Much the same as in livestock operations, not every store is the same. “Retailers around the country approach this differently,” explains Doug Sumpter, DPS, Inc., a 37-year veteran of the grocery industry. “Fred Meyer stores, for instance, have truly segregated natural departments so they can keep their crossover consumer. But then you have the people at Safeway, who across their whole store are introducing a private organic label, so you’re going to see retailers experimenting with this in a more strategic way.
“The typical supermarket operator is trying to be all things to everybody, and that’s kind of the Achilles’ heel.” Sumpter continues. And similar to Zegar’s point, “Typically, what we’ve found in the industry is the organic consumer is not necessarily the high-end consumer,” says Sumpter.”
There is a definite chasm between many consumers’ perceptions and what is reality --- something that has been evident for years in consumer media when talking about food animal production.
Erik Lieberman believes the food animal industry needs to do a better job from a public-relations standpoint to combat emotional claims.
“What the retailer does is respond to the consumer’s desires and needs,” says Erik Lieberman, director of government affairs for the National Grocers Association. “We’re responding to what consumers want. If the consumer has the notion that antibiotic-free beef is presumed better than standard beef and they are willing to pay for it, that’s how many retailers will respond. That’s their role.”
Where do these perceptions come from? Mostly from the media. Zegar quotes out of the Consumer Reports “Green Consumers” section: “Unless the meat and dairy products you buy from local supermarkets are labeled organic, you can be fairly certain the animal your food came from was fed an abundance of antibiotics. In fact, more than 70% of the antibiotics in the
White of Kansas State thinks that perception versus reality is an important issue, especially when only one side is doing the talking. “We try to produce the safest, most wholesome food supply in an efficient manner that uses our natural resources to get the biggest output to feed the growing population,” he says. “I don’t think that article addressed any of the production factors. It addressed a perception of what was going on versus a scientific reality.”
Sumpter doesn’t believe retailers have done a good job to prepare for misinformation. “The tendency for the retailer is to overreact.” He cites the example of the low-carb craze. “There was some data that came out and it confirmed in retailer and manufacturers’ minds that this was the new wave, and it was unbelievable what happened in the next 18 months -- due to some misinformation. Not that it was necessarily wrong information,” he adds, “but it wasn’t the whole truth.”
Consumers first look for basic attributes such as availability, taste, consistency and quality. After that, secondary attributes, such as “natural” or “family-farm-grown,” come into play.