Ethical Deli

Products that focus on quality, integrity, responsibility and sustainability are the focus for a growing number of consumers

Ever since Julia Child appeared on American television, and cooking became more approachable, consumers have been looking to improve the ways in which they purchase, prepare and consume food. This has been especially true over the last few decades with the launch of The Food Network, the explosion of reality television featuring food, and online resources talking about every aspect of food. 

With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that consumers have become more aware of the ways in which farming and manufacturing of food impacts their health, wellbeing and lifestyle. While they seek out foods that are flavorful and deliver enjoyable and engaging culinary experiences, they are embracing ethical eating—demanding unprecedented levels of quality, integrity, responsibility and sustainability from everyone along the supply chain, including farmers, ingredient suppliers, manufacturers, brand owners and retailers.

Increased Visibility

As a result of these consumer-led pressures, we’re seeing increased transparency in operations and significant changes in the way in which food is brought to market and presented within retail settings.  

Federally mandated compliance in terms of product identification, nutrition facts and ingredients continue to be updated and adjusted to better align with emerging health science and consumer preferences. We are also seeing significant changes in the way producers communicate features and benefits associated with their products. While they have successfully relied on subjective claims, such as “100% Natural,” “Authentic” and “Artisanal” for years, verifiable certifications including “OU Kosher” and “Certified Organic” have contributed to their credibility. Products defined as “locally-sourced” or “Made in the U.S.” have also been well received. The standards for excellence, especially when it comes to deli meats, are now considerably more advanced. 

The most apparent is the prominent placement of sales statements that describe products as free from hormones, antibiotics and GMOs.

Animal Welfare

In the wake of exposés, including the film “Food Inc,” Jonathan Foer’s book “Eating Animals” and growing pressure from animal rights and environmental groups, consumers have become increasingly concerned about animal welfare and the impact of large scale, industrialized food production on the environment. 

There was alarm among consumers when Hormel acquired Bridgewater Township, NJ-based Applegate in 2015. The good news, according to Beth Deegan, Applegate’s director of brand management, is that “Applegate did not sell out, but Hormel bought in.”

Kathy Eckhouse, co-owner of La Quercia Cured Meats, based in Norwalk, IA, has additional concerns “Here in Iowa, the farms and the animals are our neighbors. We see the ill effects of CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) production on the land and water.”

According to American-Humane, which advocates for the health and safety of animals, less than 10 percent of Americans trust corporations to do the right thing. This is especially true for Millennials, the most influential buying force in the U.S. Born between 1977 and 2000, these individuals are expecting greater transparency from manufacturers, foods that are organic, locally sourced and sustainable, and are willing to pay more.

Verifying Practices

Recognizing these dynamics, a growing number of farmers, producers and marketers have adopted the Five Freedoms outlined by American Humane (described as the gold standard of animal welfare) and are embracing third-party certifications that verify humane treatment of animals on the farm—from birth all the way through to handling and slaughter at meat processing facilities. The most widely accepted of these certifications are “Animal Welfare Approved (AWA),” “Certified Humane” and “Global Animal Partnership (GAP).” 

Third-party verification and certification for many of the issues associated with environmental responsibility and the humane treatment of animals did not come into use until recently. The Certified Humane program was unveiled by Humane Farm Animal Care in 2003, the Non-GMO Project started in 2007, GAP in 2008 and AWA in 2014. While all of these certifying organizations are making headway, and consumers are becoming increasingly aware of their importance, they still have a long way to go.

For companies such as Niman Ranch in Westminster, CO; Salt Lake City, UT-based Creminelli, Applegate and La Quercia, the notion of quality, integrity, sustainability and humane treatment of animals is nothing new. Having embraced these practices as an essential part of their operations, these brands have become distinguished advocates.

Niman Ranch has a clearly defined mission that ensures its products are always all natural and the animals are always humanely raised on environmentally-sustainable ranches. The company also participates in the Certified Humane program and proudly displays this certificate on the front of every product.

According to Russ Smoke, vice president of prepared meats at Niman Ranch, “We pay for 100 percent of our farmers to be certified. We’re very appreciative of our third party certifiers, partners, farmers and ranchers, who all work together to make us the best we can be.” From a qualitative perspective, Smoke adds “Animals raised with care on sustainable farms yield the highest quality meat. You can tell the difference. The quality translates into fantastic finished cooked and smoked products.”

At Creminelli, producers of noteworthy artisan salami, a similar philosophy prevails. According to Chris Bowler, CEO and founder “The best quality finished products start with humanely-treated animals raised on family farms. In contrast to industrialized brands that rely upon conventionally-raised animals, our meats are well-marbled, allowing them to age properly and yield a consistently flavorful finished product.”

Advocating the Cause

In order to effectively inform and educate consumers about the efforts being made to improve the quality, integrity and healthfulness of deli meats, there are tremendous opportunities for issue advocacy. Considering that many responsibly-produced deli products are found in self-serve refrigerated cases and hang wall displays adjacent to the service counter, the depth of information that can be displayed in this space is limited, relying on the buyer to pick up and inspect individual packages that may or may not have vital information included on their labels. When it comes to the service counter, there is little evidence that advocacy for ethical eating is taking place at all, either through staff insights, signage or handout literature. 

Healthy food retailers, such as Whole Foods, Sprouts Farmers Market, Earth Fare and Lucky’s Market, are some of the most visible advocates for ethical eating. That being said, meaningful depth of information and links to third-party resources is not available at the deli counter. For consumers eager to obtain product-related information, they must seek out and visit supermarket and manufacturer websites or follow these organizations on social media. 

Earth Fare’s website proclaims, “We are passionate about healthy meat raised by farmers dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices that support the health of the animal and our environment. Because every purchase of sustainably-farmed meat is a vote in support of family farms, humanely-treated animals and good health.” Similarly, the Lucky’s Market website states, “Through a variety of partnerships, we support the conservation and restoration of our local environment. We foster support for local farmers and producers by promoting the sale of their products.”

From a manufacturing perspective, savvy producers understand that, while communicating their humane treatment of animals and responsible stewardship of the land is important, the larger issue is delivering excellent food experiences and catering to the lifestyle preferences of their customers. The good news is that ethical deli brands are paying attention to consumer trends and preferences and have responded remarkably well. 

Staying abreast of consumer preferences and culinary trends is nothing new to Applegate. Deegan explains, “We’re constantly watching for emerging culinary trends, looking for those things that will better align with our customer’s lifestyle.”

As part of their effort to satisfy growing demand for both convenience and snackability, Applegate has just launched a new line of snacking products. One of the more distinctive is their Charcuterie Plate, containing uncured Genoa salami, Cheddar, roasted salted almonds and dark chocolate chunks. La Quercia has also responded with their pre-sliced Ridgetop Prosciutto Piccante rubbed with fennel and red chili. For everyone along the supply chain, there are untapped opportunities to advocate the benefits of ethical eating leading up to, and including, the point of sale. Creminelli’s Bowler suggests, “We believe the industry has to move towards, and eventually align its practices with, humanely-raised animals and environmental stewardship.” In the meantime, and through third-party verification, adherence to governmental mandates, and actions that respond appropriately to evolving consumer preferences that favor better quality foods and healthier lifestyles, there are plenty of ways to keep the ball rolling. DB