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ISLAND HOPPING FOR FUN & PROFIT
Once upon a time agriculture was simple. Producers produced. Feedlots fed. Packers packed. Butchers butchered. Consumers consumed. Everything in the food chain operated on its own little island and acted independently. But then something crazy happened.

Consumers weren't content just to consume. They began to demand things such as product quality, consistency and safety. Heck, they even started talking about things like "free-range chickens" and complaining about farrowing crates without even knowing what they are. They told the retailer, who told the packer, who told the feedlot, who told the producer, who told the geneticist. Suddenly the people of independent islands had to find a common language.

CONSUMERISM IS REAL

Some in the agri-food industry are treating consumerism like a passing fad, but others see it as a tipping point that requires immediate and substantive change. The Vance Food Systems Group, Lenexa, Kan., formerly the Vance Livestock Group, falls in the latter category, as is reflected in its name change.

Representatives of leading animal health companies and top retailers participated in a roundtable at the Meat Conference in Atlanta to share their unique points-of-view about the food chain.
"Over the past decade, the distribution channels that are supplied by meat, milk and seafood producers have been evolving from predatory islands to synergistic chains," says Bill Newham, vice president and publishing director, Vance Food Systems Group. "Every channel segment from producer to retailer has begun to recognize the importance of the end consumers to their respective businesses."

Consumers are more demanding than in the past in the areas of quality, safety and economy, says Newham. As an example, he cites the edict from McDonald's that anybody supplying it with poultry products must have a certain minimum cage space per bird.

In recognition of the evolving food systems trend, Vance launched a new retail grocery magazine titled Meat & Seafood Merchandising in 1997. This gave the Vance Food Systems Group greater insight into the entire food chain than they could ever have realized with just producer and influencer books. They became more keenly aware of the need to keep up with the structural changes of the agri-food industry.

GETTING THE ISLANDS TALKING

The Vance Food Systems Group has begun to regularly include channel information in many of its producer-oriented publications such as Drovers, Dairy Herd Management and Pork. Those publications, along with influencer magazines such as Bovine Veterinarian and Swine Practitioner, now carry a 16-page insert called Food Systems Insider four times a year. The stated mission of the insert is "To facilitate communication in the animal-protein food system, from production to consumption, to enhance coordination of all market segments to meet consumer demand."

Food Systems Insider provides an information link throughout the food chain, including retailers, packers and producers. It focuses on consumer-driven issues that span the food chain, such as traceability, food safety, animal treatment and new product trends. Since all of the stakeholders are reading the same information, communication between them is greatly enhanced.

In addition, the publication is also being inserted into Sosland Publishing's Meat & Poultry magazine, which means that an additional 18,000-plus processors and packers are also in the loop. In all, about 260,000 people up and down the food chain read Food Systems Insider. (Editor's note: The latest issue is inserted into the July/August issue of Agri Marketing.)

ADVERTISERS GOT ON BOARD

Advertisers, whose vision of the future acknowledges the impact of more vocal consumers, jumped on board to support Food Systems Insider. These included Boehringer Ingelheim, Elanco, Allflex, Novartis (formerly Grand Labs), Bayer and Pfizer.

J. Tyler Holck, DVM, senior marketing manager, swine, for Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, sees the publication as a natural media vehicle for the company. "Our portfolio of orally administered vaccines are a great fit for an industry trying to positively impact animal welfare and food safety," Dr. Holck says. "We feel we've established our company as the leader in providing solutions for a sustainable U.S. pork industry, and Food Systems Insiderprovides a communications vehicle that parallels the company's overall mission."

ADVISORY BOARD LIGHTS THE WAY

For decades, most of the communication along the food chain was nonexistent or framed with suspicion. For that reason, Vance had many questions about how progressive communications could evolve. The Vance Food Systems Group decided to put together an advisory board to help provide clarity for that mission. Advisors came from many points along the food chain and thereby provided insight to the Food Systems Group editors as well as FSI advertisers.

Watching this diverse group of advisors interact is like viewing the entire food chain in a laboratory-style setting, says Newham.

For example, Dr. Daryl Olsen, a swine veterinarian from Iowa, visited another advisor, Chuck Ahlem, to tour his California dairy and the Hilmar Cheese Company that Ahlem co-founded. Olsen picked up ideas that he was able to implement into the swine operations he manages.

Beef producer and Advisory Board member Warren Weibert says, "This is a lot different than anything else I've been involved with. Usually my activity is within the beef industry, but this is broader. Everyone is more open and willing to communicate."

Jean Kinsey, the newest member of the Advisory Board as a voice for the consumer, says, "I was impressed with the attempt to link the supply chain. This is something I have been preaching and teaching for years. The Vance Food Systems Group made the concept real and readable. There is a general curiosity about the supply chain and the way it operates. This group strives to pull it all together rather than work as individual silos. The roundtable is an example of that."

EXPANDING COMMUNICATION

As productive as the Advisory Board meetings are, they include only about 50 people per meeting. For that reason, the Food Systems Group has implemented additional ways to build communication within the food chain. On March 8, in conjunction with the Meat Conference in Atlanta, Vance Food Systems Group convened a roundtable of leading animal health companies and top retailers to create discussion from two segments of the food industry who rarely talk. Included in the Meat Conference roundtable were representatives of Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Novartis, Nash Finch, Wegman's, Ukrop's and SaveMart. The objective was to break down the barriers between different segments of the food chain and to open up the lines of communication.

Here's a sampling of the comments from the discussion:

On recognizing the anti-meat agenda:

"The conventional retailer would absolutely collapse without sales of proteins. The whole infrastructure of the store would collapse."



Mike Baker, Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis

Communication challenges:

"Most of the issues we deal with are not new issues. They're just starting to become more prevalent in customers' questions. They're starting to ask questions about antibiotics, growth hormones, BSE and those types of issues. If the information came from the trade groups, with your (animal health suppliers) input, and had our name on it, I think it would be effective. That would help the meat or seafood manager to answer those questions."



Alan Warren, Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.

What surprised animal health company panel members was how open retailers were to discuss issues with them. They said the retailers were really eager to learn. Vance recently conducted a similar event at World Pork Expo and will be doing additional discussion panels at future conferences.

Wayne Cole of Boehringer Ingelheim and one of the Atlanta roundtable participants, summarized the roundtable and the state of the industry well when he said: "As an industry we need to be more proactive in determining what is coming, not waiting until it gets here. We need to get more proactive in looking at what are the coming issues."

Without expanding your horizons and without communicating beyond your island boundaries, you may be setting yourself up for failure. That's why companies throughout the food chain are stepping out of their comfort zones and doing a little island hopping. AM

Paul Welsh is a writer and business consultant based in Leawood, Kan.


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