The 4th Annual Food System Summit was held in October, sponsored by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) and the National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR). In attendance were over 110 individuals from chain restaurants, livestock and agriculture organizations, state departments of agriculture, food processors, animal health companies and the government.

The theme “The New Normal — Building Consumer Trust during Unprecedented Market Volatility” included  talks on animal welfare, food safety and sustainability.

My main take-home points from the excellent set of speakers were:

  • Said NCCR President Jack Whipple: “The speed with which information moves will only increase, but business (especially agriculture) typically does things in a thoughtful,
    deliberate way. Business today needs to make real-time decisions to reach out to consumers.”
  • World Bank’s John Lamb said the definition of food security is: “When all people at all times have physical social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” World volatility can affect food security, poverty and hunger, impact natural resources and the environment, can retard economic growth, influence political stability and social cohesion, and greatly affects quality of life, especially for the poor.
  • CFI’s SITE report pulled 261,307 references on animal welfare from 218,155 articles in a 12-month period. “There is increasing consumer concern with humane treatment of food animals,” said Terry Fleck, CFI’s executive director. “Over 19,000 articles mentioned animal welfare.”
  • Outside interests such as animal rights organizations often introduce animal welfare legislation or bans on certain types of animal products into states that don’t even have those practices, said goat farmer and Maine State Representative Wendy Pieh, House Chair, Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. It was chefs, restaurateurs and foie gras producers from New York who successfully fought a foie gras ban in Maine.
  • Pieh added that because agriculture knowledge is often very low in political circles, industry groups need reach out to legislators with information when such legislation is introduced.
  • Glynn Tonsor, Michigan State University, said that the first voice at the table to suggest legislation or a change often commandeers it, and there is a substantial cost to not being at the table and talking about it.
  • It is true, as Food, Inc., producer/director Robert Kenner said, consumers vote three times a day on their food choices and their trust in the food system. The key is communicating to them to help them make those choices.
  • However, Kenner wants agriculture to cease being a “monoculture” and that while other types of industries can be technological monocultures, agriculture should give up its efficiencies by going back to a diversified farming model. 
  • CFI CEO Charlie Arnot presented 2009 consumer trust research. It indicated that consumers hold farmers primarily responsible for humane treatment of farm animals.
  • And probably the most important key point in the consumer trust survey indicated that consumers still trust farmers, but aren’t sure what we are doing is still farming. “We are going to have to be more transparent and more open in promoting the great men and women who produce our food on contemporary farms using tech-nology, protecting the environment and caring for animals,” said Arnot. “We need to build consumer trust and confidence in the food system.”

Next issue: January 2010