Yesterday U.S. voters in California voted “NO” to Proposition 37. This proposition called for all foods made with genetically engineered (“GE”) or ‘biotech’ ingredients sold in California to be labeled in a way that alerts consumers. The assumptions behind this proposition were that the process or ingredients used to make GE foods were somehow different and/or hazardous and that consumers have a “right to know” such information in a readily available and accessible manner on product labels.

Who could argue with that? Doesn’t every consumer want and expect to have a right to know what is in their food?

California voters rejected the proposal because of the efforts of Prop 37 opponents to educate the public about the many problems with this proposed law. A broad spectrum of food industry stakeholders from agriculture, processing and manufacturing marshaled resources to reveal the folly in the proposal and defeat it.

Game over? Not so much.

Prop 37 is merely another inning in a long ballgame, with more innings yet to come.  Fundamentally, consumers and customers of food – retail and foodservice – are sending repeated and ever-increasing warning shots across the bows of the food industry. This trend was identified in our own Food 2020: Consumer as CEO research – the digital revolution has flipped the tables on our world. The food industry is now and will continuously be driven by customer and consumer expectations…but those expectations have changed.

The #1 issue on consumers’ minds is the desire for more knowledge about the food they eat. Where does it come from? How is it raised/produced? What are the safety and quality standards? What ethics drive or are lacking among those who produce and supply food? The myriad questions boil down to three words:  Immediate, accessible, and transparency.  Digital technology has taught consumers to expect no less.

Think back twenty years to 1992:  rBsT, biotechnology, dolphin-free tuna, organic, range free. These and other issues became increasingly important to a cross-section of Americans as the years have passed. What were then fringe issues are now mainstream concerns.  And, their impact is being felt from the boardroom to the retail shelf, both locally and globally. You can expect those issues to continue to multiply in the decade to come.

As marketers and manufacturers of food, we can continue to play a ‘whack-a-mole’ game with these issues and spend significant dollars in legal fees and crisis and issues management. But when and where do we draw the line? When is it time to recalibrate our priorities and transform the public debate? We would argue that significant dollars will need to be pulled off brand and product marketing to fund these efforts. Even if each initiative is ‘won,’ the over-all, long-term impact on the consumer and customer view of the industry, at worst, will be a significant erosion of trust about companies and brands.

Immediate access and transparency are not cures. It is what citizens and consumers alike have now come to expect in the globalized, digitized world.  Moreover, information that is communicated in a passive manner may not be seen or heard. Information can’t be just made available, it must be proactively communicated via channels that consumers use.  In other words, companies must investigate, question, verify and push that information to consumers digitally. Acknowledge gaps, share meaningful information and articulate continuous improvements being made over time.

Some in the industry are making efforts to address this dynamic. However, it is time to advance industry’s thinking more broadly to catch up with how customers and consumers view their world and ours. These aren’t merely problems or issues; They are opportunities to build relationships and to partner with both the customer and the consumer to bring forward the foods they want in a manner that they find credible and acceptable.

While Prop 37 was defeated, those who harbor the sentiments that drove the initiative will pursue other avenues to drive their agenda, and gather greater respect and impact. Ketchum counselors need to speak to our clients about these new realities and what they are doing in some key areas – beyond providing safe and nutritious products – to build trust through partnership with customers and consumers.

These include:

  1.  Convenience versus whole foods
  2. Animal welfare
  3. Food production and processing techniques

We are engaged with several of our clients on ways to effectively navigate this new frontier of food marketing and reputation management communications. We would welcome working with you to do the same for your clients. For more information, please see this article:

This article was co-authored by Linda Eatherton, Partner/Director, Global Food & Nutrition Practice, John Bradbury, Senior Vice President/NY Director Issues and Crisis Management, and Karil Kochenderfer, Senior Food Public Affairs Counselor.