For any of the remaining cynics who thought that the natural and organic foods movement was a fad, Burger King's announcement last month — that it planned to increase its purchases of cage-free eggs and begin sourcing pork from producers that don't confine sows in gestation crates — may have come as a bit of a shock.
For others, the fast-food giant's decision was a simple matter of supply and demand. Consumers are showing more and more interest in how their food is raised, handled and processed, and increasingly, they're selecting products that they believe adhere to higher ethical or ecological standards.
Suppliers, in turn, are answering that demand. For example, it's no coincidence that Burger King's announcement followed a similar one by Smithfield, the nation's largest pork producer, which announced last month that it plans to phase out the use of gestation crates at all of its U.S. operations.
Yet for a growing number of consumers, animal care standards are just the tip of the iceberg. The idea of “sustainability” has grown to include concerns about Third World farmers getting a fair price for their crops, and about overfishing.
In fact, one of the most popular emerging movements — locally grown foods — began partly in response to concern about how far many foods were traveling in the global supply chain, and caught on as shoppers discovered the joys of eating fresh foods that benefited local farms and communities.
“We're actually going to try to make a bigger effort for this summer, because we think it's definitely the trend,” said Dean Balzum, produce director at Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn.
“We do try to stay what we think is ahead of the curve, and local is getting bigger and bigger.”
Kowalski's has always carried local produce; however, being located in chilly Minnesota, the selection of local produce is limited, Balzum told SN.
Core local produce items include corn, tomatoes, zucchini and many other vegetables such as squash and pumpkins in the fall. In the summer, honey crisp apples, which originate in Minnesota, are very popular as well.
“We have a tough window here, but Minnesota's not as bad as everybody thinks,” Balzum said.“We do manage it pretty well, and there are a lot of local guys who do a great job here [because demand is] expanding.
“There are a lot of local guys trying to make it, and it's a good thing — there's a lot of good things happening here in this state.”
Kowalski's Markets provides plenty of in-store signage and information featuring local growers, in addition to a monthly newsletter that's emailed to customers and a quarterly magazine available online and in stores.
Kowalski's also has a brochure — “Go Organic Every Day, Protect Your Health, Protect Your Planet” — that speaks about organics, as well as sustainable agriculture in a nutshell, Debbie Leland, natural and specialty foods buyer for Kowalski's, told SN.
The story behind sustainable foods is something to be appreciated.
“Mostly, I have come to believe that people want to be told stories by other people, so the real key here is training your staff to appreciate the difference in how these foods are produced, how our consumer choices influence and define the world we live in, and telling that story with inspiration,” Sarah Miles, spokeswoman for New Leaf Community Markets, Santa Cruz, Calif., told SN.
Veterans of natural food retailing have witnessed rapid changes in the competitive landscape during the past decade, but many openly welcome the movement's growth.
“Whole Foods has moved into our market big time, and all of our major competitors — like Kroger, who owns Fred Meyer and QFC out here,” have boosted their selection of natural foods, said Diana Crane, a spokeswoman for PCC Natural Markets, the largest member-owned natural food cooperative in the United States, with nine locations in the Seattle area. “We see this happening with Albertsons and Safeway — who just came out with their organics brand.”
Although PCC's roster of 40,000 members helps insulate the venerable, 50-year-old chain from local competition, Crane noted that several of the company's competitors have such large footprints that they have been able to install natural food departments that rival the size of some smaller PCC locations.
“We see the whole category of natural foods just increasing exponentially around here, and that's good for us; we like to think of it that way,” she said.
For PCC, deli and produce have been leading growth categories for several years now, according to Paul Schmidt, PCC's director of merchandising.
Usually, as consumers begin making natural and organic choices, they start with perishable products, he said.
In 2006, PCC's deli led the way with a 6.7% increase in same-store sales and 16.9% overall. Produce followed closely with 5.8% and 14.7%, respectively.
PCC carries all-natural, grass-fed beef with no antibiotics, no growth hormones or other chemicals. Many of PCC's meat producers are local as well, with ranches and farms in Oregon and Northern California.
PCC is a part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, an effort to track the sustainability of fish and seafood; Puget Sound Fresh, which features fresh and locally grown produce; and the Heart of Washington, which encompasses produce meat, dairy and other products.
In stores, PCC communicates through a monthly newspaper that's distributed to members; its website, which underscores sustainability; and signs. In addition, PCC's Kid Picks program focuses on education, but is also a way to encourage children to sample foods they have not had the opportunity to try before.
“We have a retrofitted RV — we go to places throughout our market area and we can just tell from the response, particularly of the parents, that they want food that they know where it came from and they know how it's going to affect their kids,” Crane said.
“Once we got this mobile on the road, the phones have just been ringing off the hook. We've gotten national coverage and now our competitors are copying our programs. This is a way of measuring demand.”
‘TO NOURISH AND SUSTAIN’
Similarly, at New Leaf Community Markets, the mission is “to nourish and sustain our community,” Miles said.
“We consider ourselves stewards of the environment we all share, selling organic foods and environmentally friendly products and working closely with local vendors to keep dollars inside our community,” she said.
New Leaf has implemented a sustainable seafood program where species are color-coded according to levels of sustainability. The call to establish the program, which is audited by FishWise, came directly from the chain's customers.
“Customers began handing us the Seafood Watch Cards from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and asking us to please make some changes to be compliant with their guidelines,” Miles said. “We were very lucky to be approached by two [University of California at Santa Cruz] graduate students who wanted to begin a program to help retailers source and sell sustainable seafood.”
New Leaf no longer carries any red-coded seafood, which represents overfished or non-sustainable species, based on customer requests.
Miles said she believes that because of the increase in awareness of the sustainable category, New Leaf consumers “have a lot of ownership in the concept of sustainable foods,” she said.
“They expect us to ‘edit’ our shelves carefully and to bring them the highest-quality products with an eye to environmental stewardship, social justice, humane treatment of animals, ethical farming and grower livelihood,” Miles said.
Although that may be the case, New Leaf continues educational efforts through partnerships with third-party organizations and non-profits such as The Humane Society of the United States, which has a factory farming campaign promoting consumer education and awareness of the concept of cage-free eggs.
“[These partnerships] can really bring some integrity to these conversations and make it easier to present difficult issues in a palatable way that empowers the consumer to understand the difference between one brand of meat and another, or one retailer and another, to feel good about the foods they choose to put on their plates,” said Miles.
Demand continues to build for products that are grown, sourced or produced with an eye toward sustainability and better trade practices. But as seals and certifications continue to proliferate, some shoppers are bound to have questions about these new products, while others may even view certain claims as contradictory.
For example, the criteria used by the certifying agencies that have emerged to screen and select products defined as “fair trade,” “humanely raised” or “sustainably harvested” are tied to efforts geared toward ensuring better conditions for Third World farm workers, domestic animals and wild fish populations, respectively. It's certainly a mixed bag of concerns, but each claim, in its own way, implies that a product was sourced with more care than its conventional rivals.
Some of the most vocal advocates for sustainability, however, have begun arguing that these standards mean little, if products have to travel long distances to make it to the end user.
Even at PCC Natural Markets, a Seattle-area co-op that has been in operation for more than 50 years, there is a renewed sense of debate among shoppers.
“Depending on who you ask, the criteria could be totally different,” said Paul Schmidt, PCC's director of merchandising.
“Some people consider local to be sustainable, while others view organic as being truly sustainable. Produce is a perfect example, while we feel that our GROW Bananas — which are organic and support fair labor practices — would be sustainable, but some people feel that product coming from Central or South America is not.”
Supply and Demand
Thinking about getting more involved in the sustainable category? Switching suppliers is less of an issue than you might think.
Retailers told SN that suppliers they have dealt with have been cooperative and supportive of product requests.
“We have suppliers that supply us organic, non-organic and sustainable products,” said Debbie Leland, natural and specialty foods buyer for Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn.
“Usually if we really want something, the smaller and local distributors are more than willing to pick up items for us and work with us, and we think that if it'll be good for them, it'll be good for everyone.”
Suppliers are extremely responsive to consumers' demands, according to Sarah Miles, spokeswoman for New Leaf Community Markets, Santa Cruz, Calif.
“In fact, consumer demand is an important part of the move toward sustainability,” she said.
New Leaf wanted to pull all unsustainable seafood from its counter, but found that the only shrimp available were unsustainable. Now at least two companies offer sustainable prawns as a result of the demand.
“Retailers who want to be believed in their commitment to sustainable foods must encourage and advocate dialogue between consumers, manufacturers and public policy,” said Miles.
“Developing real relationships with sustainable suppliers and inviting them into your store to sample products and to tell their stories is also key.”