Natural, organic and cage-free are becoming commonly used terms in a world full of consumers increasingly interested in the source of their food. No surprise, restaurateurs are also fielding consumers' concerns as they determine menus and obtain suppliers.
Kerry Kramp, president and CEO of Sizzler, USA, says it's becoming harder to meet guests' demands for information about where their food comes from.
"Kind of a challenge for us is we find we have less than a fully-informed consumer who is probably subject to a lot of media information that will influence their purchasing and consuming habits," Kramp says. "The buzz words like all-natural, organic, locally sourced, farm-to-table, cage free – they hear those all the time and then they begin to think, 'Boy, those must be healthier because that's what's being pointed out as things we should be eating.'"
Kramp shared his thoughts during a Tuesday webinar that focused on bridging the gap between restaurant operators and their farmer-suppliers.
The webinar, which was sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Rancher's Alliance and presented by Penton Media, also included Laura Foell, corn and soybean farmer from Iowa; Randy Spronk, president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council and farmer from Edgerton, Minn.; and Jim Doak, vice president of menu innovation for Ignite Restaurant Group.
Both Kramp and Doak explained that as restaurant operators, it was important to them to both develop long-term relationships with their suppliers and help educate customers about the effects of their food choices.
Kramp says he now understands the ramifications that producers could face if restaurant operators begin to make big changes based on possible consumer misinformation. He says if he listened solely to consumer requests regarding food buzz words, without having a conversation with farmers and ranchers, economies could begin to change by "providing products to consumers who really aren't educated as to what the ultimate effects could be – environmentally or nutritionally."
Doak adds that the restaurant's responsibility in informing the customer isn't always easy. As a former leader behind Culver's move to chicken raised without antibiotics, he explains that the next step is informing employees.
"We are continuing to find out what information and how much information is right to give to that line employee to be able to speak intelligently to the guest," Doak says. "It's something that's still under review: How do you package it into a sound byte that they are comfortable talking about?"
Two producers joining the restaurant representatives on the webinar, Laura Foell and Randy Spronk, agree that more transparency and easily-understood information is needed from producers. Issues such as biotech seed, organic production and gestation crates are hot topics that consumers are increasingly curious about.
Foell explained that many consumers may not be aware that production methods are closely tied to environmental factors, and some methods are providing benefits that others do not. No-till, Foell says, has allowed her family to use less fuel and "keep the soil where it needs to be."
"Whether you choose organic, conventional (non-GMO), or whether you use biotechnology-enhanced – as a farmer, we don't say one is better than the other. It's what will feed the world," Foell says.
Spronk adds that it's efficiency that will feed the world – something he has placed focus on in his operation.
"From 1959 to 2009, the number of hogs marketed has increased 29%, yet the breeding herd that we used to produce those is down 39%. That's a good thing," Spronk says.
Higher carcass weights and feed efficiency demonstrate that fewer resources are now used to produce meat. Water use has also been reduced by 41%, Spronk says.
The way he raises his animals – through the use of gestation stalls – has come under fire from activists and now some consumers. Spronk says, however, it's not just a "space" issue. He's concerned about his animals' safety.
"We need to be very open and honest with everyone about the good and the bad of both [crate housing and group housing]. I think the way it's being portrayed is that it's just a one-way street and that they just need to be in group housing."
Spronk says what's often forgotten is that farmers have evolved their housing to respond to environmental issues and herd safety issues. When he graduated with an animal science degree in 1981 and joined his father in the family hog operation, the decision was made to transition to individual housing.
"I made what I felt was the best informed decision. I fully believe that the animal is better cared for – you get these females that can cause lacerations, can cause lameness. It's heartbreaking for me to see that," Spronk says, stressing the protection stalls can provide.
He added that discussions about sow housing and hog rearing are good ones to have with consumers, but posed a question: Who gets to ultimately decide what is the best way to treat the animal?
"To me, it's best if the consumer has the ability to decide how they want their product, but then also for the producer to be able to decide what is the best way to house that animal," Spronk says.
It's time for information exchange
For Spronk and the rest of the participants, a theme emerged: consumers, and the food service industry, need first-hand information from the farmer's mouth.
"I think the right decisions will be made as long as everyone is fully informed, and I think a lot of the issues from a farmer or rancher perspective is that the consumer and operators are only hearing one side of the story from an activist standpoint," Spronk says. "[Activists] haven't been knowledgeable about why we do what we do and for what reasons we do it."
Kramp suggests that restaurant operators consider the whole picture, and be careful about making quick supply-chain decisions based on limited information.
"Laura [Foell] said earlier she can do anything we want, we just have to understand the ramifications. To them, they just want to produce great food that people want to eat. We just want to serve it to them. We're all after the same thing, but we have to be very thoughtful about the process," Kramp notes.