Calling on retailers to help consumers with plant-based confusion

If you’re struggling to understand what constitutes standards of identity, such as new versions of old favourites, such as meat, milk and burgers, you’re not alone.


Research in the U.S. by an organization called the Center for Food Integrity (which has an arm in Canada, called the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity) shows consumers there are starting to get their backs up about corporations marketing “healthy” alternatives…sometimes even to their own products. 


Corporations claim they’re offering plant-based menu items and ingredients because they want consumers to have choices. But the U.S. study says consumers don’t buy it – rather, they now see it as a money-grab by big business to confuse them and take their money. 


They say that when meat companies offer plant-based alternatives, it sends mixed messages about their traditional products. 


For example, new products may claim to be “healthy.” So there’s an immediate assumption that they’re healthier than the traditional products. And that may not be the case.


We’re talking about huge numbers, too. The U.S. center monitored online conversations, and found there is a core market of 53 million Americans actively engaged in conversations around the standards-of-identity issue. I haven’t seen parallel studies in Canada, but I suspect the sentiment is the same here.


I like some of the push-back coming from commodity groups and traditional product manufacturers who have not lost sight of what consumers have long said they want – fresh, wholesome, simple food.


They point out the contradictions between some new plant-based products and the drive towards basic food. Consumers voice their disdain for ultra-processed food, and consumer groups urge shoppers to check labels for simplicity. 


That’s where some plant-based products fall down. The plant patty that manufacturers try so hard to dress up to taste like and look like a meat patty ends up being heaped with a long list of extras, such as flavour, colour and other ingredients for binding and appearance.


The question is, what would you rather have: a meat burger with one ingredient – 100 per cent Canadian beef, for example – or a plant-based burger with multiple ingredients? 


That’s not to say those ingredients aren’t safe. But they certainly don’t point to simplicity.


Making sense of the marketplace will always revert to consumers… and I believe that increasingly, consumer education will include retailers. 


It has to. Retailers respond to consumers’ demands by stocking their shelves with new products. But this is an era of increasing responsibility; retailers need to respond to consumer confusion. 


I’ve seen evidence of retailer involvement by some chains that have nutritionists and trained dietitians from reputable programs, such as the University of Guelph’s nutritional sciences program, on hand to answer consumer questions. 


To me, these professionals have more of a role than ever to help sort out implicit or explicit claims.


The trickle-down effect of confusion is mistrust. And it’s bound to affect farmers, who are already under the microscope by a public that doesn’t understand what they do, how they do it and why they do it.


A response to this dilemma, also from the U.S., involves a group called the Agricultural Retailers’ Association. It’s received support from one of the world’s largest seed and chemical companies, Corteva, to create a program called Engage for Ag Leaders. This program is designed to try explaining to consumers that farmers and the public share similar values. 


And shared values are proven to go further to build trust than any marketing campaign could ever do.


I’m not shying away from new products. I welcome them and hope manufacturers always try to address consumers’ interests. But manufacturers are getting a black eye from the current state of affairs and need to realize consumers are not happy with the status quo. Ultimately, they want the kind of wholesomeness they get from the likes of fruit and vegetables, and clear messaging to accompany it.   

Publish date: 
Tuesday, October 1, 2019

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