Partners for Advancing Agriculture ®

Managing the Shift to a Values-based Food Supply

Fall 2016

I grew up on a dairy farm on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. We loved our cows, and everything we did on that farm was for the sake of the cows. Each day after the morning milking, a stainless-steel tanker truck backed up to our barn, loaded our milk and hauled it to the processing plant. At that time, we didn’t give much thought to what happened to the milk after that. We believed that consumers trusted us to do what was right on our farm, and that they would continue to buy milk and enjoy it.

I am passionate about consumer trust: from the beginning to the end of our complex food system. I have learned a lot about our food system and about consumers over the last 25 years. My career has allowed me to contribute as a farmer, a scientist, an academic, a teacher, a marketer, and an advocate across our complex food value chain.fall-newsletter-2
Trust is something that we can’t always see, but we can feel. Trust is an intuitive belief in something (or someone) that is honest, safe and reliable. In building consumer trust regarding food, the research consistently shows that shared values are 3-5 times more important than competence. In other words, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”



There is no doubt that fear sells. F.E.A.R. can be translated to mean False Evidence Appearing Real. More often than not, fears are unwarranted. But False Evidence can appear just as real as Validated Evidence taken out of context.

To many, evidence means anything that ‘sounds like’ or ‘looks like’ a fact. So, if I go to a retail grocery or convenience store to buy a carton of milk, I will have a lot of choices. One of those cartons may be labeled ‘antibiotic-free’. But that implies that some milk brands contain antibiotics and some brands don’t. Fluid milk sold in the U.S. does not contain antibiotics, regardless of the brand. There are many stop-gaps on the farm and at the plant to ensure that no milk containing antibiotics reaches the food supply. The milk is the same.

When it comes to evidence – the consumer may say, “But wait, I’ve read the ‘facts’ that farmers give antibiotics to their cows, so it must be true.” In fact, dairy farmers do not feed antibiotics to their lactating animals in any amount, and the only time an animal might receive an antibiotic injection is if she has a fever and infection. Her milk is then discarded according to the labeled withdrawal period.fall-newsletter-1

Evidence on the packaging and marketing of our food may appear truthful, but it can be incomplete or taken out of context. Like the previous example, the milk inside the cartons is the same nutritious product, but the description of the milk differs. The intent of that antibiotic-free label was to differentiate that carton of milk to appeal to consumer’s perceptions.

Values and Transparency

The traditional purchase drivers of food are taste, price and convenience. Yet 51-percent of those surveyed in the 2016 annual FMI/GMA survey also bring a new set of factors into their purchase decisions. ( These factors were referred to as “evolving value drivers”. They include health and wellness, safety, social impact, experience, and the over-arching driver, transparency.

So, when consumers push corporations to eliminate chemicals, preservatives, anything artificial or unpronounceable because their fears tell them that they are unsafe, the values-based food supply chain will respond. Eventually company A announces the change across a category. Then, like dominoes, the other companies follow.

With this shift in purchasing drivers, we now have a shift towards a values-based Food Supply Chain. Those players in the supply chain — from the seed supplier to the grocery retailer — that can genuinely demonstrate shared values to consumers will leap ahead of the rest. Transparently demonstrating sustained action toward environmental, social and economic sustainability clearly differentiates the leaders from the followers from the beginning to the end of the food supply chain.

Keeping it in Context

This shift towards a values-based food supply chain has created new sets of problems to solve for food manufacturers of all sizes. And, many of the solutions involve a good understanding of agricultural systems around the world.

Most retail and foodservice specifications for their suppliers is no longer “get me the cheapest at the best quality”. Instead, it is get me the cheapest and the quality I want, along with documentation of the people, places, practices and purpose behind the production of those foods and ingredients.

These new requirements aren’t going away, and they call for advancing agriculture through practical solutions that work on the ground, not just on paper. At Context, that is what we do. We know how to creatively solve problems, so that, in the end, foodservice and retailers can delight their values-driven consumers. And, we care; the kind of care that I experienced on my family’s dairy farm. It is intuitive for us.

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