The following story was written by Heinen’s partner Elaine T. Cicora.
“Grass fed.” “No added hormones.” All the claims of 21st-century food production sound full of promise. There’s just one problem: How do consumers know they are true?
Say hello to Where Food Comes From, the nation’s leading source for onsite food certification and verification – and Heinen’s trusted partner in verifying the claims on the chicken, beef and pork that proudly wear the Heinen’s label.
Founded by partners John and Leann Saunders in 1995, the company, headquartered just south of Denver, Colorado, serves as an independent, third-party auditor, educating and informing consumers by thoroughly vetting the claims of farmers, ranchers and food manufacturers. “We strive each and every day to ensure that everyone involved in the food business – from growers and farmers to retailers and shoppers – can count on Where Food Comes From, Inc., to provide authentic and transparent information about the food we eat and how, where and by whom it is produced,” is how it’s put on the company website.
Indeed, when it comes to examining “credence attributes” – Leann’s term for claims that consumers can’t verify with their own eyes – the Saunders and their team might just comprise the country’s ultimate food nerds. “We know way too much about food and where it comes from,” John jokes. “Our team of onsite food auditors are extremely engaged and detail-oriented, examining everything from the way the animals are treated to the way the company treats its employees.” And while one person can’t possibly know everything about all types of foods, Leann adds, “together, our company represents so much expertise in food, there’s not much we don’t know.”
The couple came to their calling naturally. Leann is the daughter of Colorado cattle ranchers and John, an Ohio native, was raised on a small family farm outside Toledo. In fact, John recalls, he grew up shopping at Heinen’s. So when their work in the meat industry brought John and Tom Heinen into professional contact in the mid-1990s, their respect was mutual and immediate.
“I call us ‘Buckeye brothers,’” John says, adding that his company’s first formal relationship with the grocer came in 2010. “It was clear that Heinen’s would be the perfect partner for us,” he says, “because their values align so perfectly with ours.”
Those shared values – building trust by helping customers truly understand the sources of their foods – have only become more important since the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated shortages, the couple says.
“Just the complexities of getting food onto their tables, shoppers really started asking questions at that point,” says Leann. “They felt an urgency to know, ‘where does my food come from and how do I know it is sustainable?’”
“Fortunately for their customers, Tom and Jeff Heinen have been asking those same questions for years, even before it was trendy,” John adds. “In the process, they have become industry leaders in terms of making sure producers’ claims are accurate.”
And, Leann adds, while Heinen’s commitment to transparency is longstanding, the brothers have never grown complacent. “Not only are Tom and Jeff the best at what they do, they are always looking to improve. That’s why we are so excited to partner with them.”
That partnership translates to a big win for Heinen’s customers, John says.
“We are very concerned about Heinen’s and their reputation. We understand they are a generational company that has earned a high level of trust in their community, and we feel a huge obligation to help them ensure the claims they make about their meats can be defended.
“I’m a Buckeye at heart, and I just can’t say enough about what Tom and Jeff have accomplished,” he adds. “Their customers are so lucky to live in an area where they have the opportunity to experience a relationship with a local, family-run grocer. Being a Heinen’s customer is a very fortunate position to be in, especially during a pandemic.
“Tom and Jeff have done a remarkable job in earning their shoppers’ trust over the years – and we are all better for it.”