A recent Bernstein survey revealed that 55% of consumers are becoming more distrustful of the food system, a 15% increase from 2013. While it has a way to go before reaching distrust in government levels that have fueled a raucous presidential primary season, it continues a trend that manufacturers (and investors) large and small have noticed.
Concerns over food safety, GMO foods, and antibiotic use in animals were all up in the survey. One of the big drivers of this I believe is transparency, or lack thereof. Earlier this month, the state of Washington won a lawsuit against the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) for not disclosing donations from major food companies to defeat a labeling proposition.
The GMO labeling debate reached a tipping point resulting in Kellogg, General Mills, Mars and Campbell Soup announcing they will begin to identify products that contain genetically modified foods. This followed the failure of a Senate bill that would have blocked state GMO labeling requirements like the one about to go in effect in Vermont. I expect this to lead to national legislation requiring labeling with support from GMA and large food manufacturers coming to grips with the specter of a state by state patchwork of laws.
A few weeks ago I attended FoodBytes, a series started by Rabobank to connect food startups and investors. Products ranged from vegetable sweetened condiments to vegan seafood. It is an exciting entrepreneurial environment for these startups to pitch their vision, which was something they all had in common. There has been a growing demand for foods that deliver more than sustenance and pleasure. People are looking for food with purpose and brands with integrity. A panel that kicked off the day included the founder of a condiments company, a representative from Syngenta and a world-renowned chef trying to improve school meals. All of them spoke about this opportunity to make our food system better.
When Sir Kensington’s co-founder, Scott Norton, described his goal of making “condiments with character” he wasn’t just speaking of their monocled mascot. He was really speaking to an effort to not take the shortcuts and provide a more mindfully crafted product in a space most of us take for granted. Whole Foods has helped to not only drive this conversation, but also give upstart brands a platform for exposure and growth. This week they just became the first to offer Fair Food Strawberries, a new certification program to deliver better pay to farm workers.
Another leader in the space, Chipotle, has been rocked by food safety issues. While some point to a shift to local sourcing as the culprit, they have yet to get a grip on the situation with incidents continuing to pop up. It isn’t the first supply-chain struggle Chipotle has faced as it tries to offer “food with integrity” lest we forget the great carnitas shortage of 2015. Disruptors will always find hurdles to progress, and with something as large and ingrained as our food system the challenges are even greater. With chains pledging to move toward antibiotic-free meats, expect more hiccups along the way.
Michael Pollan, a modern day Upton Sinclair, looks at many of these issues in his docuseries Cooked. Will this help or hurt our trust in the food system? I’m of the belief that dialogue leads to progress and the growing interest and awareness of where our food comes from is a good thing that will benefit us all. This isn’t a fad, and brands that align with this movement will be built to last.
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