What’s in my SpaghettiOs? Should I assume there’s no dog in my hot dog? We all want to know what’s buried in the food we eat. We also want to know about the welfare of any animals involved in the process.
Last week the CommitForum hosted a panel entitled, “What’s In My Food? Exploring Transparency in the Supply Chain.” TriplePundit founder and CEO, Nick Aster, interviewed Niki King of Campbell Soup Co., and Stewart Leeth, assistant vice president of environmental and corporate affairs and senior regulatory counsel at Smithfield Foods.
Campbell Soup makes the chicken noodle soup you eat when you’re sick and the tomato soup that you sip with your grilled cheese sandwich. Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest producer of pork products (think: bacon, hot dogs and sausage).
People have strong feelings about what they eat and feed their kids, so transparency and communication about what’s in food is crucial. Sadly, food companies haven’t always been transparent, but Campbell Soup and Smithfield are plodding along toward the goal of complete transparency. Here are some of their recent initiatives and stances.
“We’re not looking to be perfect. We’re just looking to be open and honest,” King said, summarizing the the goal of the project. “We want to tell you what’s in our products, why we use the ingredients we use … where they come from, what’s in our packaging, so you can make informed choices about what you buy.”
To its credit, Campbell responded and created a website to establish a forum for an “open, honest and meaningful” dialogue with customers. The website launched in July and has information about eight of the company's most popular products. It answers questions about what goes into the food, how the food is made and the choices behind determining what ingredients to put in the food. “At the end of the day, transparency is about being accountable,” she continued.
Campbell’s goal is to add the rest of its U.S. and Canadian products to the website by the end of the year -- and to list every product it makes globally in three years. The website is a work in progress, but so far the feedback has been positive, King said at the panel.
There hasn’t been a big marketing push to promote the website. Campbell could lovingly be called conservative and a push like this is seen as a big risk. King explained that they started with a soft-launch of the website and are still hesitant to create a large communication campaign to promote it. However, once some initial customer feedback is received and the company has an opportunity to make necessary changes, King said Campbell will likely promote it more in about a year.
Perhaps the company will continue down the path of increased transparency and a discussion about food nutrition. It has acquired two healthy food companies within the past few years. Both smoothie manufacturer Bolthouse Farms and baby food producer Plum Organics have joined Campbell.
It doesn’t look like that will happen in the near future. However, Leeth did say there are videos about Smithfield’s pork production on its website. Smithfield is trying to create “glass walls about what’s going on so it’s no big mystery,” Leeth said at the panel.
That sounded good, but when I went to find the videos it took me five minutes of clicking around on the website before I finally found them. It was far easier to learn about Smithfield’s sponsored car-racing team than it was to learn about the production of pork and ethical treatment of pigs. The videos are well done, though, and definitely deserve a more prominent place on the website.
Smithfield started to focus on the environment around 15 or 20 years ago, when it had problems on the environmental side. Leeth has firsthand experience in the ordeal, as he prosecuted Smithfield on behalf of the state of Virginia in his former role as assistant attorney general.
“But things changed,” he said at the panel. “Leadership took a [180-degree] turn.”
However, he also said that “customers are the ones that drive our sustainability program.” He's not referring to customers like you and I, but massive customer companies like Walmart that buy millions of pounds of Smithfield's meat every day. “We want to make sure our brand doesn’t tarnish their brand,” Leeth explained.
However, one is left to wonder: If the sustainability program is supported by Smithfield’s leadership, then why are customers the ones driving it? And why is there concern about tarnishing another company’s reputation? I would think Smithfield would be more concerned about tarnishing its own reputation, no?
Leeth said it’s hard to draw people in to look at its production of pork because “we don’t make Apple products.” True, hot dogs aren’t sexy like Apple products. But I think I’ve seen more videos about the pink goo that gets turned into hot dogs than I have the technical hardware components of iPhones. After all, I’m not eating my phone. Why should I care what’s in it?
Smithfield does not support ag-gag rules, which is good. In case you haven’t been following the response of companies to undercover videos documenting the mistreatment of animals, some companies have successfully advocated for “ag-gag” laws that punish people for undercover reporting. It’s the opposite of transparency.
Leeth said thousands of family farmers are doing the right thing to care for their animals and unfortunately one bad video can hurt the reputation of the entire industry. “Bad news sells and outnumbers good news. And good news is boring,” he said bluntly.
Another good thing Smithfield has done is that a few years ago it improved how sows were housed and gave them more space to move around. Leeth also said you can make your own Smithfield foods sustainability report with a few clicks, which sounds like a cool feature.
Both Campbell Soup and Smithfield appear to be taking positive steps toward transparency in the food chain. But if you really want to know what’s in your food, grow it yourself. That’s always the healthiest decision, and it makes the planet happy
Image credit: The Campbell Soup Co.