Politics, Plans, and Policy: Is it Too Late to Restore Trust in the Food Industry?

February 11, 2021

With more than 30 years of wisdom as a thought leader and former front-line lobbyist for
Canada’s national food and consumer products manufacturing association, I’ve seen
and lived through a lot of food politics. Sometimes difficult and always complex, food
politics can be an effective catalyst for real, sustainable change.
I believe that the problems our food industry and government policymakers face can be
boiled down to trust, or lack of trust. I also believe we can build that trust back for a
stronger, more unified industry that benefits all consumers.

Let’s take a closer look.

Example 1: Canada’s shrinking policy table

Canada is known for having a more restrictive food regulatory system than the U.S.;
health claims weren’t even allowed until the early 2000s. So how did we inform
consumer choice without manufacturer claims? As an industry, we got creative and
worked collectively with health organizations to get healthy messages about our brands
out to consumers. National organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society, Heart &
Stroke (formerly Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada), Dietitians of Canada and
many other groups came to the table to collaborate and communicate, working with Health Canada, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada and the now-defunct Consumer and Corporate Affairs of Canada government department to help balance corporate and consumer needs.

 

If this multi-stakeholder approach sounds time-consuming and frustrating, it absolutely
was. In hindsight, however, it actually served the industry well. It wasn’t uncommon to
have 50+ stakeholders around a table in Ottawa, joining with Health Canada, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada or Consumer and Corporate Affairs to collectively hash out food policies and listen to
different viewpoints.

 

An imperfect system breaks.
Fast forward 15+ years to 2019-2020, when Health Canada launched the largest
overhaul of nutrition policy in Canada, unilaterally and very publicly leaving the food
industry out of the food policy discussions. Unlike in decades past, the industry was
brought in only after decisions were in place, simply to be informed of the new policies,
directives and implementation timelines. What happened?

 

Three possible factors led to a 180-degree shift in how food policy decisions were made.

  • Following the approval of nutrient content claims (e.g. fat free) and health claims (e.g. calcium builds strong bones) there was a surge of on-package labeling claims by companies to highlight better for you nutrients which didn’t always tell the whole product health story.  This led to consumer and media criticism.
  • Health organizations and retailers also created on-package programs denoting healthy products on food labels. The programs were essentially in-store, ‘pay-to-play’ programs for
    manufacturers, resulting in lost credibility for health organization, retailers and the food
    industry. This further fostered the notion of ‘good food’ versus ‘bad food.’
  • Canada was also trying to address the growing rise in obesity and malnutrition and the government was shining a spotlight on portion sizes, advertising and marketing to children, nutrition labelling and trans fatty acids.  There was significant negative media attention at the time, which significantly eroded the industry’s credibility as supporters of science-based food
    and nutrition policy.

Collectively, the food industry became better known for what they were ‘against’ versus
what they ‘stood for’. Manufacturers lost credibility and trust among both the government
and its key stakeholders. As a result, Health Canada was cautious in consulting the
industry on its new Healthy Eating Strategy.

 

Today, Canada proudly proclaims to have the strictest food and nutrition policies that are
free from industry interference. That is true. The question is where can industry go from
here? How can food manufacturers and distributors once again play a productive
role in shaping the policies that shape their business?

Example 2: Food Labeling in the U.S.

Canada is not alone in this struggle. In fact, the U.S. also has a fractured industry-policy
relationship. Take sugar, for example. The debate on the added sugar policy by the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) divided the former Grocery Manufacturers
Association members. This left member companies on different sides of the labeling
policy position, as did GMO labeling. These contentious labeling policies deepened the
industry divide with many member companies departing the association. As a result, the
food industry lacks a united voice. At the very core, this calls for industry leadership
and a unified voice on food and nutrition policies.

Purpose rebuilds trust.

There is hope for bringing the industry back to the table, in both the U.S. and Canada.

The companies that have weathered this storm the best have focused on embracing
their core purpose. They have reimagined their business model, resisting the pressure
for short-term gains and focusing instead on long-term opportunities. They have
channeled their frustrations into investments in innovation and shifted capital towards
sustainable growth in contrast to razor-thin margins.

Essentially, today’s successful companies are figuring out how to be a greater
force for good without sacrificing profits. They are committed to building sustainable,
transformative and regenerative strategies into their core businesses and brands
through purpose-driven leadership.

Interestingly, in the midst of the pandemic, the industry has demonstrated and regained
trust in the court of public opinion. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that
business is the only institution seen as both competent and ethical. That’s a huge wakeup call. CEOs are expected to take a lead with the government on societal issues.
Business is seen as the most competent (48-point edge over government) and NGOs
lead on ethical (29-point gap over government), but government and media are seen as
both unethical and incompetent.

What do those stats mean? In a nutshell, consumers overwhelmingly believe that CEOs
and manufacturers must take the lead on change because it’s the right thing to do,
without waiting for the government to impose it.
That’s purpose in action.

The big question: Is your company a force for good?

Having worked with and for many major food companies in different capacities, I’m
honored to know so many career professionals who are proud to work in the food sector
making products that consumers know, trust and love. The passion is there, and the time
is right for change. In today’s food policy landscape, the cost of not running a purpose driven company runs a greater risk than pivoting to embracing purpose.

At Food for Health, our goal is to work with companies in a proprietary way to foster
standout CEO’s and leadership teams to become a great force for good by making
quality products that change people’s lives. We want to work with you so that
consumers know, trust and love your company and brands.

I founded this consultancy to unite stakeholders from the food, agriculture, government,
academic and health sectors under a shared vision and voice.
Want to know more? Get to know me here.

 

Together, we can transform food and health in the U.S.
Tell me a little about your organization’s Food for Health challenges and I’ll send you a
link to book your complimentary 30-minute consultation. Get started here.

You could say I know a thing or two about food, nutrition, health and future trends and issues. I understand each stakeholder’s perspective and I am uniquely positioned to be able to help you understand what to do next.

Want to work together to improve nutrition and health for all Americans?