As an editor, I have the privilege of traveling in different food circles. I attend more industry standard tradeshows from the wider-known associations, but I also make it a point to go to more fringe conferences just to hear different voices. A few months ago, I attended a summit put on by Food Tank, a nonprofit focused on food system issues such as hunger and obesity.
It was an interesting mix of food companies, policy wonks, new entrepreneurs and specialty farmers. The event was sponsored in part by Organic Valley and included food executives from Cargill and Clif Bar, who talked about their efforts to source more organic ingredients.
Many of the speakers talked about the consumer trend changes happening right now, with more people becoming aware of and concerned about the health effects of certain foods and wanting foods that are tailored to their personalized nutritional needs. Also, there was much talk of millennials wanting to support companies they believe in.
A good number of speakers from groups like National Family Farm Coalition and Advocates for Urban Agriculture repeatedly described our food system as “broken.” It was so overwhelming that Randy Krotz, with the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, had to incredulously interject that, in fact, this was not the case, and a lot of people are working very hard to feed the world, as well as address soil, air and habitats of farms.
Not once did I hear anyone talk about how food manufacturers are very concerned about food waste and looking into new and better packaging technology to help preserve foods for longer periods of time. Or how the top concerns for most “big food” companies are being as efficient as possible to conserve resources, drive greater throughputs and divert as much waste as possible from landfills.
Whenever I hear skeptical people saying really unfounded and uninformed conclusions about big food companies, I think about the first time I visited Campbell’s processing facility in Napoleon, Ohio. It was mid-October and harvest time. Lined up outside the plant were trucks brimming with mounds of produce—shocking-orange carrots the size of coffee table legs and lettuce heads bigger than basketballs. These were the ingredients, cut fresh from the farms, waiting to be made into the V7 or the vegetable portion of the V8 drink without the tomato, which is added later.
It might have been the most glorious vision of our food processing system I’ve ever seen, and I thought to myself, “Why doesn’t Campbell’s talk about this?” This is what modern consumers want their food processing to be—a wholesome, natural process linked to the land.
And I don’t mean to single out Campbell’s; there are many big food companies that are doing amazing things and aren’t talking about them. One promising trend that more consumers are asking for and what I think could be a great communication tool for CPG companies is transparency. With things like the SmartLabel app, food and beverage producers can build trust with consumers by listing complete information about products’ ingredients. Soon, consumers might be able to see, via the packaging, the actual farm that grew the beautiful carrots contained in their V8 drink.