Monday, March 16, 2009

Consumers have a choice

I read an interesting article over the weekend on the New York Times website about California farmers launching a movement to split the state in two. The call for succession is based upon their viewpoint that state serves only the wishes and needs of the heavily populated coastal areas and adopts policy which often handcuffs the Central Valley's large and vitally important agriculture industry.

But what sparked my interest most was a quote by Senate Food & Ag Committee Chairman Dean Florez (D-Fresno):

“Rather than split California, come sit at the table with consumers,” Mr. Florez said. “The agricultural industry is in this mode that says, ‘You will eat what’s put in front of you,’ and that’s a very condescending view of consumers and eaters. If customers are changing their preferences, the industry needs to change its ways.”

In addition to ignoring the agricultural industry's long history of supplying both needs and wants, Mr. Florez apparently doesn't do the grocery shopping for his household.

Nowhere in the world is there a greater variety of food products available than on the shelves of America's grocery stores, markets, and supermarkets. Organic vegetables, cage free eggs, etc., are all available because there was enough consumer demand to create a market for those products. Farmers aren't ignorant...we know that our customers have lots to choose from and they aren't forced to buy what we're selling. We each have an opportunity to find a niche, and many have been successful in doing so. We also realize that some products that were once niche are now mainstream, and we have to adjust our operations to provide those products or we'll find ourselves out of business.

Our customers need our government to implement certain rules and regulations to protect the integrity of our food supply; that is, there need to be assurances in place that our food is safe, affordable, and abundant. What our customers don't need is our government passing rules and regulations that limit their options by taking otherwise safe food products off the shelf.

I'll give you an example of how the system works without government interference. A couple of years ago, milk processors around the Southeast begin telling their suppliers that there was a growing demand among consumers for rBST-free milk. If you're unfamiliar with rBST, it is a naturally-occuring hormone that can be administered as a supplement to dairy cattle in order to stimulate increased milk production. Numerous tests have confirmed that there is no food safety risk whatsoever with its use, and that milk from cows with supplemental rBST was virtually indistinguishable from milk given by cows that had not received the supplement. Regardless of the science, the consumers still wanted rBST-free milk. So, the processors worked with their suppliying dairy cooperatives who in turn worked with their member farmers, and we were all able to work out a production model that was good for everyone...the farmer, the processor, the retailer, and the consumer. Today, rBST-free milk accounts for most (if not all) of the milk produced and processed in the Southeast.

Farmers and consumers are constantly sitting at the table together, and there's no greater negotiating tool than the grocery shopper's checkbook. We all come out ahead when we allow market-driven demand to dictate what is supplied, so let's limit the government's oversight to food safety and continue claiming the right to choose our food products for ourselves.

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