Be wary of consumer demand for locally sourced products

by Keith Nunes
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During the transition from one year to the next, a cottage industry of prognosticators who try to forecast the trends that may affect the food and beverage industry during the year emerges. Coming into this year the concept of locally sourced ingredients and products appears to be in vogue among these forecasters. But anyone looking to get a step ahead of their competition by embracing this trend should be wary. The trend in reality has less to do with consumers’ interest in knowing the distance within which a product is harvested and marketed, and more to do with consumers’ interest in understanding the food and beverage supply chain.

In early December the National Restaurant Association published its “What’s hot in 2012” predictions, which are developed by surveying 1,800 chefs throughout the United States. Within the top 20 trends identified in this survey reference to local filled five slots. The trade association ranked locally sourced meat and seafood as the No. 1 trend for 2012 followed by locally grown produce in the No. 2 position. The trend of “hyper-local” items was ranked as the No. 4 most significant trend in 2012 while locally produced wine and beer and house-made, artisan ice cream were situated in the No. 8 and No. 15 positions in these rankings, respectively.

“Local sourcing of everything — from meat and fish to produce to alcoholic beverages — is another big trend for 2012,” said Joy Dubost, director of nutrition and healthy living for the National Restaurant Association. “Local farms and food producers have become an important source of ingredients for chefs and restaurants wishing to support the members of their business community and highlight seasonal ingredients on their menus.”

In his annual ranking of the top 10 trends for 2012, Phil Lempert, who is best known as the “Supermarket Guru,” ranked as the No. 4 trend an increased emphasis on the “farm-to-fork” journey. He noted that shoppers will continue to ask questions about where their food comes from, and this will be accompanied by added emphasis on the role of the farmer.

A byproduct of the consumer technology revolution currently under way is people becoming conditioned to have information at their fingertips. The ability to research a company or product has never been easier and as these trends continue they will put additional pressure on companies to disclose how their products are sourced, manufactured and distributed.

This is not a new idea. In the mid-90s fresh meat products sold in Japan featured bar codes on the packaging that, when scanned in the supermarket meat department, told the consumer when the animal was slaughtered and the farm from which it came from. Visit the web site of Frito-Lay North America, a business unit of PepsiCo, Inc., and several portions of the site are devoted to explaining how the company’s various brands of potato chips are made.

This year McDonald’s Corp. is launching a series of advertisements featuring the farmers that grow the ingredients for the company’s products. The goal of the campaign is to give the people who supply the fast-food company an identity and highlight that its supply chain starts on the farm.

The concept of locally sourced ingredients and products is attractive, but impractical for a number of reasons. The perceived new interest also flies in the face of more dominant trends like increased consumer demand for more convenient products and for more ethnic flavors and cuisines.

Consumers are not demanding to know exactly where their food originates. They are more interested in knowing how it is grown, sourced and processed, and they expect the information to be readily available. Food companies that have not already identified this trend would be well served to respond.

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