More and more, Americans have trust issues with "big food"—myriad recalls, the banning of trans fats and studies linking the role food plays in disease have put consumers on alert. Labeling laws, the transparency the Internet provides and the platform for discussion social media offers have collectively created the perfect storm for debate and change.
Food activists are transforming the relationship people have with what they eat. For processed foods, ingredient performance and sourcing are under the microscope. Yet most food companies are loath to give these activists the time of day, accusing most anyone who questions their practices as at best uninformed and, at worst, stupid.
What many food companies fail to grasp is handling consumer challenges with rage or indignation comes off as smug and ultimately gets you nowhere. The genie is never going back into the bottle and thus created a new normal for the food industry and a huge opportunity, if embraced correctly.
Recent reformulations by Kraft (Macaroni & Cheese), PepsiCo (Gatorade) and Starbucks been spurred by activists petitioning online, specifically though Change.org. Each campaign unfolded differently, and each was handled differently.
In February 2013, a Change.org petition asked Kraft to "stop using dangerous food dyes in our mac & cheese." In March, Kraft posted a lawyerly response about following the laws and regulations in the countries where products are sold, and how, in the United States, all colors are approved and deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When signatures on the petition neared 350,000, the traditional media took notice. In November, about nine months from the posting of the petition, Kraft announced the removal of the artificial dyes from some of its Mac & Cheese products.
Starbucks, on the other hand, took less than a month to switch its red food coloring from cochineal to lycopene as a result of a Change.org petition that drew only 7,000 signatures. Knowing its audience exceptionally well, Starbucks adjusted and moved on. No fighting back. No protesting the unfairness of it all. And certainly, no attempt to come off as disdainful to its critics.
Will your ingredient (or one used in your product) become a target of consumer activism? Risks are higher if you ingredient moonlights as an industrial chemical; is banned in other countries; triggers allergies, inflammation or other health issues; is untested; or is being talked about across social media platforms.
For a closer look at the activist consumer, and how these consumers are affecting the food and beverage industry, visit Food Product Design's Boardroom Journal: Navigating Consumer Activism.