JUST GOOD BUSINESS BUZZ – SUSTAINABILITY : Is Factory Farm Din Obscuring Consumer Voices?

A little-published research report on how sustainability-aware United States consumers and retailers view New Zealand food starkly underlines the major issues at stake as the country considers proposals to set up dairy “factory farms” in the McKenzie Basin. It has not enjoyed wide circulation – but the voices of US consumers are surely worth wider hearing.
The research was conducted by the Hartman Group in the US for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE). It involved hours of interviews with focus groups and buyers from the likes of Whole Foods, Safeway, and Central Market retail firms.
It finds that most often quality is main driver of consumer buying behaviour and that for many, quality and sustainability are linked concepts. The Hartman Group notes that there is “growing minority in the US that does prioritise sustainability concerns when they make purchases, in food and many other categories of goods”.
In other words the quality revolution has fully arrived in the US and the sustainability trend is just starting to really gain traction. However, as NZTE puts it: “Quality and sustainability are often two sides of the same coin.”
And what does this vital consumer target group for New Zealand imagine quality food to be and not be?
Well, they don’t associate quality with the “food ways of the recent past”, which are generally seen as:
• Factory/industrial mass-quantity production (ie big companies, smokestacks, vats of chemicals, and sombre hair-netted workers dotting long, complex manufacturing lines).
• A focus on cheapness-to-manufacture and profit above quality.
• Uniform, boring and often “fake” foods.
As the November 2009 report says: “In other words, high quality, sustainable product is one that successfully defies association with the stereotypes of ‘factory food’.”
For New Zealand therefore “fresh” is the most important product attribute for all food and beverage categories. And the perception of fresh has range of underlying associations that are also linked to sustainability. These include terms like: organic; Fair Trade (where applicable); whole food; simple short ingredient list; minimal packaging; cage-free (where applicable); free-range (where applicable), grass-fed; grain-fed (where applicable); appearance of minimal processing; cues for naturally sourced ingredients; location in perishable and perimeter food categories; use of natural colours and packaging materials.
The cues for freshness, says the report, are the antithesis of factory farming, evoke real, direct connection to the earth, involve no industrial processing, connect to indigenous culinary traditions, and have product narratives emphasising people, places and traditions.
As to specific attitudes toward New Zealand and its products, there’s perception that Kiwis still pretty much know their farm animals by name. Although US consumers’ notions about New Zealand are vague, they turn out to be “overwhelmingly positive” about the country when it comes to environmental law, wise resource use, biodiversity, animal welfare, employment practices, ownership, financial stability and care and attention to product.
Ironically, as the report was quietly circulated to business audience at home, the Crafer brothers were capturing national headlines for allegedly poor environmental and animal welfare practices on their central North Island dairy farms. Since then we’ve had the McKenzie Basin “factory farming” proposals involving milk production from 18,000 cows largely cared for in sheds.
The latter is interesting in the light of the report recommendations. It says that “given the current state of the US consumer, as an already committed quality-centric consumer and an emergent sustainability consumer”, local producers should pursue path that includes:
• Leading with an emphasis on quality; while
• Paying special attention to the sympathies and overlaps between various quality cues and sustainability; in order to
• Be appropriately positioned for likely future growth in US sustainability consciousness.
It says that “based on US consumer perceptions of New Zealand and its food industry, NZTE is in many ways very well poised to execute such strategy”.
The quality-conscious market offers lucrative future for New Zealanders. Serving it well also involves intimately caring for our animals and other resources to produce the best while not degrading our environment, people or quality of life.
We will ignore the voices of the quality-conscious consumer, speaking to us via Hartman and NZTE, at our national peril. M

Peter Neilson is chief executive of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development. www.nzbcsd.org.nz

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