After decades of demanding more convenient, lower priced, and better tasting, food products, now today’s consumers want transparency. Consumers used to want great tasting sausage and did not want to see it made; now they want to see how it is made. Farmers were used to being left alone; now the barbarians are at the farm gate demanding to poke around in the barn to see what is going on. Today’s consumer is cynical and suspicious and also feels that anything connected with big food companies or large farms is inherently bad and that there must be a cover-up someplace. But responding to this demand has not been easy for farmers or food processors. It is not as simple as just throwing open the back door of the kitchen or the front door of the barn. Yet, notable progress is being made; but will it be enough?
When Don Thompson, President and CEO of McDonald’s stepped before 1,600 Purdue Ag Alumni, his aim was to assure his audience that they are all on the same side. He accomplished this with the statement, “Without farmers, there would be no McDonald’s.” While sounding a bit patronizing, the facts support his claim. Each year the global fast food leader buys 2% of all the beef produced in the world and over 200 million pounds of pork, to say nothing of the tons of buns, mountains of potatoes, and oceans of vegetable oil they use to serve an estimated 70 million people every single day. Thompson said, as the leader in their industry, their actions set the direction for much of the food service industry around the world. Thus he pledged a go-slow, get-it-right, approach to the issue of transparency.
This was music to the ears of his audience who have seen a number of food service chains jump when activist groups demand cage-free, hormone free, GMO-free, and flavor-free products. The Purdue engineering alum promised a balanced and science-based approach with plenty of time for producers to adapt to changes in McDonald’s requirements. But, rest assured, there will be changes in their requirements. Those big golden arches make an easy target for activist groups around the world, both legitimate and illegitimate.
To address the issue of transparency, McDonald’s has launched several programs to give consumers a look at how their food is produced. A program in Canada called Our Food Your Questions invites consumers to ask questions about McDonald’s food, and they will respond with answers. One recent video segment put the internet showed just how Chicken McNuggets are made. This came in response to a photo that went viral on the internet showing a blog of “pink goo” that claimed to be from what McNuggets were made. The video took views into the plant and showed the product being made from ground chicken breast meat, not pink goo.
Thompson pledged to work with farm groups as they respond to consumer demands, but also pledged to work with activist groups to hear and understand their concerns. He said transparency and sustainability were the two biggest issues that will influence the future of food.
But will this be enough? Will consumers believe what they see, when it is presented by farm or food groups? Will continued demands by food companies for new production methods and technology by producers increase the rate of vertical integration in the industry? Will this pace of change put smaller producers at a competitive disadvantage? All are questions for which only time will provide an answer.
Transparency is an issue that agriculture must continue to address, but it must be done carefully. Simply showing people what we do without an explanation why or context for what they are seeing is counterproductive. Transparency is not just seeing is believing, but rather seeing is trusting. Most consumers are not really desirous of seeing all the finer, and more organic, portions of food and livestock production. The take away they are really looking for is trust — that we know what we are doing and that we are doing it right.
By Gary Truitt