Food system transparency vital in post-pandemic world

Industry stakeholders see a window of opportunity to build public trust, but the industry must act before the public’s attention on food production wanes

The importance of transparency isn’t a new concept at Chop Steak­­house, but it’s certainly become amplified this year.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian consumers were already asking more questions about food production, something Marcel Blais, president of Chop Steakhouse, anticipates will become more common.

“We’ve always had really strong practices on food and safety; we’re just finding now that our guests are more interested in understanding them,” says Blais. “Our guests really want to be reassured about what we’re doing, about what our protocols are around food safety, and of course that extends beyond just what happens in our four walls.”

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Chop Steakhouse has been a member of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) for more than five years, providing the restaurant with a closer connection to those involved in putting steaks on their guests’ plates.

“We learned years ago that the CRSB, in partnership with other restaurants and players in the industry along the beef supply chain, were working towards improving sustainability but also transparency,” he says. “Those goals aligned very closely with ours.”

Blais is among the beef industry stakeholders who believe transparency will become more important to Canadians in light of the food system disruptions caused by the pandemic. The public’s newly realized interest in the Canadian food system and supporting locally produced food provides an opportunity to create a stronger connection with this audience. Transparency is key to building public trust, something the industry has been focused on as livestock production around the world faces a host of challenges.

“We need our customers to be proud of the system,” says Bob Lowe, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president and producer from Nanton, Alta. “We’re using all the science available to us to produce good, wholesome, healthy food in the cheapest form possible, and in order to make this industry sustainable over the long term we somehow have to generate the interest in the customers.”

Without public trust and social license to raise and produce food, producers can’t make a living, and that can lead to further negative consequences.

“We talk about it all the time that the native grasslands in North America are the most endangered ecosystem in the world,” says Emily Lowe, regional beef agrologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada.

However, she believes this is hard for most people to realize, given that they don’t see a swath of obviously devastated land around them.

“If you don’t really understand how these ecosystems work together and why grasslands are so important, people can be kind of complacent in understanding how quickly they actually are disappearing. So making sure that our producers are able to make an income off the land is so vital to being able to maintain these incredibly important landscapes across Canada and North America.”

Seizing the opportunity

Canadian agriculture now has a window of opportunity to build trust while the public is paying more attention to food production. Bob Lowe encourages individual producers just to talk and to be proud of being able to feed the country. It’s also vital to speak to the urban customer instead of preaching to the choir and to treat it as a conversation instead of a lesson.

“You gain trust by getting to know people. We’ve just got to get to know them.”

John Jamieson, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI), suggests producers work with their commodity organizations to better understand what people want to learn about and how to engage with them on these topics.

“Think about what message or what image they want to convey of themselves: what are their values, what are the values of their sector, what types of rigours are there around their production, what assurance programs are in place?”

Messaging needs to be consistent, and think about how you can relay it through social media.

“What are five things that you want people to know about you how manage your affairs or your operation?” says Jamieson. “Keep coming back to those five things, and that way you get that consistency, because we know you have to keep repeating things for people to pick up on it.”

With more people focused on specialty markets and local food, Emily Lowe advises producers who are diversifying their business to take advantage of these demands and opportunities at this time.

“It produces the ability to potentially improve their bottom line, which in turn will be hopefully able to keep more acres of grassland intact.”

In terms of the beef industry at large, Jamieson believes it’s been on the right track for transparency and communicating messages of interest to the public. He advises industry stakeholders to be truly open to questions from the non-farming public.

“From our research we know that people don’t know a lot about modern agricultural production but are interested in knowing a lot more,” he says. “We need to be open about what we do but also accepting of questions, of being able to authentically answer those questions in a way that is fairly easy to understand.”

Speaking with one voice

The idea of Canadian agriculture coming together to speak with one voice has also been amplified by the pandemic. CCA has been working with other commodity groups, particularly the Canadian Pork Council and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, in advocating for the industry together.

In this vein, CCFI has launched a new consumer-facing campaign, “It’s Good, Canada,” to provide the public with an overview of Canada’s food system and assurance in the safety and availability of Canadian-produced food. This campaign also goes deeper into telling the story of all the players in Canadian agriculture and encouraging discussion on topics such as food safety, environmental impact and economic considerations.

To help bring the entire industry together, Jamieson suggests connecting on an overarching theme common to the Canadian food system, such as health and food safety.

“Every single piece of that food chain plays a role in ensuring that we have one of the safest food systems in the world. And so we can speak with one voice about food safety but also we can tell our individual stories around what we do to ensure safe food for Canadians,” he says.

In Blais’ opinion, our collective pride in the quality of Canadian beef is another area for stakeholders to rally around, particularly when customers are concerned about food safety protocols.

“Having the best Canadian beef is less important if you aren’t extremely confident in how safe it is,” says Blais.

This, Blais states, is a chance for continuous improvement.

“We all have an opportunity to do better when it comes to sustainability and the longe­vity of this beef supply chain, and communicating our message around the safety protocols that have existed for quite some time to keep the consumer safe.”

The risk of losing the opportunity

There is a risk the industry may lose momentum and not take advantage of this moment to the best of its ability. To meet this opportunity, everyone in the beef supply chain can play a role.

“For me, the most important thing is that we stay very focused on the group that consumes our product, that consumes the beef, and we have to listen and be very mindful of the consumer and what they want,” says Blais.

Of course, the industry’s approach to building public trust is continually evolving, says Emily Lowe.

“Questions are going to continue to change no matter how we address them. So I think it’s important that we keep up with consumer questions, and when they’re asking them we can be timely with our responses,” she says. “We need to make sure that we can keep up and provide open and insightful information that’s science-based and based in being able to develop relationships as well.”

This could also be an opportunity to shift public perceptions in general to improve our relationship.

“There’s a certain amount of ‘us versus them’ in the industry… and we have to lose that attitude completely,” says Bob Lowe. “Our customers have to become our best friends. You see those bumper stickers, you see them occasionally, ‘If you ate today, thank a farmer.’ Well, my version of that is, ‘If you farmed today, thank a customer.’

“We can be the best people in the world at raising cattle, we can do it the best of anybody on the planet, and the cheapest and the best for the environment and everything else, but if people decide they’re going to quit buying beef, it doesn’t matter — we’ll have to quit making it.”

 

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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