About a year ago, the food industry was embroiled in the lean, finely textured beef media frenzy. For years, my advice to processors under fire was: Prove the food safety science behind your product, and the truth shall set you free from detractors.
I’d provide the same advice today, but I’d have to add some new caveats because the food and beverage manufacturing landscape has changed dramatically in the current age of transparency.
I’m sure most of you reading this are aware of the Change.org campaign about food dyes in mac & cheese. By late March, nearly a quarter-million people had signed the online petition against the use of certain food dyes. Another petition on the same website entitled “Keep horsemeat out of our food” had garnered about 33,000 signatures.
While petitions on websites such as Change.org are increasing, nearly half of American consumers have little knowledge about food production, according to a recent white paper from FoodThink. Marketing agency Sullivan Higdon and Sink, sponsor of the paper, says it’s unacceptable for only 19 percent of consumers to think food manufacturers are trustworthy sources of food production information. The agency advocates establishing allies, using social media and building transparency about production practices to bridge the gap.
At Food Engineering’s 2012 Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference, Fair Oaks Farms CEO and Founder Mike McCloskey told attendees about his successful journey into the world of transparency. Fair Oaks Farms is a 30,000-acre dairy operation in Indiana that includes the Fair Oaks Farms Adventure Center, which hosts half a million visitors per year.
At the Adventure Center, Fair Oaks Farms employees are trained to speak frankly and honestly to an often urban audience. While some of its visitors may question GMO feed, for example, they leave the dairy with an understanding of the feed’s importance in reducing the need for pesticides and its role in helping to produce enough milk to feed a growing global population. McCloskey believes you must first create trust and then back it up with science. I have to agree.
My advice today would be: Open your doors to create transparency and trust, and prove the food safety science behind your product. This plan provides no guarantees, but must be undertaken in today’s era of transparency.