Educating the consumer – Nutritional information only is not enough

Last week a survey was published in the US about whether fast food customers were using nutritional information to make their choice. The result was that although they could read how many calories their meal would include, they did not choose for a healthier lower calorie meal.

Apparently, this was a shocker. It was not to me, and this for a couple of simple reasons. First, people do not go to a fast food restaurant to nibble on a knackebrod. Secondly, information disclosed is never enough to make people change their habits, especially if they have a craving for what they buy. Otherwise, why do some people still smoke when they can read in big letters on the pack that it will kill them?

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

If we want to make people change their eating habits, information is necessary, but by far not sufficient. When it comes to food, we are dealing with many complex issues that have to do with psychology and with taste and a behaviour that we have acquired at a very young and developed as we grow up in the environment that our parents have provided. Further, we all know how skillfully marketing has use these psychological “weaknesses”.

In the US, there is currently quite a debate on health care and obesity is one of the main issues. In many ways, our eating habits are a reflection of our life style and of our society, as I have mentioned in my article “If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?” Therefore, trying to induce a change in our eating habits can only succeed if we make broader changes in the way we live.

Next to information, what consumers need is education. Unless they have an understanding of what the data they get really means, how can we expect them to act upon it?

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

We need to teach children about the basics of nutrition and of metabolism as early as possible, and this education must include their parents, too. There is no big mystery behind what causes obesity, diabetes and other food excesses related ailments. It is quite easy to explain what functions the different food groups fill and how to compose healthy meals, as it is really just a matter of adding up and keeping the right proportions.

It would be highly useful to educate everyone about where food comes from and how it is produced. A program like “Know your food, know your farmer” introduced in the US is useful, but “Know your farming” is just as needed.

What parents also need to understand is that it is their duty to give their children a balanced diet, although it might mean that they, too, should have one, but most importantly, when it comes to decide what is on the table, the children do not dictate what they want simply based on what they like.

Education, though, goes much further than just parents and schools, and retailers, restaurants and the agribusiness need to co-operate more than they currently do, even though some are more active than others in this field. If we want to solve a society problem, the whole society must participate. It is rather interesting to see how the meat industry in the US is reacting to the proposal of a meat-free Monday in school cafeterias. I can understand the resistance to government intervention in telling how people should feed themselves, although when this leads to many health issues, one could argue that if the people cannot make the right choices, maybe someone else should set stricter rules to help them. I also can understand that such a meat-free Monday is a bit threatening to the meat industry, as it means (a tiny little) bit less business in the short-term and maybe quite a bit more if it meant that the next generation might cut on meat consumption. On the other hand, what the meat industry in developed countries needs to realize is that there are plenty of people in other countries who are longing for meat, and these new markets have more than the potential to replace the volumes lost in their domestic markets.

Another great source of information is consumers’ organizations, like the ones I know in Europe. They are independent and they provide many surveys and comparisons on consumer products. They have been very useful in helping consumers gain more awareness about what they consume. Unfortunately, such open and objective information is not directly available in all countries and this is a weakness in the fight for health.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

More action needed on food waste

Food waste is one of those topics that rarely make the headlines while the numbers that come out surveys are simply stunning.

40% of food production does not reach the plate

40% of food production does not reach the plate

Five years ago, the University of Arizona had published a report about the situation in the USA. Their estimate of food waste was almost that 50% of the food produced in the US never gets eaten. Although some losses are inevitable in the supply chain, their report estimated that 14% of the food bought but American households are thrown away, and even 15% of that amount is sent to garbage without even being opened. Not only, this is lost food that could have even eaten, but also the environmental impact of food waste is far from negligible. According to the University of Arizona research, cutting half of the food waste would reduce the environmental impact by 25%, because of reduced landfill use, soil depletion and application of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Recent USDA studies indicate a level of 25% of food that never reaches a plate.

In the UK, research by the government’s waste reduction agency, WRAP, found that one third of all food bought in Britain is thrown away – of which half is edible! I read an amazing statement from Liz Goodwin, WRAP’s chief executive in a 2007 article from The Guardian: ‘If we stopped the amount [of food waste] that we could stop, it would be the same as taking one fifth of cars off the road.’  About a third of the food waste in the UK comes from households, food manufacturers account for about 20%, food service and restaurants for about 15%, and retailers just under 10%.

In Australia, it is estimated that food waste makes up half of that country’s landfill!

At the global level, estimates of food going wasted are that over half of the food produced globally is lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain, finds a new study by the United Nations Environment Programme released in early 2009.

According to UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner There is evidence within the report that the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet.” This statement is a nice illustration of what I was presenting in my article The transition from a consumption society towards a maintenance society.

Let’s check if this is correct:
Today’s food production being 100 with waste of 40%, means that we actually consume 60. FAO claims that food production needs to increase by 70% to meet the needs of the population in 2050. This means available food must be 60 x 1.70 = 102, compared with 100 gross production currently. With no waste, Achim Steiner statement sounds consistent and correct!

If this is not food for thought, I do not know what is. Nonetheless, this is definitely a part of what we need to address for the future of food supply.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How sustainable is “sustainable”?

The more as read about new certified sustainable foods sources, the more I start to wonder about how really sustainable they are. As I have mentioned before, I believe that sustainability is the only way forward because, per definition, what is not sustainable has no future, but I am beginning to have doubts about the credibility of some certification schemes.

There are two things bothering me:

  1. I thought that I had heard something about fisheries collapsing all over the world, but it sounds like more and more seafood is sustainable, and in such quantities that large retailers can offer it. Almost every week there is at least one new certified fishery and many more to come from what I hear. Does this really add up?
  2. Sustainable foods seem to follow the same logic as the consumption society that has brought us in such trouble already. The message seems to be: consume more of it because it is sustainable! I just miss the “consume with moderation” message.

Clearly, certifying sustainable food is a business, and definitely a big business growing further. Moreover, the more food programs certified, the more captive audit customers, therefore the more revenue, it produces.

In addition, it is very clear that there is a lot more “green” talk in business and marketing than actual improvement, at this stage.

Sustainability is a very serious matter, and therefore it is of the utmost importance that certification standards are above any suspicion. Only their credibility will allow us to make the proper progress towards a better future.

Funding and accountability to consumers are two important tools to guarantee such high standards and integrity. I like France’s Label Rouge model, because certification is carried out and supervised by the Ministry of Agriculture, therefore funded and accountable to the French people, their consumers.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Sustainability: A land of confusion?

The more I read and hear about sustainability, the more confused I get about what the people making statements about it really mean, if they mean anything at all.

Very clearly, everyone now goes sustainable or green or whichever other term they choose. It is almost as if sustainability is a completely new revolutionary concept. No, it is not. That was the way people lived for ages, before we started thinking that we did not have to live by Nature’s laws. Yes, in the old times people would repair their socks instead of throwing them away. What were they thinking?

Two things really worry me about the current sustainability approach. The first one is companies appointing one person in charge of sustainability. Can sustainability be a separate entity in an organization or has what should be our most basic thinking been so forgotten that someone needs to reinvent it? I do not think so. Sustainability is everyone’s concern and if there is a CSO (S for you know what), it should be the person at the very top, imposing sustainability thinking to every employee in the company. This topic is too important to delegate. The second one is how quickly businesses that have shown some serious deficiencies in the sustainability area now come out very quickly with all sorts of announcement and even certification proving how well they are doing. Of course, on the other hand, there are the market watchers claiming that some of these claims are not true.

For instance, I am getting more and more confused by how quickly, and almost on a weekly basis, restaurants and supermarkets are able to source sustainable seafood. As such, this is great news. Yet, it makes me even wonder if there indeed was an overfishing problem. Something just does not quite add up.

There are those who seem to reduce sustainability in food production to organic or to small farms, almost as if the Amish way, with all due respect for the Amish, is the only way forward. I disagree with this rather reductionist thinking. I believe that with all the technology that we currently have, we can be sustainable and modern.

Therefore, for those who, like me, are confused about what they hear and read, here are a few statements about how I think about the subject, and I hope that they are not confusing to you.

  1. Per definition, what is not sustainable has no future. Therefore, just do it, instead of talking how you would do it.
  2. Everything that continuously depletes a source of our basic essential needs is not sustainable. Think about it before depletion reaches the point of no return!
  3. Everything that continuously increases the level of harmful components in what we breathe, drink or eat is not sustainable. Think about it before increasing water, air, soil and food pollution!

It is just this practical.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Wal-Mart’s Yiannas promotes food safety culture

This article reports of Mr. Yiannas (VP Food Safety at Wal-Mart) speaking at the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Executive Conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., and his views on this topic.

It just shows that there is a new trend coming in the US, as I happened to describe in my article of yesterday (Health and environment as the drivers of food production). There are growing concerns from consumers and the retail will probably be the catalyst for change. Wal-Mart as the leading retailer is going to pave the way forward, just like it does on sustainability. This certainly is going to mean some deep changes in the way the suppliers will have to run their businesses.

Health and environment as growing drivers of food production

Health concerns will gain more importance in the future in the decision process of consumers when they buy their food.
More and more, we can hear and read about concerns and even rejection of the current production systems. Although this bad publicity is not always based on the most objective facts, it has been able to find a growing audience.

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

Since most consumers have little or no knowledge of agriculture and food, their only source of information is in the popular media. On the other side of the discussion, the agri-food industry is not getting through, because its message tends to be too defensive and too technical. Unfortunately for the industry, errors from the past (for example, the use of DDT) or cases from other industries (for example, tobacco) contribute to cast a shadow on its credibility. As I wrote my previous article “Less controversy thanks to transparency”, the agribusiness will achieve much more by opening up and having consumers visit their premises so that they can tell what they saw. They must organize more Open House days.

Therefore, for now, consumers have a certain perception of how food is produced, and it is not so relevant to argue whether this perception is correct or not. Perception simply is reality, and consumers act according to what they believe is true.
A little bit of this...There is a growing concern about environmental and health aspects of food production. About the environment, you can list very diverse things such as the depletion of wild fish stocks in the oceans, the interaction between aquaculture and wild fish stocks, manure and smell of intensive animal husbandry and impact of manure on soils and drinking water, deforestation of rainforest for ranching of beef or about growing GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). On the health side, consumers worry about food poisoning due to bacteria, such as E. Coli, listeria, campylobacter and salmonella, but also about residues of pesticides or antibiotics, as well as they worry about the use of hormones in animal productions. As the discussions get more animated in the US about the reform of health care and the cost of obesity, more and more people are wondering about whether the fast food diet is a proper one. Next to this, animal welfare is a growing concern by more and more consumers.
The answer to many of these worries has started to appear in the last few years with the growth of the organic market segment. When we see the growth and the performance of a retailer such as Whole Foods, there is no doubt that organic foods have a growing audience.

The concerns about the environment are forcing retailers, food service and businesses involved in the production chain of food to make changes. Some of the actions they have taken can be seen as marketing or PR, but they also have become mainstream. Just a look at how many restaurant and supermarket chains have already implemented sustainable seafood programs indicates how serious this change in consumer attitude is. Fast food chains are also actively working on reducing their environmental impact and set standards on where they source their meat, based on environmental concerns, such as no beef from ranches deforesting the Brazilian rainforest.
In the past, we have seen some examples of production methods that had to be abandoned, simply because no solution to cope with environmental problems could be found. This has been the case in The Netherlands where the level of intensification caused such manure surpluses and risks of animal disease to such a point that after many years of looking for viable technical solutions in vain, the government decided that the size of the national herds had to be reduced.
Similarly to what happened in Europe over the last decade, we can expect that much stricter rules in the use of antibiotics will be applied, and I expect a similar trend to a progressive elimination of the use of hormones in animal husbandry. About animal welfare, there should not be any surprise the day that only husbandry systems that allow enough “recreation” area for animals will be allowed. All of the above is going to have an impact on how and where food is produced. Systems will become less intensive, and progressively we will see more techniques to improve efficiency to compensate.

Past Food?

Past Food?

As I also had mentioned in another article (Future price of fish and meat: up), it is simple logic that with more people to feed, food is going to become more expensive. However, the relative prices of various food products also need to go along their relative health benefits. Today, it looks like only wealthy people can afford a healthy diet, as the price of “good” food is substantially higher than the price of what makes a nutritionally unbalanced meal. This clearly does not work in the direction of a healthier population at large.

The way consumers think will define the way we eat and produce our food. Many changes in consumption patterns, in production systems and in product offering are under way. I will get back later with more details on what my views are on this.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The dining of the future

With the current development of software and technology on the one hand, and all the concerns that consumer express about food, health and environment, on the other hand, I believe that it is only a matter of time before we all can have the information and tools we need to make our own eating (and nutritional) choices.

Can I eat this?

May I eat this?

Today, we have nutritional information on all food items labels, but few of us use it much. This could soon change.
As many among us have computers at home, we can expect software to come on the market, and maybe even already installed with the computer at purchase, that will allow us to determine and set up our own diets.
Already numerous websites have interactive programs telling you, depending on your weight and life style, how many calories you should eat per day and other websites help you calculate the nutritional value of your meal if you enter the quantities of your menu’s components.

In animal nutrition, optimization programs to compose the feed ration by entering the nutritional value of the different possible ingredients and set limits to the level of inclusion of some ingredients based on nutritional and technical parameters have been in use for many years. Last, but not least, these programs also include the price of the different ingredients, so that the best-balanced “meal” that meets the nutritional needs can be composed at the lowest cost possible.

Therefore, it is just a matter of time before we all can have at home a system that will take into account, or weight, our age, our level of physical activity, our health risks and calculate for us what our meals could be made of and how much we should eat, depending on which menu combination we would like to have for that particular meal or day. The nutritional information could be either from a database or directly transferable from the nutritional value label present on the food packaging we bought.

Following the same idea, I expect most restaurants to present their menus with thorough nutritional information on the side, in a similar way as food labels show, with indication of health benefits or restrictions. There also would be the possibility for a customer to enter their personal information to have the meal tailor-made for them, with probably the relevant price adjustment when needed. All of the above includes of course the drinks as well, as they definitely can contribute to the overall nutritional value of the meal.

Any action encouraging healthier eating will be supported by the government and by health insurances, which should help accelerate the introduction of such programs.

As environment and sustainability are among the main concerns of consumers today, I expect food items in the retail and the dishes on restaurant menus to include environmental information, similar to the ones mentioned and appearing on the label shown in my article “Environmental performance on food labels“. Today, a number of restaurants have already joined programs setup by MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) to indicate they serve only sustainable seafood. Seafood is probably just the first item that will be followed with similar information and programs for other food sources.

We have entered the era of information, and we will eat accordingly.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How much can the rule of 80-20 tell us about the future?

We all have heard about this rule across all industries, including agriculture and food. Eighty percent of the food would be produced on 20% of the farms and vice-versa. If it still applies in the future, it can indicate us how our food production and supplies will look like in the future. Of course, this is always a theoretical exercise, but it is quite convenient to elaborate on our thoughts.

As the population is expected to grow quite strongly in the coming decades, especially in urban areas, this could indicate two dominant trends:
• Further size increase of the largest farms and further industrialization of agriculture and food for global markets, although the number of farms in this segment would not increase strongly.
• Strong increase of the number of small farms involved in specific value chains and strongly linked with their local economy.

Industrial agriculture
Producing more, yet in a sustainable way. That is the challenge!This group will continue to be involved in mass production of commodities for global supplies, like this is the case today.
Yet, they will face an increased pressure to adapt to the requirements of sustainability, which technically is quite possible. New systems and more efficient technologies will be the pillars of its growth and development. They will have to find ways of reducing the amount of chemicals in crops and the amount of pharmaceuticals in animal productions
The requirements for capital will be quite high and the sector will be led by increasing larger corporations, by an increasing level of capital by large private investors and, last but not least, by some governments. This agriculture will innovate further and will be developed thanks to this capital. It will use automation and mechanization to reduce the dependence on labor. Mergers & acquisitions will continue in the agricultural sector and a few large blocks will remain, dominating their sectors.
Their mandate will be about more control the natural conditions of production and about reducing to a minimum their impact on air, water and soil, by using less polluting transport methods, water preservation, effluent treatment and soil preservation. They also will have to engage in maintenance of their environment.
The role of this type of agriculture will be to bring to market large amounts of affordable food for the masses, and should play an important role in strategies around food security, which is where corporations and government will interact on a regular basis.

Local food value chains
Closer to natureThis sector should undergo a strong growth and be build in a market-driven approach. These are the farmers that produce specialty products aimed at serving either a very specific segment of the retail or foodservice market.
This trend, which has been already initiated around concepts such as organic or authentic, will evolve into a more integrated local economy, and the initial concepts will probably become less differentiated as food production in general, be it industrial or traditional, will use more sustainable techniques.
Contrarily to the common belief, this agriculture will be developed thanks to very efficient techniques, but will be centered relatively more about labor and relatively less about capital. In this case, efficiency does not necessarily mean intensification.
We must not underestimate the significance of this part of the food production, as it will play an important role. However, we must not expect this type of agriculture to be the solution to feed the world, and this is not the purpose of the farmers involved in such food production chains.

This type of farming will grow in two different environments:

  •  In “developed” countries to serve a increasing, but aging, population more demanding about the origin and the production methods, and who is ready to pay a premium for the perceived better quality. The angle will be about quality, transparency, sustainability, traceability and as close to zero a use of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In some areas, it could help strengthening a local economy and local communities.
  • Developing a local economy thanks to agriculture (Picture: FAO) In emerging countries, the development of a local agriculture, and aquaculture, will be a key driver of economic development for under industrialized and/or under urbanized regions. It also will be a way of slowing down the migration of population to urban centers and limit social problems, by creating satisfying economic conditions and by securing food supplies locally. This farming will be about basic needs, before marketing.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Wal-Mart’s 15 questions to suppliers on sustainability

Recently, Wal-Mart has sent a questionnaire to all their suppliers, including for food items, asking them to give answers to 15 questions about they actually do about sustainability.

I like this questionnaire, because it is simple, practical and straight to the point. Suppliers who have difficulties to figure out the answers definitely have quite some catching up to do, because this is not going away.

This is the first step to impose a change towards sustainable products, and we can expect that this document, although only the beginning, will soon become the standard for retailers, and therefore to industry. I believe that their approach will be much more effective than all the partisan talk that seems to create more division than help create a comprehensive plan for the general interest.

I recommend reading this article from GreenBiz, which explains quite well what the Wal-Mart questionnaire will concretely mean for suppliers.