SAN FRANCISCO — Stem-cell fish filets and cow-free curds and whey were among the cutting-edge concepts discussed at the Future Food-Tech conference, held March 22-23 in San Francisco. The forum drew dozens of professionals across the food industry, including investors, entrepreneurs, suppliers and manufacturers, with a shared goal to sustainably and safely feed a growing global population.
While many emerging innovations may transform the future of food, such technologies must be communicated to consumers early and often, said Linda Eatherton, partner and managing director at Ketchum, a global public relations firm.
“There are going to be more and more uses for technology to make our world better, starting with our food supply, whether it’s in the ground or on our table, but the truth of the matter is a lot of consumers still get a little queasy about the idea of science and food in the same sentence,” Ms. Eatherton said during a panel discussion at the conference.
Today’s consumers want to learn more about the food they eat, but “transparency does not mean more information,” Ms. Eatherton said. Rather, consumers seek access to cues, clues, signals and unique opportunities to engage with brands.
“Consumers are not going to back off on their need to know,” Ms. Eatherton told Food Business News. “And they are asking us to bring the information to them sooner, not later. Not after it’s on shelf. They don’t want to have to do their homework standing in the food aisle.”
Companies must not dismiss consumers as uninformed or disinterested, she said, adding, “Treat them as stakeholders, not objects you are marketing at.”
“We’ve been through a situation in this industry where we tried to introduce foods made with some new technologies, and we thought it would be best not to share it because it was too hard, too complicated, too much to expect a consumer to ever know,” Ms. Eatherton said. “That didn’t go so well. And now we’re all paying the price because we’ve lost trust with that consumer.”
A ‘big is bad’ bias
Consumers may be fearful of food science and technology because they are unsure of the long-term effect on health, Ms. Eatherton said, noting the consumer definition of health has evolved over the years to include individual, social and environmental health. Companies today must earn permission to launch and sell products to the consumer, she said.
“This is a permission-based society we live in,” she said. “And if you do not have permission, what you’re working against is high skepticism.”
That sentiment was echoed by Deborah Arcoleo, director of product transparency at The Hershey Co., who also participated in the panel discussion about transparency.
“There is definitely a ‘big is bad’ bias with respect to both big agriculture and big food, and the bottom line is the American public no longer believes that we have their best interest at heart,” Ms. Arcoleo said. “They obviously trust smaller companies and smaller family farms more than they do big ones, but even there the statistics aren’t terrific. So, we have a real trust crisis in our country for sure.”
Hershey is among a number of packaged food companies that have opted to share ingredient and sourcing information online in an effort to regain consumer trust. A new tool featured on Hershey’s corporate web site is an interactive map that tracks the ingredients in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Almonds.
“We really do believe transparency is the currency of trust,” Ms. Arcoleo said. “You can’t wait until your portfolio is perfect. You have to share what you can with your consumer immediately.”
Along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Hershey helped develop SmartLabel, a digital platform that includes web sites, apps, QR codes and other elements to make product research easier for consumers. The technology has been adopted by nearly 50 food and beverage companies featuring more than 24,000 stock-keeping units (s.k.u.s), Ms. Arcoleo said.
“If you are a food manufacturer or you are a retailer with a private label portfolio, SmartLabel is a wonderful program open to anybody of any size, whether you’re small, medium or multinational,” Ms. Arcoleo said. “Telling the full story and engaging the consumer with as much information as you can possible share is going to be very beneficial.”
‘Engage everyone’ to create trust
An emerging technology in the food industry that is expected to revolutionize product transparency is blockchain. Described as a shared, immutable ledger for recording the history of transactions, blockchain technology offers increased visibility throughout the supply chain, from the farmer to the retailer, said Brigid McDermott, vice-president of blockchain business development and ecosystem at IBM, during the panel discussion.
“At IBM, we believe blockchain has the ability to transform transactions the way the internet transformed communications,” she said.
A key benefit of blockchain technology for the food industry is the ability to rapidly trace the source of foodborne illness, Ms. McDermott said.
“Last summer when there’s a problem with Salmonella, it takes three weeks for the C.D.C. to figure out which farm in Mexico the papayas came from,” she said. “Three weeks when people could be eating bad food or when good food is going to waste and small farmers who grow papayas for their entire living are potentially put out of business.”
Blockchain accelerates traceability from weeks or days to mere seconds, she said.
“This is about the entire food ecosystem,” Ms. McDermott said. “Like when you’re talking about a Hershey’s bar … milk, almonds, cocoa … if there’s a problem with any one of those, there’s a problem. And if there’s a problem, whether it’s the farmer or the cold chain or the warehouse, that could create a problem. And so you need to engage everyone; you need to get information from everybody in order to create the trust.”
Gene editing: ‘Is it safe?’
Communication is critical around the topic of gene-editing, an emerging technology that involves making precise changes in the genetic material of plants and animals used in food production to improve food safety, reduce food waste and use less water, land and other resources.
“Consumers are going to ask, ‘Is this safe?’ And how is that question going to be answered?” said Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, speaking during a panel discussion at Future Food-Tech. “Everyone in the food chain from the farmer all the way up to the consumer and all of the businesses in between need to know that a gene-edited crop or animal is out there in the food supply. I’m not necessarily talking about labeling or disclosure under the recent bioengineered disclosure law, but I do think … if something’s hidden from consumers, consumers ask why. ‘Why is this being hidden from me?’”
Craig Wilson, vice-president of quality assurance and food safety at Costco Wholesale, serves on the leadership committee for the Coalition of Responsible Gene Editing in Agriculture. A key objective, he said, is creating clear communication of “this novel science” to the consumer.
“If we’re upfront, if we’re honest and tell people what we’re doing, my sense is we’re not going to have an issue,” Mr. Wilson said.
He described an important distinction between gene-editing and genetic engineering.
“We’re not transferring material genome to genome or organism to organism; we’re essentially turning switches on and off,” he said. “There’s always going to be a group of naysayers, no matter what we do, that are going to look at the science and say, ‘No, this has cooties.’
“You know, it’s called agriculture. Not agri-nature.”
Impossible Foods’ flagship product, the plant-based Impossible Burger, features such ingredients as wheat, coconut oil and potatoes, plus genetically modified yeast, which produces heme, a protein naturally found in plants and animals that gives meat its flavor and aroma. The burger is now served in hundreds of restaurants, including “a lot of restaurants that proudly label themselves organic,” said Patrick Brown, Ph.D., chief executive officer and founder of Impossible Foods.
He said although the Impossible Burger uses genetic modfication, the product and brand ethos aligns with the values of organic consumers.
“In our experience when we’re working with people who label their foods as organic ... we fit in perfectly with that because of the integrity of what we’re doing, the fact that we’re dedicated to the health and nutrition of the consumer and we’re dedicated to preserving a healthy environment, which is completely consistent with the motives of most people who are choosing to buy organic products,” Dr. Brown said.
On gene-editing, he added, “The food system is by a huge margin the greatest destructive agent for the global environment... We need every tool at our disposal to find solutions to this ongoing environmental catastrophe that is our food system. A very important set of tools is our ability to now make deliberate modifications in genomes to enable new properties and improve existing characteristics and so forth.
“Gene-editing is one of those tools.”