Growing Connections: The Outlook for Fresh Foods

Growing Connections: The Outlook for Fresh Foods

Retailers and others experts discuss what to expect with trends in health, safety, local food and transparency

As 2012 approaches, several trends continue to show promise for growth. Notably, shoppers are looking to supermarkets for advice about healthy eating, and locally raised foods are more popular than ever.

In the coming year, the industry will also need to further the gains it has made toward improved food safety, while meeting growing consumer demand for product transparency. In this week’s issue, industry experts weigh in on how these issues will evolve in the near term.

Consumers Are Looking for ‘Real’ Food

Locally grown food has been one of the hottest trends in food retail for half a decade already, but it just seems to keep growing. A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that more than 1,000 new farmers markets were launched throughout the U.S. between August 2010 and August 2011.

The production of small-batch cheeses and other artisan foods has also been on the rise, driven by similar trends. Shoppers may be concerned about carbon footprints and food miles. As the recession wears on, they may prefer to keep the money they spend within their own local community. Or, they may just enjoy the freshness and flavor of local produce and locally made foods.

Slow Food USA is an organization that works to facilitate these trends, and SN recently spoke with Slow Food USA President Joshua Viertel to get his thoughts on what’s ahead in local and artisan foods during the coming year.

Supermarket News: In your opinion, what is driving the local food movement?

Josh Viertel: People are looking for something that’s real. They want a real connection to the producer; they want a real connection to their environment.

There’s a feeling that food has gotten too far away from us — that this thing that is so fundamental to our well being is now foreign to us. Kids are growing up and they don’t know that apples come from trees or that chickens come from eggs. These are basic things that are becoming alien to us.

People want a real connection, and they’re looking for that in food. Farmer’s markets are one way that they find it, Community Supported Agriculture, where you can buy a share of a farm for a year and get regular deliveries of produce, is another. Artisan products, or products that come from a known producer, are another way. In each of those cases, you really feel a connection to the [product], the place and the person. I think that’s just going to grow.

SN: These trends are also causing big businesses to change their marketing efforts. On the one hand, you have major growers using QR codes and smartphone technologies that allow consumers to see when and where a carton of berries was grown, for example. On the other, there’s terms like “artisan” that are now being used by takeout pizza and fast food chains. What does this mean for food activism movements?

JV: There’s a few things happening. One is, the movement is pushing big businesses towards better practices — greater transparency, less environmental impact, fair [trade]. The food movement is pushing that in the right direction. At the same time, if large corporations pick up the trappings of those values without delivering on them in a meaningful way, they run the risk of actually undercutting the movement.

With the movement, the capital — the thing you really operate off of — is the cognitive dissonance people feel with the stories [about food and products] that are part of their everyday lives. If you find out that there’s a terrible story behind a hamburger chain, then you’re not likely to eat there, or you’re likely to push for better practices. If a food company can put a label on it, and try to make that cognitive dissonance go away without actually changing that practice meaningfully … you start to lose that impetus for change. It is a risk.

It’s not an either-or situation. We have to prod companies to do the right thing, and then we have to push them to do more of it, and not accept a weak brand as a substitute for being a moral actor.

SN: So what is Slow Food about, and what does your organization do to fulfill these goals?

JV: Slow Food is food that is good for the people who eat it, good for the environment and good for the farmers and the people who pick it. It’s good, clean, fair food. Sometimes we describe it as the opposite of fast food.What we do, is we help everyday people engage in building a world where everyone can eat good, clean, fair food.

So, we have the mom who drops her kid off at school on the first day and realizes that she is not in control of what her child is eating for lunch anymore. And she begins to question it. Or the person who reads a news article or book by Michael Pollan, for example, and becomes concerned about the story behind our federal farm subsidy system. We give those people a pathway to do something about it, as individuals, eating by their own values, as community members, we have over 225 local chapters all over the country working on projects like building gardens at public schools or setting up farmers markets in low-income communities. And as citizens, pushing legislators for policies that reflect those values.

But, at every level, what we’re doing is taking the average person that wants the story behind their food to be clean and fair, and we’re giving them a way, as an individual, as a community member and as a citizen to do something about it.

Josh Viertel is the president of Slow Food USA, a national non-profit organization focused on local food, health and ethical production standards.

Consumers Demand Greater Product Transparency, Accountability

By DIANA CRANE

Successful retailers acknowledge the consumer is king. But as we enter a fifth year of recession, the king is feeling vulnerable, with confidence in institutions of all types improving but at underwhelming speed. The challenge for the grocery industry in 2012 is to respond convincingly to the most urgent of consumer hot buttons and avoid erosion of trust. Three hot buttons that top our list are: transparency, traceability and innovation.

Transparency challenges producers and retailers to help consumers make informed, educated choices by providing extensive ingredient, nutritional and sourcing information — in print, online, and on labels. In survey after survey consumers have spoken emphatically — they want to know what products contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), what “natural” does and does not mean, and not just where a product was processed but where and how the ingredients were produced.

As retailers we typically don’t know the sources of multi-ingredient processed foods because regulators don’t require manufacturers to disclose such information. This is why PCC Natural Markets supports science-based, certifiable efforts such as those by the Natural Products Association to define the term “natural” for food, the way it has for personal and home care products. We also partner with the Non-GMO Project, which verifies that non-GMO claims are backed up by testing and Best Practices. We expect more shoppers will question ingredient claims on labels (or lack thereof) and demand that products, such as nutrition bars, live up to their name.

Traceability for fresh categories — where accountability for quality and safety can be tracked directly to single-origin farms — is a no-brainer. Yet the number of food safety scares involving processed foods made with pooled ingredients from various (and sometimes unknown) sources makes it clear that we need regionalized food systems with smaller circles of dependence to limit the impact of food recalls.

In 2012 we anticipate an even greater demand from increasingly wary customers for locally produced foods with fewer ingredients, especially those bearing independent third-party certifications, such as the USDA Certified Organic seal.

Grocery customers’ appetites for product information that enables them to comparison shop and take advantage of promotions — that is accessible electronically any time and wherever shoppers are — will eclipse what we’ve seen in recent years. We expect the demand for Non-GMO Verified and Certified Organic foods to increase — already the fastest growing channels at 21% and 8% respectively — as well as innovative packaging and recipes for center aisle categories, such as baby food and pet food. Demand for diet-specific options, such as gluten-free and dairy-free, will be steady and, as more baby-boomers become sexagenarians, so will purchases of foods and supplements with genuine benefits for boosting immunity and joint and cardiovascular health.

Diana Crane is director of sustainability for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle.

Moving Food Safety Forward in 2012

By DR. BOB WHITAKER

Food safety has certainly been in the headlines again in 2011. We have seen positive stories regarding the Food Safety Modernization Act signed in January and exciting new research announced by the Center for Produce Safety in June. We’ve also witnessed the tragic side with the events of the past fall involving cantaloupes. With those thoughts in my mind, here is a food safety wish list for the New Year.

1. Remain committed to continuous improvement: The produce industry has demonstrated commitment to constant innovation in the way we grow, process and ship produce, which is why we have one of the world’s most diverse and safest food supplies. Yet gaps in proper food safety measures occur every day throughout the supply chain, making everyone vulnerable. We must and can do better.

2. Recognize food safety as a business imperative: Yes, greater commitment to a comprehensive, broad-risk assessment, food safety program will cost more money. That’s because food safety must be more than a plan on a shelf in an office or the ability to pass an audit; it must be part of your corporate DNA. Making food safety a corporate-wide commitment is simply the cost of doing business and the responsible thing to do.

3. Hold each other accountable: All supply chain members must be accountable for not taking food safety shortcuts. Retailers should assess their stores’ own controls, beginning with knowing trading partners’ food safety philosophies. This means inquiring about suppliers’ corporate food safety plans and what they’re doing to follow those plans every day, not just during audits. By staying abreast of the risk- and science-based food safety programs growers need, retailers can outline what’s expected of suppliers and champion elements of a solid food safety program.

4. Change the conversation: Too often food safety is a discussion about passing an audit or whether to do product testing. These are simply tools and by themselves cannot make food safer. Our focus needs to be a risk, process and science-based development of food safety programs designed specifically for individual operations; from small farms to large processing plants to distribution centers to retail stores.

5. Accept nothing less than a 100% commitment: The best science will not stop consumers from being sickened or our businesses from being ruined until we change our perspective about food safety to make it an operational, culture guiding, everyday piece of our business decision-making process. If being 100% committed to ensuring customers have a safe and healthy eating experience, every bite, every time, isn’t worth your time, I’d argue you don’t belong in the food industry.

Dr. Bob Whitaker is the chief science officer for the Produce Marketing Association.

Customers Look to Supermarkets for Healthy Eating Advice

By BARBARA RUHS

Healthy eating is here to stay and tough economic times may be the cause for healthy eating trends to continue into the future. Limited budgets are forcing Americans to focus more on maintaining health rather than spending on costly medical care.

Whole Foods may have set the pace for healthy retailing in the past, but now, more than ever, shoppers are seeking healthy options along with the expert advice of Registered Dietitians at their local supermarkets. Now that’s customer service!

As a supermarket dietitian, these are some of the food and nutrition trends ahead in 2012.

1. Value-Added Health: Tough economic times have changed customers’ shopping behavior and no longer do customers simply shop for all of their groceries at their local store.

Shoppers are “cherry-picking,” that is, comparing circulars, seeking the best deals and going out of their way to find the best values. Retailers need to step up their game.

Not only are great prices in order, value-added programs and services that promote good health will help maintain loyal customers and attract the new generation of customers.

Shoppers are buying organic baby food and looking for the supermarket dietitians’ advice on how to find gluten-free, heart-healthy alternatives and help with deciphering confusing labels and health claims.

2. Food Rx: Pharmacy programs at retail have an opportunity to win back customers by focusing on what they do best-selling groceries.

In-store pharmacy programs that use pharmacists as food merchants will not only help the bottom line, it can empower customers to improve their health and stretch their budgets beyond the pharmacy counter.

For example, helping customers reduce their cholesterol by encouraging high-fiber cereals and eating more fruits and vegetables is a win-win. Providing coupons for healthy brands and placing fresh produce displays with poignant nutrition signage can make a difference.

3. Filling MyPlate With Produce: USDA’s new MyPlate icon (www.choosemyplate.gov) is an easy to understand, visual guide to help customers create healthy meals. Promoting the message of “Half-Plate Healthy” is an easy and do-able recommendation for everyone.

Helping customers to stretch their food budgets is important and recent changes to federal assistance programs that has made it more affordable to buy more produce (fresh, frozen and canned) is helping to move the needle in a positive direction on fruits and vegetable consumption.
 

Innovation and information in the produce department can maximize sales: Provide on-package simple preparation methods; Offer single-serve options for lunchboxes and snacks; Highlight health benefits with specific produce items; Maximize merchandising displays and demo-sampling to inspire customers to experiment with produce.

Looking into the future, retailers that pay attention to these trends and continue to engage customers with new technologies (social networking, smartphone Apps) will see healthy profits.

Barbara Ruhs, MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian for Bashas’ Family of Stores [3], an Arizona-based supermarket chain. Follow her on Twitter @EatSmartAZ.