by Paul Welsh, Contributing Editor
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.
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
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."
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."
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.