Can Big Food Win Friends By Revealing Its Secrets?

Dec 25, 2015
Originally published on December 25, 2015 6:14 pm

The special holiday version of Hershey's Kisses, now on sale nationwide, is an icon of the food industry's past, and perhaps also a harbinger of its future.

Back when Milton Hershey started making this product, more than a century ago, it was a simpler time. He ran the factory and the sales campaigns — although, for decades, he refused to advertise.

Today, The Hershey Company is a giant enterprise with factories around the globe. It owns food companies in China, Brazil and India.

That's typical for the food industry, of course. Lots of food companies are huge. And with vastly increased scale comes growing skepticism about what those companies are up to.

Amanda Hitt may be an extreme case. She's director of the Food Integrity Campaign for an activist organization called the Government Accountability Project, which tries to expose the food industry's darkest secrets: dangerous slaughterhouses, contaminated meat and exploited workers. "This industry is almost always wrong, and always doing something messed up," she says. "So yeah, when I look at anything they do, there's a certain level of skepticism."

Charlie Arnot, who has studied consumer attitudes as a consultant to big food companies, says consumers have lots of questions: How is this food made? Is it good for me? And they tend not to trust answers from big companies.

"There is a significant bias against Big Food," says Arnot, who is also CEO of the nonprofit Center for Food Integrity in Kansas City. "In fact, the larger the company, the more likely it is that people will believe that it will put profit ahead of the public interest."

Companies can't change that with marketing campaigns, he says. The one thing that they can do — and the only thing that works, according to Arnot's research — is open up, and reveal details of their operations.

Which brings us back to those Hershey's Kisses.

Deb Arcoleo, who carries the freshly minted title of director of Product Transparency for The Hershey Company, has brought a bag of them along to our meeting, because there's something new on that package. Printed on the bag, so small that you'd easily miss it, is a little square QR code. These are the codes that you now see in lots of places, like airline boarding passes.

Arcoleo takes my smartphone, aims it at the code, and I hear a beep. Suddenly, the screen of my phone is filled with information about these Hershey's Kisses: nutrition facts, allergens in this product and details about all the ingredients. Lecithin, for instance.

"Let's say I don't really know what lecithin is," says Arcoleo. "I can click on 'lecithin,' and I will get a definition."

Tap another tab, and we see a note about whether this product contains ingredients from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

There's a place where Hershey's could list certifications, such as whether an independent organization such as the Rainforest Alliance had certified that a particular ingredient had been produced in a way that protects the environment. "What's not allowed is marketing spin and fluff kinds of claims, like, 'America's favorite popcorn,' " says Arcoleo.

Hershey's created this system, called SmartLabel, but other companies are now adopting it, too. Very soon, Arcoleo says, there will be tens of thousands of products on supermarket shelves with SmartLabel codes.

"I really, really hope that we can make this as easy as possible for lots of companies to follow our lead. I think this is a game-changer for the consumer packaged goods industry," she says.

I took the Hershey's Kisses back to our skeptic, Amanda Hitt from the Food Integrity Campaign, and demonstrated SmartLabel for her. Her reaction was guardedly positive. "Anything that informs consumers is a good thing, and gets us closer to a certain level of transparency," she said. But SmartLabel only shows us part of the picture, she says; it's highly unlikely that companies will voluntarily reveal the most unappetizing aspects of their business.

Charlie Arnot, the food industry consultant, thinks that some companies may, in fact, be willing to do this. Consumers are forcing them to do it.

"Consumers are interested in the good, the bad and the ugly," he says. They are saying, "Give me the information, treat me like an adult, and allow me to make an informed choice."

Arnot is telling big food companies that "transparency builds trust," and advising them to post on their websites documents that may contain bad news, such as outside audits of their food safety procedures.

When companies do this, it can force executives to ask difficult questions, Arnot says: "Is that information that we're comfortable sharing with the public? And if not, do we change?"

There are risks to this, he says. But the risks of not doing it may be even greater.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Big food companies have an image problem. Many consumers don't trust them - at least not as much as they once did. Some companies are trying a new strategy. NPR's Dan Charles says they're releasing more information about how their products are made.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Back when Milton Hershey first started making Hershey Kisses in his chocolate factory in the town of Hershey, Pa., it was a simpler time.

JEFF BECKMAN: So, you know, Milton built the town. Some of these bigger houses here are where his first executives lived.

CHARLES: This is Jeff Beckman, director of corporate communications for The Hershey Company. It is now a giant enterprise with factories around the globe - $7 billion in annual sales - which is pretty common, lots of food companies are huge. And what's also common is skepticism about what those companies are up to. Amanda Hitt may be an extreme case.

AMANDA HITT: This industry is almost always wrong and always doing something messed up.

CHARLES: Hitt is director of the Food Integrity Campaign at an activist organization called the Government Accountability Project, which tries to expose the food industry's darkest secrets - dangerous slaughterhouses, contaminated meat, exploited workers.

HITT: So yeah, when I look at anything they do, there's a certain level of skepticism.

CHARLES: Charlie Arnot has studied consumer attitudes as a consultant for big food companies. He also runs the nonprofit, Center for Food Integrity in Kansas City. He says consumers have lots of questions these days - how is food made? Is it good for me? But they tend not to trust answers from big food companies.

CHARLIE ARNOT: There is a significant bias against big food. And, in fact, the larger the company, the more likely consumers are to believe that that company will put profit ahead of public interest.

CHARLES: Arnot says companies can't change that with marketing campaigns. The one thing they can do, he says, is open up - show more details of their operations. Here, at Hershey's headquarters, they're testing that strategy.

DEB ARCOLEO: I am Deb Arcoleo, and I am the director of product transparency for The Hershey Company.

CHARLES: That's an actual title?

ARCOLEO: It is. It's a new title since October.

CHARLES: Arcoleo brought along a bag of Hershey Kisses because there's something new on that package - a little square code - a QR code, like the ones you see now on airline boarding passes. Arcoleo takes my smart phone and aims it at that code.

ARCOLEO: You click on scan.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

CHARLES: And suddenly, on my phone, I see a lot of things - nutrition facts, what allergens are in there, details about all the ingredients, like this one - lecithin.

ARCOLEO: Let's say I don't really know what lecithin is, I can click on lecithin and I will get a definition.

CHARLES: There's a note about whether this product contains ingredients from genetically modified organisms - GMOs. There's also a space to list certifications - for instance, if some independent organization like the Rainforest Alliance certifies that an ingredient was produced in a way that protects the environment.

ARCOLEO: What's not allowed is marketing spin and fluff kinds of claims, like, you know, America's favorite popcorn.

CHARLES: The Hershey Company created this system, called SmartLabel. But now other companies are adopting it, too. Very soon, Arcoleo says, there will be tens of thousands of products on supermarket shelves with SmartLabel QR codes.

ARCOLEO: I think this is a game-changer for the consumer packaged goods industry.

CHARLES: I took this back and showed it to our skeptic, Amanda Hitt, from the Food Integrity Campaign.

HITT: I think anything that informs consumers is a good thing and that gets us one step closer to a certain level of transparency.

CHARLES: But this QR code only shows us part of the picture, she says. She thinks it's highly unlikely that companies will voluntarily reveal the most unappetizing aspects of their business. Charlie Arnot, the food industry consultant, says, just wait, maybe they will. He is telling those companies, you really have to.

ARNOT: Consumers are interested in the good, the bad, the ugly. Give me the information, treat me like an adult and allow me to make an informed choice.

CHARLES: He's advising companies to post on their websites, documents that may contain bad news, like outside audits of their food safety procedures. When companies do this, it can lead to some difficult questions.

ARNOT: Is that information that we're comfortable sharing with the public? And if not, do we change?

CHARLES: There are risks to this, he says. But the risks of not doing it may be even greater.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.