Recently I had the opportunity to speak at the Canadian Meat Council conference, in Quebec City. What an honour, and opportunity. It was slightly daunting to have to prepare a 45 minute talk for people that would include farmers, processors, industry, government, and even possibly educators. What to talk about, and how to get my points across?
Firstly, a shout out to Heather at Canada Beef, who sang my praises to CMC and got me this gig. She is one of my many angels. The proposed topic was on how retailers can influence the wallets of consumers. This is right up my alley, and I started researching and talking to consumers, processors, butchers, the whole gamut. I wanted to cover all of my bases before I prepared this talk.
It changed direction a few times, and finally came together in to what I present to you below. For you consideration, this is my perspective and I hope I did us all justice.
Consumer to Retail Perspective: What is the consumer looking for and how can you influence our wallets
Into, about me
I have questions that need to be answered, and today we are going to learn what consumers are looking for when they are buying meat. Mostly, I am here to make you think and question.
Science tells us that we are 90% water, but if it is also true that we are what we eat, then I am 90% meat. I am a burger, bacon, lamb chops, fried chicken, and more. A vegan chef once picked a fight with me because, in reply to his questioning of why I was skeptical about eating his food, my reply was “I breathe, dream, and think of meat all the time”. He didn’t appreciate that answer very much. This is the essence of me, and I pledge allegiance to meat.
Also, I am a part of the 1%, and this is from where my perspective is drawn. I am the 1% of Canadians that cares about my food, and what I put in my body. We are a growing minority, and the future majority of consumers. This is the way things must go to save our food system.
Gerard, my lamb and birthday present from a friend
Social Media & Blogging
When I left a 12 year career in tourism to find new opportunities I joined Twitter. Having resisted this trend, and hearing about it so much during the late 2000’s, I finally gave in to see what it was all about. Funny enough, it was a friend living in Europe who convinced me, as this would be a good way to keep in touch. Well, today I have nearly 5000 followers, and have created a personal brand for myself that is synonymous with food, and food culture.
Being a social person by nature, I started meeting people from Twitter in early 2009, and made some very important connections. Over an oyster shucking demo at Toronto’ Ceili Cottage, I made 2 very important friends. Suresh Doss and David Ort are the core of my circle of friends that include some of Toronto’s most influential writers, food bloggers, foodies, but most importantly just a great bunch of passionate people that care about food. They are the ones, that convinced my to start my food blog, Community Foodist. My blog has developed into a place where I can share stories about my quest to eat seasonally, a place to share some recipes, event recaps, restaurant visits, and more. It is this endeavour that has connected me with the Toronto food scene, and increased my passion for food ten-fold. What is the best part of all of this? I get to be friends with some of the best people you can know, and those are people in the hospitality industry.
A shift happened around this time in the way I approached food, and how I shopped and ate. Meeting Vicki Emlaw and Tim Noxon of Prince Edward County’s Vickis Veggies literally changed my life. I made a strong commitment to seasonal eating, and living in a way that our ancestors lived. One day while hanging out at Vicki’s table at the Evergreen Brickworks Saturday Farmers Market I made a gesture that would define my future. I started selling Vicki’s produce while she was engaging her customers. Now, three seasons later, they are a part of my family and I am at market almost every Saturday that they are and I visit the farm whenever I can. Im hooked.
Vicki and Tim - love birds
Planting garlic on a sunny autumn day
I have a nickname on the farm, and that is “Chicken Murderer”. That’s right, a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs of Toronto goes out to the farm every fall and participates in the “harvesting” of the chickens. This is something that is a core value of my food attitude, and a trend that you are seeing among foodies. Connecting with our food and the systems that produce our food. Different people have different levels of interest in this, but I am hardcore and go all the way. I want to participate in the bringing of my food to my plate in any way possible. How else can you truly understand where your food comes from unless you get involved? I prefer to not buy my food in Styrofoam containers, wrapped in plastic, looking all sterile in some big chain grocery store. This does not make sense to me, and to some of my generation. This is also something I am willing to pay the real cost for, not the perceived cost of mass market food.
Another pair of farmers that I have fallen in love with are my pig farmers, Fred and Ingrid De Martines. I say MY pig farmers because I eat so much of their pork, not only in restaurants around the city, but at home as well. The De Martines’ farm as I believe they should, as sustainably and naturally as possible, even when those around them think they might be a little crazy. During my many chats with Fred wandering the farm, at events, or in a back alley in Toronto doing a deal for pig bits, he is such a loveable man, and you can see his passion and commitment to farming and raising happy pigs who eat naturally grown feed in open pastures.
Perth Pork raises commodity pork, Berkshire, Tamworth, Ironage, and my very favourite friends the Wild Boars. I eluded to a back alley deal that Fred and I once concluded, and this is a funny story. Meatluck is in its 4th year, and is my annual birthday party and celebration of everything meat. I invite 50-75 of my closest friends over for a potluck where the only rule is that your dish must have a meat component to it. I chose what course everyone is responsible for, and leave it up to them from there. Last year I decided that I wanted to cook a pigs head after a friend of mine posted about this experience on his blog. So, I arranged a meeting with Fred that ended up being a handoff of a Boar head in an alley behind a famous Toronto butcher shop on Queen St. W. We must have looked quite the pair.
A farm tour at Perth Pork with Fred and some chefs
Luckily I roll in a circle of adventurous eaters, and people who can be coerced to try things that may be a bit out of their comfort zone. What’s old is new again, and the cuts of my grandparents are in vogue on menus across the country. Well, my grandparents didn’t feast on pigs heads, but the offal trend speaks to my background and the things that I ate growing up. The first two years of Meatluck I prepared cow tongue, just the way my mother and grandmother did. It was a big hit, thanks partially to the popularizing of it by restaurants in Toronto like the Black Hoof and Caplansky’s Deli. It IS a brave new world, and the “nose to tail” movement is gaining strength and I am a firm supporter of it. Eat any and all parts of animals and plants that we harvest for food, period. As my father always said, “waste not, want not”.
Back to the basics
While I don’t have memories of this, my aunt had a chicken business in Kensington Market in Toronto when my mom was growing up. This business existed in the early 40s and was a part of a community of buyers and sellers, that was the way business had been conducted for a long time. An environment where customers knew the business owners and there was trust in the product and the relationship. In modern times society believes that bigger is better, and in the all mighty convenience factor. I get it, our lives are busy.
Not all big business is evil, and I would be remiss to state this as fact. The big retailers are seeing the light, be it for marketing benefit or a genuine desire to effect change. They’re listening to the customer base of Canada that wants to see their meat bought, packaged, and sold differently. A more informed customer is helping retailers understand that there are dollars to be spent that might be lost if certain practices are not undertaken. It is my belief that this all goes back to simplicity.
Butcher paper and sawdust & everything that’s old is new again.
Tough economic times call for the comforts of times past, and food = comfort. For me, the thought of working with a butcher and developing a relationship is important for a number of reasons, and I see this as a developing trend. People want to feel a connection to the food, from the farmer to the butcher shop, and to know that their food is being raised and handled properly. A butcher tells us about the cut of meat, and if we ask, where it came from. Some shops even list the provenance of their product in the shop, which is great. This isn’t always possible, but it is appreciated by the new breed of consumer. A butcher can tell an amateur cook how to prepare things, and offer recipe suggestions. I have witnessed this my whole life, going with my mom to our local butcher. When my sister was married, and not really skilled in cooking, it was a combo of her great butcher, some cookbooks, and the Food Network, that helped her to learn how to become a better cook. We live in a modern and connected world, but it is the balance of new and old that makes up the fabric of the current retail environment.
For my own shopping, I do purchase my meat in a couple of ways. Firstly I have a few butcher shops around the city that I trust with my business. Trust does not come easily with me, but reputation and experience always help to build this important bond between consumer and retailer. Being able to answer my questions effectively, and if the answer is unknown then admitting that and trying to find out from the source, so my questions are answered. Living in the age of social media, reputation management is important, and an important part of my own business. Your customers are your best form of marketing, and young social media savvy consumers publicly praise their favourite things. A crowd sourcing tweet such as: “I am looking for lamb kidneys from a reputable butcher downtown Toronto, who knows of someone?” Is a normal method of finding product today for the connected.
This guy I trust. Peter Sanagan, owner of Sanagans in Kensington Market
The other way I buy meat is direct from a farm, like Perth Pork. This is my preferred method. Visit and meet the farmer, see the animals, and ask questions. As simple as simple can be. Having this connection with my food is imperative and it gives me an excuse to get out of the city and meet interesting and hard working people. Even if I buy from a butcher who has information on the farms they work with, I will try to look into those farms if I have concerns.
Your customer wants real food, no meat glue or pink slime. Meat should not have an ingredient list, and shouldn’t have words consumers don’t know, or cannot pronounce, like transglutaminase. Feedlots and big warehouses where chickens are raised in abhorrent conditions, are not the ways we should be feeding our community. As industry, you know that additives like pink slime are safe, but would you feed it to your family?
The concept of organic.
I made a friend once over an argument. The word “organic”, this friend asserted, is a marketing term used by industry to sell product and is being misused. She was adamant that there should be a better word than organic to describe products that are grown in the most natural way possible.
Organic versus conventional is the current state of affairs that industrialized agriculture has forced upon the consumer and using complicated terms to describe our food, and to make us feel comfortable about our purchases. Something that I hear over and over from consumers when talking about this topic is that they wish things were simpler, and that it was easier to trust labeling. Where does the burden of this lie? Government, retailers, organizations? That is your question to answer.
Something to think of is how we can help our customers to feel this confidence when they are shopping for meat. Confidence leads to loyalty, and loyalty leads to sales. This is our goal, be it with naturally raised meats being the preference, or with alternative types of farming that help keep costs down and produce a more mass market product.
Real cost of food
What about the cost of food? Thanks to factory farming’s massive economies of scale consumers have very little concept of the real cost of food. “Organic is too expensive”, is the most heard statement by customers when they are asked about how they spend their shopping dollar. There is a segment of the market that will always be able to afford real food, and a segment that will never be able to. We know life is not fair, but how can we equalize this?
The new consumer wants to know how an animal lived, died, and what it ate through out its life. Why is it that some consumers cannot afford the food they desire? The problem we face is that food has been farmed to be affordable, and wholesome with little care taken to ensure it is grown safely and humanely.
Farming is hard, no one can argue with this. We just have to be able to find a way to raise and sell meat in an affordable and humane way. It is what consumers demand.
The majority of meat and dairy products in the UK now contains origin labeling.
“Honest food labeling is a priority for me. Consumers want to see clear, honest labels that allow them to make a choice about the standards and origin of their food. They are entitled to believe that if a label says or implies that a product is British, it is British.” Food Minister, Jim Paice
While the major issue in Canada is not the origin of meat, but how it is raised, this is still something for us to be aware of. Supporting local is an important thing on the minds of consumers, and this must be addressed as well.
We haven’t really touched on this, but we all know the importance of the local movement, and that supporting local is not a trend, but rather the natural order of things. Shipping cheaper product from long distance only causes to damage to our local economy, and as a result to the consumer. This is one of the factors that has led us to the issue of the real cost of food. If we can raise it locally, it is what we should be supporting first and foremost.
It would be nice to see agencies like OMAFRA stepping up and helping consumers to understand the safety of our food, and instill confidence in the market for supporting real food. Canadian meat IS safe.
I am not here to solely lay blame, but help in creating solutions. I would hope our government and regulatory bodies would agree with me. Can they not help us to fix the problems with our food system and what are the barriers to help?
The industry is seen by insiders as being overregulated, and the view that the public perceives safety issues that just aren’t there. The chain continues as media hypes up small and manageable problems, creating panic in the public which is reacted to by government agencies. Then, new policies are enacted and enforced making it more difficult for producers and processors by adding costs.
Then, the industry has to offset costs on their customers, unnecessarily according to most. Canada is not the United States, and I have been made aware that concerns in Canada should be lower because our food chain is safe and stable. As a consumer I want to be assured that my food is safe, and I want to be educated on the traceability of my food and how I am being protected.
A further complication is that most people do not care about how clean their food is, or where it came from, simply, they want value. We demand our government protect us and that our food is perfect, but the reality is that the majority of the public is not willing to pay the real cost of this food. The consumer doesn’t understand that farmers and processors do not have high profit margins, and face many obstacles in order to get the product to the consumer. Again, we look to government and industry to educate us on these things, so attitudes can change and we can feel more comfortable as consumers.
In my business I encourage all of my clients to own their social media presence, and have a defined voice. Social media can take as little as 15 minutes per day, and is a guaranteed success if a policy is put in place and executed effectively.
We blog, tweet, facebook, Instagram, and just generally make our lives public for everyone to see. This has very much to do with how you market your products to us, and conduct yourselves from a customer service standpoint. You should have a social media strategy if you have a public face as a company or retailer. Become a member of your local community, and converse with your customers. Start dialogue, respond to questions, just say hi. This is easy and is not very time consuming low cost marketing, how could you possibly say no? A social media savvy consumer will be a loyal customer, and provide you with free promotion, but you have to exist in the social media sphere to gain the most benefit from your public face.
Now I would like you to hear directly from consumers about their concerns, and the information that helped me to build this talk for you today. You will hear repition, but this is what you need to hear to understand.
I would like a healthier, more natural alternative to factory meat in our supermarkets, even if I have to pay more for it. 'Organic' or antibiotic-free/whatever meat is difficult to find outside of specialty shops, which in my case, don't exist in my neighbourhood.
Suggestions: improved labeling / provenance / sourcing info. Also important, no "pink slime" (ammonia additives to ground beef, etc)
I would like better labeling around breed of origin, age, feed length, and such. I also would really like more access to the odd bits. to get tongues and sweetbreads and other such fun things, as a consumer, it becomes a bit of a scavenger hunt, and a lot of times, you end up getting them from less than perfect conditions (read dirty china town basement meat markets) not so much downtown, but when you are rockin’ it in the’ burbs, and there is no Kensington or Cumbraes to be had.
I would like to see federal legislation to have all our meat labeled as it is in the UK. Retailers must indicate origin, whether it is organic, hormone free etc. Sales of organic/free-range/hormone-free products went up exponentially when this was instituted. Lowering the cost of these healthier products should also be a health concern for the gov't. Poorer people should also have access to these products. They should be readily available, everywhere.
I'd love to see a wider variety of cuts of meat in stores - I think I would cook more with the 'odd bits' if I saw them more often on shelves. If we could all cook with more of a variety only good things could happen, and I'd love to do at home instead of only eating that in restaurants. A positive change I've noticed recently is the availability of antibiotic and hormone-free meats - they aren't organic but they are humanely raised and free of junk, and they are typically more expensive than regular old chicken, say, but more affordable than fully organic chicken. I think the line I've seen around is Yorkshire Valley Farms?
I would like to see meat be better labeled; where it was produced; where it was processed. Legacy...Heritage...All Natural...even Grown Close to Home mean very little to me. Do not patronize your customers. Many know better. Outside of the various meat associations coming up with actual standards on what organic and free range mean, I would like substantiation about why something is labeled organic or free range. Consider your packaging in the retail store. I know consumers have been taken several steps away from the meat they consume and are squeamish bout raw meat, but does meat have to be packaged with Styrofoam trays that are difficult to recycle and not compostable? Does meat need to be wrapped in 20 layers of plastic?
Health is a big thing for me, since I have to think about my children. I don't like hormones, chemicals, or anything else added to my meat. Natural is the way to go!
I would love to be able to buy more local organic meat at major Toronto grocery stores like Loblaws or Sobeys. While I love visiting my favourite butchers in the city, sometimes my schedule doesn't allow it or I'm craving convenience. I'm noticing a small improvement already, but it's slim pickins for the most part. As a buyer, I always want more information and better labeling. I want to know more about where my meat comes from, EXACTLY what's in it, whether there are hormones used or not, and the feed.
Legal definitions, standards and certifications. What is free range? What is organic?
I have to agree with almost every previous commenter, not only on an alternative to farm factory meat, but to have the meat be better labeled insofar as where it comes from and how it was raised, what it was fed.
I'd like a better selection of organic, humanely raised, meat from animals fed what it's natural for them to eat, in grocery stores. Right now at the local Metro there is not a single thing I'm comfortable buying from the meat fridges. I'd also like to be able to buy bones for soup or for my dogs more readily. No food colouring in meat, please, nor pink slime. And I'm not interested in meat imported from outside of Canada.
Support for kosher organic meat producers!
1) what is being done to ensure that their production facilities meet or even exceed health and safety standards for processing
2) in the event of contamination, or other breach what's the response plan? e.g. what's the take on the BSE (mad cow) issue in California relative to the safety / security of local/national supply?
3) what percentage of meat processed at plants is actually inspected?
I want to know what everyone does: how meat is raised, where animals live, what they eat, why, age of slaughter, slaughter methods, facility descriptions, health standards, community involvement, and who are these farmers and what are they about. The process should be something they are so proud of that the public, including children, can witness every stage.
Ban the use of any GMO foods in Canada, ban the use of Monsanto's round-up, offer incentives to 'cleaner' farmers.
From a restaurant & meat packing facility: stop the incredible amount of regulation that they keep heaping on us, it's no longer about food safety. the meat in Canada is incredibly safe, now they are just adding things on that cost money, putting out of business
Without a food policy, and one that encompasses more than what corporate food/GM food proponents want, it will be difficult. Most importantly (IMO) we need a Federal Govt who is interested in creating a national food policy.
Thank you all for taking the time today to listen to what I had to say. I hope you will take something away from this, and will find value in these words and possibly have learned a lesson or two. I hope you all sleep well at night with the confidence that you are doing what you can to help fix the problems in our food chain. Future generations are depending on us to get it right.