Viewing transparency as an opportunity

by Keith Nunes
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A common refrain by critics of food and beverage ingredient usage is consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. The implication is companies are hiding the ingredients they use, because they may be unhealthy or even worse, unsafe. Two recent announcements by McDonald’s and Whole Foods show both see opportunities in capitalizing on the perceived need for greater transparency.

On Oct. 13 McDonald’s USA launched its “Our food. Your questions.” campaign in an effort to answer such questions as “What’s in my hamburger” or “What part of the chicken is a chicken McNugget?” The No. 1 fast-food operator is inviting consumers to submit questions via social media and the company said it will respond with behind the scenes videos and other content that provides facts on ingredients, how food is made and how it’s prepared in restaurants.

McDonald’s has enlisted Grant Imahara, who was formerly a host of a television show called “Mythbusters,” to answer some of the questions as he visits company suppliers and its restaurants. In one video posted on McDonald’s web site, Mr. Imahara visits a Cargill beef plant in Fresno, Calif., to address consumer questions related to the content and quality of the beef used to make hamburgers. Questions posed by Mr. Imahara to plant employees range from are there lips or eyeballs in the meat (no) to is it all beef (yes) and do you use so-called pink slime (no)?

As Mr. Imahara poses the questions to plant employees, he is taken on a tour of the Fresno plant, giving the viewer a look at such departments as materials handling, grinding, freezing and quality control. The entire endeavor is designed to de-stigmatize not only the perception of McDonald’s food products, but also food production in general.

To an observer with experience in food or beverage production, the endeavor may appear to be overly simplistic, but that is one of its goals — to break down the production process into easy-to-understand components. This is a tactic many smaller operators have used to differentiate the quality of their products from McDonald’s and other large chains.

While McDonald’s transparency effort is designed as a marketing tool to alter perceptions about the company’s food and manufacturing processes, Whole Foods is using transparency as a way to attract consumers seeking greater choice. On Oct. 15 the retailer introduced a Responsibly Grown produce rating system that puts the fruits and vegetables it sells into tiers of “good,” “better” or “best” to help its customers make more informed choices.

Each tier has a set of standards products must meet to qualify. To earn a good rating, for example, a producer must take 16 steps to protect the air, soil, water and employee health at the location where the food is grown. In addition, the producer must meet Whole Foods’ pesticide policy. The standards become more stringent when a producer attempts to qualify for a higher tier.

Whole Foods says the program gives producers an opportunity to continuously improve performance, but it also helps the retailer. A criticism of Whole Foods has been that its offerings cater to a very specific consumer base, one that sees greater value in products that carry such designations as organic, Fair Trade or Non-G.M.O. and are willing to pay a higher price for them. By introducing its tier system, Whole Foods may now transparently offer consumers greater choice while also continuing to cater to its core audience.

Transparency as a food and beverage industry issue is not going to go away. It is welcoming to see such companies as McDonald’s and Whole Foods use it as a marketing and business tool and it will be interesting to see how these efforts perform going forward. Whether they succeed or fail, they may provide case studies for how other companies may approach the issue of transparency.
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