Big, Small, Local, Artisan… Why We Need to Kick the Food and Farming Label Habit

coffe-water-and-brownieLet’s think about marketing labels. The coffee I’m currently drinking is a new premium blend with fruity notes and hints of lemongrass, the tasting notes so extensive that I was tempted to swill it around and pretend it was a glass of vintage Malbec before the first sip (except I knew I’d end up with a caffeinated tsunami flooding my Mac). The walls of this coffee shop are plastered with buzzwords including “delicious”, “lovers” and  “changing lives”. Everything is carefully stage-managed to make me feel that I’ve wisely invested my £2.50 on a cup of branded coffee. Is this coffee more caffeine-laden than the equivalent free-cup-with-a-loyalty-card from Waitrose? Can I detect the top notes of passion fruit? Does it use less water than freeze-dried instant coffee? Will I leap tall buildings with a single bound after drinking it? Absolutely not. Yet the marketing involved makes me feel good about my choice of coffee chain and beverage, without providing any factual information to facilitate my decision.

Like it or not, marketing labels are ubiquitous, exclusive and bipolar. Black and white. Yes or no. Good or bad. Even in the scientific world, where we’re renowned for caveats and “Under this specific set of conditions we saw a significant difference in X although that can’t always extrapolate to Y….” answers to questions, media coverage of scientific research is becoming binomial. Food X will kill you. Eat food Y and you won’t get cancer. Shades of grey have ceased to exist.

Back in September 2016, Jayson Lusk published an excellent piece in the NY Times explaining the importance of technology use on modern, large-scale farms. The only issue (for me) was the title: “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment”. The supposition being, of course, that we have to dispel the myth that “industrial” farms are environmentally-undesirable. Yet using terms like “industrial” have deeper connotations – if a large farm is industrial, is a small farm artisan? If a dairy herd containing 100 cows is a “factory farm” (regardless of familial ownership or management), is the one that contains 99 cows a small, vibrant, local business? Is a farmer who is passionate about pasture management, reducing nutrient run-off and promoting biodiversity a saviour of the planet, regardless of whether he/she produces enough beef to feed one family or 5,000 families (approximately 1,700 cow herd) per year? There are as many farming systems worldwide as there are farmers – trying to apply broad categories (“big vs. small” “factory vs. humane” “grass-fed vs. grain-fed”) tells us absolutely nothing about the management practices, animal welfare, environmental sustainability and social responsibility of a particular farm.

Perhaps it’s time to take a evidence-based approach. The consumer absolutely has a right to choose products from agricultural systems that they prefer, yet this needs to be provided via factual, quantifiable information rather than marketing buzzwords. Being told that a piece of pork pie is “artisan” or that Supermarket X’s beef mince costs 20 p/kg less does not facilitate informed decision-making.

If we assume that all other factors (including price) relating to food purchase are equal:

  • Eggs from Farm X are ranked 9.5/10 on supporting the local community
  • Eggs from Farm Y have an animal welfare rating 10% higher than average
  • Eggs from Farm Z eggs have a carbon footprint 25% lower than average

I wonder how many consumers choosing eggs based on measurable performance outcomes would be supporting a different production system than the one that they perceive to be best? We (as an agricultural industry as well as in the role that we all play as consumers) need factual information on labels rather than marketing buzzwords.

We would also have a better understanding of the issues that really are important to the consumer. I was recently asked whether I was concerned about antibiotic use in livestock. The obvious answer was “Yes”… yet my main concern was the challenge of eliminating the use of medically-important antibiotics (while maintaining access to veterinary antibiotics that have no impact on human medicine), reducing antimicrobial resistance and improving the health and welfare of global livestock populations through alternative technologies and management practices. Not surprisingly, my answer didn’t fit with the assumed “I’m concerned because everybody knows that farmers massively overuse antibiotics as a panacea for poor management” rationale.

Recent data from a global charity suggests that almost 90% of Indian consumers are deeply concerned about cattle health and welfare on dairy farms. Great. Does this mean they’d pay more for milk to improve dairy cow welfare? That they were given factual information about dairy production? That they understand the relative environmental impacts, cattle health issues and social impacts of various dairy systems? All unlikely. We face a number of challenges within agriculture – notably the need to produce enough safe, affordable food to feed the growing population, whilst using fewer resources and with a lower environmental impact. We cannot and should not expect to make informed decisions on food choices based on marketing buzzwords – it’s time to stop differentiating on farm size or system and examine real farm impacts.

“Humane” Becomes Synonymous with Agenda-Driven Marketing

Over the past few years, certain words have evolved to invoke an involuntary shudder that I cannot suppress. “Sustainability” is first on the list (painfully ironic given that it’s the focus of my entire professional output), as it has so many definitions that it has become almost meaningless. Second place is reserved for “humane” when applied to livestock systems as a marketing term.

Raising animals humanely is an excellent concept; indeed it’s so important that it is already a key focus of the entire beef industry, not simply a niche market of accredited suppliers. National programs such as Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) exist to demonstrate to consumers that cattle are managed correctly. Indeed, recent surveys show that although the majority of large producers are familiar with BQA, even those that aren’t consider the various management practices involved to be important. When I asked a rancher friend how he defined “humanely-raised animals”, he emailed back with:

“To me, humanely-raised animals are provided adequate, balanced nutrition, water, veterinary care and shelter from extreme weather.”

So, we’re all on the same page…right?

Apparently not. In apparent despair at the “self-regulation” performed by the beef industry, Bon Appetit have announced that they will only buy “humanely-raised” meat; sourcing all their loose ground beef and beef patties from suppliers who meet strict animal welfare standards. So who’s defining “humanely-raised” for Bon Appetit? Four independent animal welfare organizations: Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Food Alliance (FA, my abbreviation), Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC, my abbreviation) and Global Animal Partnership (GAP). Bon Appetit’s CEO Fedele Bauccio is cited as wanting to change conventional and/or large-scale beef production practices, yet representatives from conventional beef production are missing from the Board of Directors of all four organizations. Instead, Bon Appetit has a seat on the board of both FA and HFAC, and both GAP and HFAC have representatives from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on their boards*.

Without wanting to elevate the omnipotent fear of circling black helicopters still further, independent is an interesting descriptor for these groups as none of them could be considered agenda-free with regards to conventional beef production. Their management standards** certainly lead to some interesting welfare considerations. For example, producers on stage 5 of GAP’s program for beef must not castrate, disbud or brand their animals. I imagine the presumed welfare advantages of not performing these physical alterations will be of great comfort to those trying to corral intact, horned 1,300 lb bulls if they escape from their pasture onto the road. Feedlots are prohibited by AWA’s standards – indeed, AWA are such a friend of conventional production that they even find time to try to debunk the science regarding corn-fed and grass-fed beef production with “we all know…” claims.

Perhaps most alarming are the various attitudes towards pharmaceutical products. AWA states that homeopathic, herbal or other non-antibiotic alternatives are preferred for the treatment of disease, although with the caveat that should they not prove effective, antibiotics may be used. If effective non-antibiotic treatments existed, given the tight margins in beef production, wouldn’t we already be using them? Furthermore, for how long should we try and treat a dehydrated, diarrhea-coated, coccidiosis-infected calf with fairy dust and rainbows before we use an anticoccidial drug? FA states that an animal cannot be sold under the accreditation program if it has received antibiotics within 100 days of slaughter (farewell accreditation premium!) and GAP prohibits therapeutic use of antibiotics, ionophores, or sulfa drugs for market animals. If disease occurs, the producer is economically penalized either way – by removing the animal from the program or by having an untreated sick animal picked out by the buyer. It appears that philosophical ideals and marketing hyperbole may triumph over management practices that are humane by any standards – providing appropriate, effective care to a sick animal.

If Bon Appetit’s aim is to change (improve?) practices throughout the beef industry, the logical strategy would be to listen to and work directly with the farmers and ranchers who produce the majority of the nation’s beef, by interacting with the check-off programs. By catering to production systems that prohibit management practices that enable us to raise safe, affordable, environmentally-sustainable beef, and discourage effective veterinary treatment of sick animals, “humane raising” is anything but.

*Animal Welfare Approved BoardCertified Humane Board; Food Alliance Board; Global Animal Partnership Board 

**Animal Welfare Approved StandardsCertified Humane Standards; Food Alliance Standards; Global Animal Partnership Standards