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In my last post, I looked at consumer education and engagement.
In particular, I looked at a UK survey of school children who were asked about food and the surprisingly high number thought that fish fingers were made from chicken. This finding was picked up by various media channels, and I am sure that it brought a smile to more than may face.
Of course, consumer engagement and education is nothing new. For decades, marketing books have looked at the best way to engage with consumers, while consumer rights groups have pressed for more honest communication and greater access to information.
What surprised me about my last post was the response that it generated. Some comments came from producers, saying that consumers need to be better informed about how their food is produced and offering some suggestions as to why they are not more enlightened, while others came from consumers, arguing that producers and regulators need to be more transparent.
There is certainly some common ground here, so it might be worth considering where and why this disconnect is happening.
Is what you get what you see?
As a child, I used to walk home from school, and on the route home, there were two butchers' shops. In their windows you could see pig heads and small carcasses cut in two and hanging from large hooks. You might also see pheasants and other birds too. Certainly, chicken carcasses were exposed to the air and not covered in glossy packaging.
You could see the saws and electric cutters, as well as ready-prepared cuts of meat -- again not sealed and simply laid out on trays. There were plaster figures of cows and pigs, and you could see the odd pool of blood, and they would mince meat for you there and then. You saw the before and after, you knew what you were buying.
I used to live in a small village -- I live in a city now -- and back then, supermarkets were not as dominant as they are now in developed markets. Nevertheless, there are a couple of family-run butchers' shops where I live, but they do not display heads, whole or even half-carcasses. There is, however, meat that is unpackaged and laid out on trays, but nothing really connects the product to the animal.
On a visit to the meat section in my local supermarkets, all meat is packaged, and while the meat counter may try to replicate traditional butchers' trays of meat, there is something missing -- no heads, no carcasses, no birds still with feathers.
It may be that health and safety rules and regulations dictate that carcasses, etc., should not be hung in windows, but having birds and animals, or at least recognizable parts of them, on display is a good reminder to consumers of what is actually being eaten. It is also a good starting point in consumer education.
If you are repulsed by pig heads, or the sad expressions of hanging pheasants, you can choose not to eat them, but if you are not, you can make your purchase. At least you know what you are or are not buying.
Of course, in many parts of the world, chickens are bought in wet markets, so the consumer is much more aware of where his or her meat is coming from. I am certainly not advocating a return to wet markets and their associated problems, but they do make consumers confront their choices.
While I am not suggesting that supermarkets should have all the chickens they sell in a day hanging from the ceiling or that portions should be cut up on the premises, given the space that these establishments dedicate to marketing and promotions, there ought to be space somewhere for people to see where their food comes from.
Knowing what you are eating is only one area that demands greater understanding. Being more open and more obvious would probably benefit us all in the long term.