The Food Dialogues: Experts weigh in on consumers’ information needs

Amanda Radke

On Sept. 22, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) hosted The Food Dialogues, a four-part panel discussion answering questions about food. The final panel was held at Chelsea Studios in New York City, NY, with Chef John Besh as the moderator. Panelists included: Bart Schott, North Dakota corn farmer and president National Corn Growers Association; Lynn Silver, director of Science and Policy, New York City Dept. of Health; Sarah Murray, author, Moveable Feasts; Patricia Cobe, senior editor Restaurant Business Magazine; Pamela Ronald, professor of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis and co-author, Tomorrow’s Table.

The panel focused on retaining consumer choices in what they eat and what they pay. The panel explored consumers’ needs for information at the point of purchase (labeling, restaurant ratings, calories, etc.), as well as the safety and health issues related to consumer decision-making and choices. Additionally, panelists discussed the variety of sizes and forms of farming and ranching and its impact on consumer choices made at the checkout counter or when ordering from the menu. Here are the highlights:

“Because transportation and fuel costs have gone up so much, we have seen skyrocketing food prices,” said Schott. “We are also in a demand market with corn, not only locally with livestock and ethanol producers, but also globally. There is a growing demand world-wide for corn. Another factor that influences price is outside investors coming in and buying corn on the Chicago Board of Trade. That has an impact on the fluctuation of prices, too.”

“Flavor is one thing that really needs to be emphasized,” added Cobe. “The push for local from chefs is because they feel they get maximum flavor from their foods. With the push for less sodium in foods, chefs have to be aware of how much salt they are using, so flavor in foods is incredibly important. Some restaurants are now bringing farmers into the facility to meet the diners. I think we could almost take things too far now.”

“Labeling and transparency is a huge issue,” said Murray. “Labeling in the UK shows people what the carbon emissions are, who the farmer is, what the calories are, what the expiration date is and what food group it fits into. I think it’s tricky. Maybe that’s too much information for the average consumer. You can’t go to the supermarket with your magnifying glass, but still consumers do want some information about their food. They are demanding it.”

“In a recent study, 84 percent of New Yorkers say they find labels useful,” said Silver. “They see them and use them to make choices on their caloric intake. Fifteen percent of people use this information at fast-food restaurants. Yet, consumers shouldn’t have to have a doctorate to understand their foods. To put it simply, they should have access to fresh fruits and vegetables at similar price points as processed foods, and right now, that’s not the case.”

“I’m not sure there is a rift in what consumers want compared to what farmers are delivering; if you talk to people they want food that is nutritious for their children, and they are more aware of what’s going on at the farm level,” said Ronald. “I love labels. The more information, the better. Barcoding has been something that has been tossed around, where consumers can look at a conventionally grown papaya verses an organic one.”

“I’ve been very struck by how hungry consumers are for information,” said Murray. “I think there is a huge appetite for this information. I poke fun at the information overload on labels, but at the same time, it’s pretty amazing how much data we can put together on food.”

“We have to connect as farmers today and understand that we need to continue to have an open dialogue with our consumers,” said Schott. “We thought we were answering correctly when we were using science-based answers, but I think the consumer wants to hear more than that from us. They want to know that what we are doing is right, for their families, the environment and the animals.”

editor’s note: to view the food dialogues or join the ongoing discussion, visit: