Thanks to consumers, food industry trends like responsible sourcing have entered the mainstream.
As consumers favor those companies willing to tell them exactly what they’re eating and where it came from, ‘Big Food’ companies are taking steps to fix social and environmental problems cropping up in their supply chain – a.k.a. all the people and practices involved in getting food to your plate (or plastic wrapper). Recently, McDonald’s announced it will face out use of eggs from caged hens; General Mills set ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions; and Ben & Jerry’s wants to improve dairy farm worker conditions.
Think Fair Trade coffee and chocolate, said Alexis Bateman, director of the Responsible Supply Chain Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Such food industry trends are driven by consumers and activist groups – and right now those groups are prioritizing transparency.
Recent research by the Hartman Group backs her up. Researchers found that consumers are increasingly concerned about the “health and safety of America’s food supply chain,” the group reported in Forbes.
“What we’ve witnessed in the past decade in health and wellness and organic and natural circles has trickled out to the mainstream in somewhat diluted but certainly recognizable forms, without catalysts,” the Hartman Group explained. “Even prior to the influence of scares about melamine and pet food or E. coli contamination of various food and beverage products, mainstream consumers were already becoming much more inquisitive about how and where products are sourced and about the integrity of the company’s business practices and values.”
As consumers ask what’s in their food, companies start to look “upstream” in their supply chain to find the answer, Bateman said. Many companies respond for normal economic reasons, especially when they see competitors already doing it.
“They think there’s a buyer there, and if there’s a buyer, then they’re going to answer that buyer,” she said.
Concerns from consumers come in various forms, from sustainability to labor to animal welfare. Here are a few examples of companies addressing those concerns:
- Say what you want about McDonald’s, but it provides a prime example of what we’re talking about. The fast-food chain announced it will phase out the use of eggs from caged chickens, according to the New York Times. Because McDonald’s uses so many eggs from producers in Canada and the U.S. (more than 4 percent of the eggs produced last year), this has major implications for egg production across the industry. Before that, McDonald’s and Tyson Foods cut ties with a Tennessee poultry farmer as a result of a video showing alleged mistreatment of the animals.
- General Mills will work to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent within 10 years. The goal extends to the company’s entire supply chain, from farmers to packagers, from cereal to ice cream. “In stating the new emissions goals extend through its supply chain, the company is also acknowledging that a food company’s direct operations are small compared to the far-flung network of farms and mills and processors that it depends on,” GreenBiz reported. “General Mills said more than two-thirds of its total greenhouse gas emissions occur upstream of its direct operations.”
- Ben & Jerry’s is known for its environmentally friendly practices but only recently did that extend to ensuring fair treatment of dairy farmworkers in its supply chain. The company reached an agreement with Migrant Justice that addresses wage theft, overcrowded and unsanitary housing conditions, and low wages, according to FoodTank. Migrant Justice established a program, Milk with Dignity, to improve farmworker’s livelihoods. “The program recognizes that, with growing interest in ‘fair trade,’ ‘real food,’ ‘sustainable’ or ‘local food,’ there is an urgent need to ensure that workers have the power to directly define, monitor and enforce what is ‘fair,’” the group wrote on its website.
- Then there’s Nestlé, which announced that it’s taking cocoa sourcing for its KitKat bars a step farther by sourcing exclusively from the Nestlé Cocoa Plan beginning early next year. The move is meant to quell fears that the company overlooks the use of child labor. The Nestlé Cocoa Plan includes processes to monitor child labor and remedy any problems that arise. “This announcement will only strengthen consumer trust in KitKat as a responsible brand,” Sandra Martinez, head of Confectionary for Nestlé, told Confectionary News.
Most of these examples describe changes made after they were outed by advocacy groups. In a column that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Bateman suggested that it’s in a company’s best interest to address these issues ahead of new regulations or crises. Beyond “meeting demand for responsible practices,” companies can manage risk and find ways to save money, she wrote. And if they act first, they’re likely to salvage their reputation and instill trust in consumers.
Because these food industry trends aren’t going anywhere.
“Above all,” Bateman wrote, “businesses should understand that pressure to improve supply chain transparency will continue to increase.”
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