Protecting the Food Retailer's Right to Offer Options

Animal welfare issues are hot items these days, and it is important to know the source of that heat. FMI's U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends shows that consumer curiosity in the animal welfare policies of both food producers and food retailers continues to grow slowly but steadily, with some 21 percent of consumers expressing an interest in this area.

It should be noted, however, that the horizon of concerns expressed by this group of 1 in 5 shoppers includes a diversity of approaches and attitudes regarding animal welfare issues. Some shoppers are focused exclusively on the personal impact of animal welfare topics, and their concerns zero in on the possible health implications of hormones and antibiotic use in the animal agriculture industry. Others are focused on the animals' quality of life while being raised. A strong majority of the 21 percent want to be assured that other animals were not harmed in the capture or raising of the food animals (think dolphin-safe tuna). According to Vegetarianism in America, a 2008 study published by Vegetarian Times, about 3.2 percent of the population adheres to a vegetarian diet and about 0.5 percent is committed to consuming no animal products at all. More recent studies claim that 5 percent of the population is committed vegetarians. All of this points to some verifiable consumer interest being expressed regarding animal welfare concerns, but is that where the heat is coming from?

Since its inception, the food retail industry has followed a market-driven philosophy; if a substantial number of customers wanted a particular product or wanted it produced a certain way, then the retailer sought to provide that option. This market-based approach allowed grocers to remain neutral when it came to customers' values. The retailer acted as a curator for the consumer, seeking a supplier who could meet the specifications to keep the various customers satisfied, all based on demand. This option-offering methodology allowed customers with differing opinions, needs and approaches to shop side by side without the views of one adversely impacting the experience of the other.

This approach is being challenged. Increasingly food retailers are being asked, pressured and some would say forced to commit to particular production methods and product lines or be able to articulate their position on any number of issues ranging from animal welfare concerns to farm production methods. Some shoppers are asking for this and are requesting that their retailers clearly articulate their position on a variety of social topics because these consumers want to choose their store and their products on the basis of shared values with the companies involved. On the basis of sales, it appears most consumers are satisfied with the food retailer approach of offering options that will satisfy the diverse interests of a variety of customers and not restrict selection. So where is the heat coming from?

With regard to the recent cage-free egg issue, it is clear that the heat came, not from consumers, but from several animal activist groups working in concert to pressure food retailers into making public commitments to transition toward sourcing only cage-free eggs within the next decade. The public commitments made by a strong majority of food retailers has presented a substantial challenge to the egg production world as egg farmers face the impossible task of needing to totally reconfigure their production systems within a very tight timeframe. At some point we have to ask who granted a slim minority of activists with limited or no scientific grounding the right to myopically declare and push for one exclusive production method? I have to believe that even the 21 percent of shoppers who might be pleased with this movement will have second thoughts when they see that cage-free exclusivity will likely limit product availability, will definitely impact prices and will have an adverse effect on the shopping experiences of all others (especially WIC shoppers) by limiting options.

In this information age, consumers have every right to inquire about a food retailer's understanding, position and commitment to animal welfare issues. But within that consumer information, retailers and producers should also be providing awareness of why their right to operate under the philosophy of offering market-driven options must be protected. There is a loss of freedom and a price that everyone pays in each move toward exclusivity—whether that exclusivity is regarding products or production style. The food industry must respect the shopper's interest in animal welfare concerns and provide consumers with options that align with the customer's values. But animal activists must learn to respect a market-driven economy and cease dictating methods that appeal to a small minority, but affect the shopping experience of everyone. Why force retailers to choose to keep a few happy when their preference is to satisfy all their customers?