Three decades ago, conventional wisdom—and conventional food producers—assumed that customers cared only about cheap and convenient food. The future they envisioned was based upon generic food—plain white boxes with plain black labels proclaiming “corn flakes,” “soda crackers” and my all-time favorite … “beer.”
Generic food aisles came and went because consumers wanted more than just cheap and convenient. As more people demanded good, wholesome, healthy food, the federal government responded with laws like the Organic Foods Production Act. That was then. Today, traceability marks a new trend throughout the conventional and natural food channels. Retailers are requesting it. New laws mandate it. Everything from the Food Safety Enhancement Act to the National Animal Identification is rooted in the need for greater traceability in the food system. But building a safe, wholesome food infrastructure simply upon traceability misses the boat.
Customers want authenticity, not just traceability. Farmers’ markets have exploded across the country in part because people want to see the growers behind the products they are feeding their families. Traceability tells our customers the where and how of food production. Authenticity accentuates the who.
Authenticity is all about added value. Knowing that a product was grown by farmers who don’t use synthetic pesticides and herbicides adds value for customers who connect diet and health. Buying meat from ranchers who pasture-raise their animals adds value in terms of taste and confidence regarding animal husbandry.
The strong push for greater traceability is creating an explosion of new audit systems, software and electronic tracking devices that enable retailers and regulators to pinpoint the source of any food safety breakdown in the supply chain. (For more on new technology, click here for our story on "Beyond the bar code.”) Why not utilize this new regulatory system for something more beneficial than forcing extra paperwork and record keeping upon growers and suppliers? This is an opportunity to introduce those growers to your customers.
Farmers and ranchers today are increasingly frustrated by the burgeoning requirements of documenting their protocols without receiving commensurate rewards for the added value they create through their growing practices, land stewardship and animal management. Adding that value will not only serve as a nice bonus, but may ultimately help keep independent growers in business.
Customers today want products grown locally and produced by independent farmers. Ironically, the capital investment and labor requirements for documenting all production and handling procedures favors industrialized operations that can hire teams of quality assurance specialists and database managers. For smaller independent growers, increased traceability requirements mean only one more set of chores at the end of a very long day.
Creating a supply chain where paperwork and documentation replace personal relationships and trust only ultimately pushes the food system away from the very values customers are seeking today. Rewarding producers for the authenticity of the products they supply helps restore those relationships and brings added value to customers and growers alike.
Dave Carter is principal of Crystal Springs Consulting and executive director of the National Bison Association. He maintains a small herd of buffalo in Colorado.