Consumers Have Better Grocery Choices: Forcing Them Is The Issue

You know, consumers just don’t get it.  I’ve said it many times.  Consumers’ pay too much for food, farmers don’t get paid enough for growing it and big corporations limit food choices.  It all results in consumers getting ripped off, farmers continually frustrated and the big food corporations raking in supernormal profits.  However, if you asked consumers if they think they are getting ripped off at the food counter, I’m sure you’d get a blank stare.

What you say?  OK, does anybody want a spinach salad for lunch tomorrow?  Do you care if it is Canadian or American spinach?  Should you?  Well, it all depends if you care where your spinach comes from and whether you want to take your life in your hands.

I’m certainly stretching that a bit but the spectre of somebody dieing from a spinach salad became very real last week.  That’s when tainted fresh spinach from the Salinas Valley of California made 171 people sick last week.  There have been 25 states affected, 92 people have been hospitalized and three people have died.  Canada closed its borders to US spinach last week.  Despite that one Canadian has got sick.

It is what it is.  I wouldn’t want to be in the spinach broker business this week.  Consumers have become convinced that food in Canada (and the United States) is safe.  Hearing that the US Food and Drug Administration has recommended that Americans not eat raw spinach would surely be welcome.  The same could be said about the announcement from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  This realization is almost under the radar.  Consumers want their food cheap and plentiful.  In Canada that’s exactly what they have.

I know it is not thought of that way.  As many of you know I lived in the city of Guelph for the better part of seven years.  It was there where I would visit the big city grocery stores.  At that time (1986-1990) they were like the Canadian National Exhibition of food.  Now, years later they are more akin to “food Disneyland.”  Even some of the big local food stores in Chatham-Kent are like that.  Food is packaged, positioned and sold at a premium to appeal to the collective psychographics of the consuming public.

There is nothing wrong with that if that’s what you like.  However, food doesn’t necessarily come from behind that stage.  Canadian farmers grow Canadian food.  However, much of what is on our grocery shelves isn’t Canadian.  The bigger crime might be that those choices are made up the supply line.  Canadian consumers in many instances aren’t given the greatest choices.

Case in point is meat.  I grow what Canadian livestock eat.  However, I have no illusions about what are on those grocery and special meat store shelves.  It is what it is.   These meat choices are made at the “national level” far from local farmers barns.  In some cases it is continents away.

Regrettably some of these meat choices are being institutionalized.  According to the Ontario Independent Meat Processors, denial of access to important markets at retail and food service is placing their industry in jeopardy.  In other words our Ontario independent meat processors are having trouble getting Ontario meat onto local grocery shelves.  This is occurring according to the OIMP because supply chain consolidations have led to greater control by retail and food service buyers at the national level.  In other words, whether Canadian consumers like it or not, their choice for top quality Canadian meat is being compromised.

I will admit I’m getting to be a bit of a stickler for this.  When I have traveled abroad I often take the time to visit the grocery store.  It gives you clues to how important food choices are to that nation. Clearly the biggest “food Disneyland” has to be the United States.  Their stores are chocked full at fire-sale prices.  Their consumers are happy and so are their farmers.  Have you ever tried to buy some good old Brazilian orange juice on any Florida junket?  Forget it.  That will never happen.

In Singapore the grocery store I visited was full of dairy products, which weren’t really dairy!  There seemed to be soybeans everywhere, squished into every food form imaginable.  In Bangladesh the food is either fresh or it will kill you.  We paid to have our food bought for us while I was there.  So when I go into the big Canadian food box stores I can see right through it.

You might say so what?  That’s fair.  You’ll play one off versus another.  Let the marketplace decide.  But keep in mind there is a far better choice here.  Consumers have the power to push their food retailers for better choices.  They have the power to demand and push for high quality Ontario products on their food shelves.  They have the choice to get closer to their farmer neigbours and friends.  And yes, at the end of the day they have the choice to eat spinach.  However, ask where it’s from.  Remember, farmers feed cities.  Eating what Ontario and Canada grows is perhaps a much better choice.