A new era of watchful food consumers

Consumers don’t just want to know more about how their food 
is produced — some want a very detailed report card

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Last month, McDonald’s USA announced a “multi-faceted effort called ‘Our Food. Your Questions’” in which it invites people to submit their food questions via social media.

“We’re proud of the food we serve our 27 million U.S. customers every day, yet we know people have unanswered questions,” said Kevin Newell, executive vice-president, chief brand and strategy officer. “So, we’re inviting everyone in the U.S. on a journey to learn more about our food. We look forward to the opportunity to have an open conversation and to show people first hand how we make our most iconic menu items.”

The next day Whole Foods announced its Responsibly Grown produce rating system. The system applies to fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers using a three-tiered rating system — “good,” “better,” and “best.” In part, the system “prohibits some of the most hazardous neurotoxins still allowed in agriculture.

“Prohibited pesticides include several organophosphate insecticides, which recent studies indicate can impair neurological development in children born to mothers exposed in diet or by working in agriculture and living in nearby communities,” the company stated.

To earn a “good” rating, farmers must implement 16 farming practices to protect air, soil, water, and human health in addition to not using Whole Foods Market prohibited pesticides. They also must provide transparency about the use of GMOs and not use irradiation or biosolids (organic material obtained from waste water treatment facilities).

The “better” rating adds criteria for water and energy conservation — advanced soil health; protecting rivers, lakes, and oceans; and farmworker health and safety. To achieve a “best” rating, a farmer must take actions to protect bees and butterflies and implement industry-leading pest management and environmental protection programs.

Whole Foods already has programs in place for four animal products. It works with the Global Animal Partnership, which has developed the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards for beef, pork, chicken, and turkey. The steps are:

  1. No crates, no cages, no crowding to provide animals with space to move around.
  2. Enriched environment that encourages behaviour that is natural to the specific species.
  3. Enhanced outdoor access (pigs, chickens, and turkeys might live in buildings but they all have access to outdoor areas).
  4. Pasture centred (when living outdoors, chickens and turkeys get to forage, pigs get to wallow and cattle get to roam).
  5. The prohibition of physical alterations.

Step 5+ requires that animals “must be born and live their entire lives on one farm.”

The detailed program requirements for the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating standards can be found here. Customers can use this rating system to guide them as they choose among the meat offerings at Whole Foods Market.

Whole Foods also has an eco-rating scale as well as wild-caught seafood sustainability ratings.

While some of these requirements may strike some as a little over the top, Whole Foods obviously believes that transparency and these requirements allow the company to meet the expectations of a small, but increasingly significant-to-them market segment.

We’re not suggesting that all of agriculture is going to look like the Whole Foods Market suppliers in the next 10 years, but rather that all producers need to at least be aware of changing consumer preferences and expectations.

In the past we have seen the attentiveness of producers to consumers’ preference for leaner, more-tender pork and beef.

In the future consumers may be looking at issues that go beyond product quality — like personal, ethical and environmental issues — as they make their purchase. This may open up opportunities for some farmers to produce differentiated products while other farmers may need to make few or fairly modest changes in their operations.

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