The quiet revolution of food retailers

While many debates continue in the political and “parapolitical” world about many aspects of food production systems and the impact of human activity on the environment, retailers lead a quiet revolution. Without making the headlines, they gradually change the way their suppliers will do business in the years to come.

Such an evolution is certainly welcome, especially in a time where important decisions need to be made. Political leaders seem unable to reach any agreement on environmental issues, as the world could see at the late Climate Summit of Copenhagen. In the food sector, there are many discussions going on about sustainability and genetic engineering, to name the two hottest items, but the political class does not seem to generate clear and concrete action plans.

Just like what happened in the 1990s about food safety in Europe, retailers are taking the initiative to create momentum on the current issues. The problems that plagued the food industry in Europe, such as salmonella in poultry, the mad cow disease, or the dioxin in Belgian fat for chicken feed showed a number of weaknesses that needed to be addressed. In the case of BSE, UK retailers did not wait for British or European legislation to demand meat and bone meal-free feed for farm animals. As I was working for a company supplying the UK market with chicken meat, I can testify that these were dramatic times. Tough decisions had to be made on a very short notice that had serious financial consequences. By then, a couple of reasons made the retailers took the lead. First, the inability of the government to prevent and tackle the issues was creating a bit of a vacuum on leadership. Consumer confidence in their institutions was fading, and retailers were the only ones, true or not, perceived to take the proper actions to protect the public. The second reason was the fact that many retailers had their own private labels. In this case, the problem was not the supplier’s problem anymore because the supermarket chain could have risked serious PR damage if a food safety issues would have been associated with their brand.

This time, retailers are again in the position where they can present themselves as the consumers’ champions. Legislation is slow to move and make significant decisions. The involvement of interest groups adds to the infighting and delays decision-making.

To prepare for the future, they already have come out with plans and communication on how and where they want the food they sell to be produced, and they try to offer a choice to consumers. By doing so, the most active among them are setting new standards, and forcing the whole production and supply chain to think about the things to come.

In previous blog posts, I have mentioned some of such initiatives, and in Future Harvests, I described the increasing leadership role of food retail in agricultural practices.

In particular, I mentioned the carbon footprint labelling on dairy products by Tesco, Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index questionnaire to suppliers, and the seafood sustainability programs of many retailers. Marks & Spencer started their Plan A in 2007 with the objective of making their business more sustainable. To achieve this, they are involving their suppliers and the farmers producing for them to carry out the changes that M&S finds necessary for a better future.

More recently, new initiatives indicate that retailers are pursuing further on such initiatives. Wal-Mart came last week with their plan for sustainable agriculture. In the UK, Sainsbury let know last week that they were committing GBP40 million to invest in farming. Earlier this week, Carrefour unveiled their “Reared without GMO” program. In their stores in France, they will sell 300 food items labelled as being GMO-free, to offer consumer a choice based on transparent information. If Carrefour ventures into this, one can be sure that they do so because they already know that this will be good for their business. By gaining market share, it is very likely that their competitors will soon react by issuing similar programs. The EU Commission may be struggling to figure out how to deal with GMOs, but Carrefour says “Let the consumers tell us!” Vox populi, vox dei!

Of course, such initiatives do not please everyone. Today, I could read in a blog for a US magazine backed by the meat industry some interesting reactions about Carrefour’s new plan. Some readers were bringing up the typical arguments. Meat would be so expensive in Europe. Well, meat is quite affordable in France, even without GMOs, so think again! The other argument was about freedom of choice: people should be able to eat what they want. By labelling its food item, Carrefour does just that. French consumers are free to buy at Carrefour or somewhere else, and they have the right to choose what label they prefer. The freedom of choice is ironic coming from the US meat lobby, since American consumers do not have that freedom. Reared with GMOs is pretty much the only choice in the US. For now, that is. However, it is interesting to see on Carrefour’s press release that the pictures of fish, chicken and pork chops are exactly the same, regardless of whether they would be grown with or without GMOs.

In the 1990s, British and European consumers, and retailers, were challenging food industry practices because they were worried about their health and about the lack of transparency about food. Nowadays, in the USA, consumers are increasingly suspicious of their agribusiness, because they are worried about their health and the lack of transparency of the industry. Beef recalls because of E. coli, egg recalls because  of salmonella, spinach contaminated with manure are in the news on a (too) regular basis. They are also increasingly aware, and suspicious, of the relations between interest groups and their government agencies, and how this influences decisions on what they eat.

Retailers are now saying that they are not waiting for politicians to make decisions. They have defined their vision, they know what they want, and they are passing the message on to the suppliers. What would happen in agribusiness USA if Wal-Mart took a similar approach as Carrefour?

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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