The panel of food industry heavyweights assembled to address “The War on Big Food,” yet they shied away from the whole “war” notion.
Yes, consumers are increasingly veering away from processed food. Yes, food companies face rising skepticism on everything from genetically modified organisms to animal welfare, all of it amplified by the Internet.
But food technology is scientifically sound, the panel said. The industry just isn’t getting its message across. “It’s a failure of storytelling,” Greg Page of Cargill Inc. said Friday at a half-day-long “food security summit” put on by the Economic Club of Minnesota.
“I think we need to think of this not as a war, but as a contest to be the trusted party.”
Of course, that’s a conundrum. As Page acknowledged, a Cargill director and former Cargill CEO like himself isn’t going to be seen as a trusted messenger. Cargill, after all, is the epitome of “Big Food.”
The Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, was a cosponsor Friday of the Economic Club’s food security gathering at the Minneapolis Convention Center. A packed ballroom listened to top executives from Minnesota’s nationally prominent food and agriculture industry.
General Mills, Hormel Foods, Buffalo Wild Wings, Land O’Lakes and fertilizer maker Mosaic were all represented, as was Ecolab, a big player in food industry sanitation.
Consumers these days are increasingly asking questions about the origins of their food. Simpler is increasingly seen as better.
“Consumer food values are changing — they are always changing — but with this millennium generation, they are changing faster,” said Jeff Harmening, General Mills’ chief operating officer. “There is no doubt that consumers are demanding real food, and when we give it to them, they respond.”
General Mills is building up its natural and organic food business, including through acquisitions. The company is the nation’s third largest producer of organic foods, Harmening said, with such brands as Annie’s, Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen.
Indeed, most of the top U.S. organic food brands are owned by large, publicly traded food companies. Hormel, the maker of processed meat poster child Spam, recently took a huge step into the organic meat market with its $775 million purchase of industry leader Applegate Farms.
“The whole organic and natural phenomenon is not a fad,” said Jeffrey Ettinger, Hormel’s CEO. “We will have to have a whole different supply chain … I see a strong bifurcation.”
The food industry has been under fire on a number of fronts. Animal welfare activists have pilloried large-scale livestock and poultry production — i.e. “factory farming.” Health advocates have taken shots at sugar, salt, corn syrup and a host of other common food ingredients. Then there’s the turmoil over genetically-modified organisms or GMOs.
Most of the corn, sugar beets and soybeans raised in this country are grown from GMO seed. Food regulators long ago approved GMOs as safe, and the executives at Friday’s food summit see them as vital for increasing the world’s agricultural productivity.
But consumer mistrust about bioengineering persists, and debate rages over whether food companies should be forced to label products containing GMO ingredients as such.
“If you talk to consumers right now, it’s ‘I want technology in everything but my food,’ ” said Chris Policinski, CEO of Land O’Lakes. “That’s a problem.”
Headlines don’t always reflect the mass audience’s food views. That’s what Buffalo Wild Wings has taken away from its consumer research, said the company’s CEO, Sally Smith. Buffalo Wild Wings is one of the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant chains, doing over $1 billion in annual sales with its wings, beer and sports motif.
“We have a pretty good handle on the broad range of what consumers want,” she said. “What is showing up in the headlines and on the Internet is not necessarily what the American mainstream is buying, can afford to buy or really even cares about.”