Transparency and Consumer Trust: Success Hinges on Execution Far More than the Idea

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few years, you know a big part of the consumer-led food revolution is driven by shoppers who want to know more about their food – where it comes from, how it is made, what’s in it.

But there is only so much real estate on food labels, so what is a company to do?

For the better part of 2014, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has been telling anyone who will listen that technology is the answer.  He told Congress…he told the media…he told attendees of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Vilsack says the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) have discussed the possibility of overseeing an industry initiative to develop a smart phone and web site solution on GMO labeling.

But consumers want information far beyond GMO content. They want to “trust” the products they buy and the companies that make them.  They want to know where food ingredients come from. They want to know about pesticide and herbicide use. They want to know the animals used to make their food were treated ethically.  They want access to the safety data on food ingredients.  They want to know what chemicals were used to make the packaging for their food.  They want to know more about the nutrition information and health claims on packages.

You get the picture.  More is better.

Food manufacturers and retailers are consumer-facing brands. When consumers and government regulators start asking for something, it’s typically just a matter of time until it happens. Witness recent voluntary initiatives on food safety, front of pack nutrition labeling, food ingredient safety reform and healthy lifestyle initiatives.

So it’s hard to imagine a scenario under which industry ignores calls to develop a voluntary initiative to develop a comprehensive database of packaged food items.  Through barcodes, QR codes and Web sites, consumers will be able to scan or look up items on smart phones or the Internet while they are in the grocery aisles to see if a product meets with their approval.

To do it right, the database would have to be stocked with dozens of characteristics because no single shopper is alike. Each puts greater priority on certain information.

This is a simple idea that is easy to “white board” but incredibly hard to implement.  Not impossible, just difficult, expensive and time consuming.  As difficult as it would be to build the technology to support the program (create the database and Web site, develop and place QR codes on products, develop and distribute a smart phone App, etc.), all that pales in comparison to the gargantuan task of compliance.

A Maserati that is short on gas won’t go very far.  Each company will have to track and trace the supply chain (food and packaging) for every Stock Keeping Unit in their product portfolio.  They will have to agree to share proprietary data with a third party and update it routinely.  They will have to test and verify the information they offer up for the database to ensure it’s accurate to stave off consumer claims and potential litigation.

Once those obstacles are overcome, the key to success will be ubiquity.  Consumers and regulators will embrace a program that applies to virtually every product they see in stores. They may be less than thrilled with a spotty or incomplete program that doesn’t answer their questions.  Ubiquity also eliminates competitive advantage, so no single company or brand wins in the marketplace because it does – or does not – participate in the program.

Giving consumers and policymakers what they want when it comes to transparency is important. But it’s the execution that matters.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, LLC, is former Executive Vice President of Communications and Membership at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association.