September 15, 2006
By Lynne Finnerty
Remember when you could just have a delicious meal? Those days are over. Everywhere you look now, someone is telling you what to eat if you want to be a virtuous consumer.
Consumers are urged to use their purchasing power to influence how food is produced. However, some of the advice that's out there isn't based on facts.
One example is the "Food with Integrity" manifesto of Chipotle Mexican Grill. The fast-food chain brags that its offerings go beyond fresh, to include pork from "naturally raised pigs from a select group of farmers."
"These animals are not confined in stressful `factories,'" it trumpets on in-store placemats and its Web site. It claims that its carnitas, a pork dish, tastes better because the pigs are free to run, roam, root and socialize.
Well, good for them. There's nothing wrong with social pigs. But is Chipotle really in this for better-tasting carnitas? Is a farm with 100 pigs a factory, or is the line drawn at 500 pigs? Chipotle doesn't get into specifics. Who says the carnitas taste better? Chipotle does, and for a certain type of consumer, that's enough.
There are consumers who are willing to pay more for food that validates a certain social status. Not only are they in the know about carnitas made from social pigs, but they also can afford boutique foods that appeal to their sense of virtue. They feel smarter and more successful with every bite.
Being willing to sacrifice and pay more if one thinks it really benefits the environment, or health, or animal welfare is virtuous. But exploiting such beliefs in others without valid grounds and clear guidelines is far from virtue. It's misleading, and it's pure marketing.
Marketers for companies like Chipotle are in a constant struggle to differentiate their products from the crowd. If their claims make consumers feel better about choosing their product, that helps bring in more business. It's about selling more carnitas, not better carnitas.
What is insidious about manipulating public perception for corporate gain is that so many consumers follow unsubstantiated marketing claims like sheep, rather than learning for themselves how food is produced. If they did, they would be pleasantly surprised to learn that the perceived benefits of socially conscious food also exist in mainstream food production.
For starters, farmers have embraced animal welfare standards that ensure their animals are healthy. After all, healthy animals are a better investment than unhealthy ones. The pork industry is working to educate producers about the responsible use of antibiotics. And, the use of antibiotics by the pork industry has decreased–that's right, decreased–over the last 17 years.
Thanks to a group of agricultural and restaurant associations, including Farm Bureau, it is easy for consumers to get the facts about modern food production. Earlier this year, the groups launched the Web site www.bestfoodnation.com. It's a trove of information about the great job farmers are doing to produce healthy food in responsible ways.
There is no increase in social status from being hoodwinked. Frequently, those who market under the guise of social consciousness are really only interested in making a buck. Consumers should get the facts about food production and think for themselves instead of swallowing false marketing claims. Then, they can be virtuous and in the know.
Lynne Finnerty is the editor of Farm Bureau News, a publication of the American Farm Bureau Federation.