DURING HIS 2007 STATE of the Industry Speech at this year's PMA Fresh Summit, Produce Marketing Association president Bryan Silbermann said, “Food has literally become the new social movement.” He's right, and there are signs of that trend everywhere in the supermarket.
From the localvore movement to the unrelenting growth of organics, from the consumer push for dairy products free of artificial hormones to the proliferation of labels that assure shoppers the products they purchase were humanely raised, fairly traded or grass-fed, modern mainstream shoppers are paying more attention to how their food is raised, grown and transported than ever before.
The mainstreaming of these concerns has also emboldened a new breed of food activists, who are using court cases, legislative ballot initiatives, shareholder resolutions and other high-level tactics to force changes in the way livestock and poultry can be raised and companies that sell food can do business.
Recently, Target became the first retailer to become ensnared in a long-standing battle over how some large organic dairies handle their herds. An Indiana couple has sued the retailer, alleging that the organic seal on the company's private-label Archer Farms organic milk is fraudulent.
In California, the Humane Society of the United States, a well-funded animal rights group, is working to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures that will be needed to get its “Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act” on the state's November 2008 presidential election ballot. The group says the law is a moderate reform that would simply require veal, pork and egg producers to ensure that their animals have sufficient room to turn around and extend their limbs in enclosures. The state's egg producers counter that it would require them to all go cage-free, potentially forcing many producers to leave the state to avoid the added expense.
In Pennsylvania and Ohio, a broad coalition of farmers, industry groups and activists raised an outcry when their state agencies attempted to ban the use of labels that read “free of artificial hormones” on dairy items produced without the use of rBGH or rBST.
And these are just events from the past couple of months.
It's always been tempting for many suppliers and retailers to dismiss these activists as fringe groups whose concerns are unimportant to average shoppers. It's getting harder to tell whether that's true today. What is evident, though, is that these groups are well funded, better organized and more calculating than the “fur is murder” paint splashers of a generation ago. Agribusiness operations continue to be the most obvious targets for food activism groups, but retailers would be wise to stay on top of the debates that are raging in their aisles.