Do Americans Really Want Sustainable, Humanely Raised Food?

Two recent court decisions would seem to say yes, and Whole Foods is betting on it.

(Photo: Wiblick/Flicrk)

Oct 21, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“If two recent court decisions are any indication, the nation’s agricultural producers need to spend less time listening to their lawyers and more time listening to consumers" when it comes to ethics and animal welfare.

Those are strong words, indeed, and perhaps surprisingly, they appeared this week not on the editorial page of, say, The New York Times or the San Francisco Chronicle, but smack-dab in the heart of the nation’s farm belt, in the Des Moines Register. The two court decisions in question no doubt mark huge victories for animal rights activists, as well as for any consumer who cares about how farm animals are treated. Brands are making the push too: Whole Foods launched an ad series this week promoting the values, not value, of the products it sells.

Earlier this month, a federal district court judge in California dismissed a lawsuit brought by attorneys general in six states challenging a law passed overwhelmingly by California voters in 2010 that will, among other things, require all eggs sold in the state to come from humanely raised chickens. The law, set to take effect in January, stipulates that egg-laying chickens cannot be confined in cages that are too small to allow them to stand up, turn around, and extend their wings.

Six states—Alabama, Kentucky, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma—sued to overturn the law, arguing that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause prohibiting individual states from regulating interstate commerce, in this case by essentially imposing regulations on egg producers in states outside California. But Judge Kimberly Mueller disagreed.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand another California law, this one prohibiting the production and sale of foie gras. Proponents of the ban, which was passed in 2004 and took effect in 2012, have long argued that the epitome of haute cuisine is also the epitome of cruel, with ducks essentially being force-fed just to enlarge their livers for the sake of fancy appetizers.

Thus, it seems we may be arriving at something of a tipping point when it comes to consumers demanding that their food be raised more sustainably and humanely. Or are we? Advocates of more ethical agriculture can take heart not only in these two court decisions but in California’s Proposition 2—which not only led to the state’s new egg regulations but required more humane treatment of calves and pigs as well—passing with 62 percent of the vote, the largest margin of any ballot initiative in the state’s history.

You’d think with such support for better farming practices seemingly on the rise, that would be great news for a grocery chain like Whole Foods, which has arguably done more to pioneer bringing the, well, “whole foods” movement to American consumers than any other company.

But even as Whole Foods unveiled a major new initiative last week to post “Responsibly Grown” ratings on its produce and flowers, giving shoppers yet another way to evaluate the environmental and social impacts of the food they’re buying, the chain has rolled out its biggest advertising campaign in years as it seeks to convince consumers that they should care about how their food is produced.

Whole Foods is spending an estimated $15 million to $20 million—essentially quintupling its annual ad budget, according to The New York Timeson an ad campaign with the tagline “Values Matter,” spotlighting the chain’s commitment to the kind of sustainable and humane farming that consumers often say they care about, only to balk at spending extra cash on.

In what appears to be the campaign’s flagship 60-second spot, which must have been engineered with the express purpose of inducing goose bumps, the confident yet relatable female announcer tells us:

We are hungrier for better than we ever realized. We want to know where our food comes from. We care what happens to it along the way. We want to trust our sources. We want people and animals and the places our food comes from to be treated fairly. The time is ripe to champion the way food is grown and raised and caught. So it’s good for us and for the greater good, too. This is where it all comes to fruition. This is where values matter.

Why Whole Foods thinks it is imperative that it make this argument now demonstrates both the irony of its success as well as the difficulty of recruiting more shoppers to put their money where their values are. As more traditional grocers have jumped on the Whole Foods bandwagon, expanding their organic offerings and playing up their locally grown produce, they’ve siphoned off some of Whole Foods’ clientele, putting a chain that has often inspired a fanatic, cult-like following into something of a slump from the perspective of Wall Street.

What may be more threatening to the Whole Foods agenda, however, is how even bigger fish appear to be co-opting its socially conscious program. The biggest of these, of course, is Walmart, which just a couple weeks ago made a splashy (if vague) announcement that it was committing to the creation of “a more sustainable food system.”

As I wrote in the wake of Walmart’s PR lovefest, the retail giant has a history of crowing about the good it’s doing in its press releases while failing to follow through on its pledges in any meaningful way.

It’s a smoke-and-mirrors game, designed to deceive consumers into believing that, somehow magically, Walmart has taken the sort of cheap, inhumanely raised, environmentally exploitative processed food that has become standard fare in America and transformed it into something the socially conscious consumer can feel good buying—all at a cut-rate price.

While Whole Foods execs behind the scenes note that the chain has worked to rein in costs and pass the savings on to customers, the new ad campaign doesn’t seek to compete on price. Rather, the “Values Matter” tagline would seem to do just the opposite, albeit indirectly. By playing on the notion of “values” versus “value,” Whole Foods is trying to almost subliminally challenge penny-pinching Americans to stop making price the deciding factor in where they shop.

It’s fairly radical when you think about it. For more than a generation now, Walmart's single-minded obsession with driving down production costs has led the way in conditioning Americans to accept nothing less than the lowest possible price, removing from the equation practically every other consideration—everything from, say, whether the workers are making a living wage to whether the cattle in those cheap hamburger patties were shot full of antibiotics.

Yet, still we bitch and moan about how much we spend on groceries, even as the proportion of our income that we spend on them is arguably at its lowest point in, like, forever. As this nifty chart from Bloomberg Businessweek attests, we spend but 11 percent of our income on food today, versus 17 percent some 30 years ago. Back in the 1930s, that number was as high as 25 percent.

Today, though, when you exclude money we spend eating out, the percentage of our income we spend on groceries plunges even more dramatically, to just 7 percent—less than any other country in the world.

So maybe, just maybe, we ought to be rethinking what a “normal” grocery budget looks like—one that would take into account the true costs of producing more socially and environmentally responsible food. Yet judging by Whole Foods’ oblique approach, that’s not a line of argument even the nation’s “healthiest grocery store” appears willing to make.