hurting the effort to communicate about food with integrity. While five thought it was, three believed these messages only muddy the water.
Emily Paster, a Chicago-based food writer, noted how she saw orange juice marketed as "gluten free," obscuring the fact that "every container of orange juice is gluten free."
While that claim was a "partial truth" and not an outright lie, Nebraska cattle rancher and blogger Dawn Caldwell cited the "Scarecrow" ad run by Chipotle as marketing that tries to build a brand by tearing down others.
"There's so much untruth in that commercial," said Caldwell, of Edgar, Neb. "The entire process they show is demonizing."
While some consumers may want grass-fed beef, ranchers must adapt their production systems to their surroundings, Caldwell said. Her area has some pasture but is mostly corn country. If they raised grass-fed beef they couldn't produce many and would have to charge more to survive.
One issue the panel wrestled with was how much information is enough, and how much is too much.
Alan Moskowitz, who works for Communispace, a marketing agency with food company clients, says activists want to know everything about how a product is made. "But I don't think most consumers really want to see inside the sausage factory," he said. "They only want enough to feel trust in a brand."
Pictures of a modern poultry grow house, he said, might illustrate a well-run facility, but be disturbing to the consumer because they show a lot of animals kept indoors. Chuck Wirtz, who raises hogs both conventionally and through a "welfare compassionate" system on his Whittemore, Iowa, farm recalled the comments from a member of one of the camera crews he's let film his facilities: "He said 'I like to eat pork, but I'd like to know my pig led a happy life.'"
While most of the panel joked about whether it was compassionate to use artificial insemination in livestock, denying them a sex life, at least one objected. Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change, a California advocacy group, said they should respect other's ideas, even those who feel bad because pigs can't have sex.
"The number of those who want to see change in the food system is growing," said Dimock.
Ultimately, consumers will dictate what farmers do, which makes marketing so important. "As farmers we only respond to what we are led to believe the consumers want," said Wirtz. While consumers used to focus on cost and taste, their preferences are changing. While non-conventional food system may cost more, "if you're willing to pay for those costs we're more than willing as farmers to provide them for you."
Paster, the food writer agreed. "You have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is," she said. "Consumers need to educate themselves and make a purchasing decision that reflects their values."