Posted in Food Safety, Food Systems, Food Technology on Jun 11, 2019

Wearing the cloak of invisibility

As a small company from a small country, it is easy to be invisible among the behemoth food companies that have taken up stands at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Expo and annual conference. This invisibility could be a metaphor for the role of the consumer in the food chain, because they also appear to be absent, which makes a lot of sense. This is an event for food technologists, by food technologists, and some of the technologies on display could frighten a few consumers. More about the Expo later.

All types of minds are required

The conference proper opened with the inimitable and inspirational, Temple Grandin. Grandin is well known for her pioneering work on animal handling and welfare, along with her advocacy work for autism. Grandin’s session was a clever blend of both topics and it left the audience with no doubt of the importance of diversity in seeking solutions for current issues. She constantly reminded us that the financial sector had caused global ruin and placing those ‘sort of people’ in charge of building food factories was a (literal) recipe for disaster. To elaborate – Grandin believes that the different ways people think makes them better (or worse) for specific positions, and putting someone who is a ‘math thinker’ in charge of creating a food plant would be less likely to succeed as they are unable to ‘see’ the risks. As Grandin pointed out – visual thinkers ‘see’ risk, spatial (math) thinkers calculate risk.

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Visual thinkers cause disruption: beyond the classroom

With a presentation that skipped along across topics, repeated key points, was peppered with colourful anecdotes and random photos, Grandin drove home her worry for the food industry specifically, and the US in general. This concern was focused on her observation that skills and trades were being lost and, even more fundamentally, that children were being labelled and screened out of classes because of draconian algebra requirements. Clarifying this further - visual thinkers were those that were less likely to excel at mathematics, yet it is visual thinkers who are more likely to cause disruption and are credited with many global innovations (think Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs). Grandin deserved her standing ovation; her humbleness was refreshing in a ballroom full of suited executives and scientists.

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Two sides of the same coin

A complete departure from Grandin, Tamika Sims of the large Washington DC- based, not-for-profit, International Food Information Council (IFIC) talked about her organisation’s engagement across the food supply chain, with the purpose of connecting producers with consumers and, conversely consumers with producers. These are definitely two sides of the same coin, but both require a different approach and perspective. As an organisation, IFIC collates information from a variety of sources and disseminates it to consumers, it has a public health imperative, and partners with a number of credible professional organisations; however, these partnerships also extend to food industry organisations including the Food Marketing Institute. Sims spoke of IFIC’s approach of listening, asking and sharing.

Listening to consumers

In this context, a variety of communication tools were analysed to ‘listen’ to what consumers were talking about, identifying current areas of interest and what, if any, events impacted on them causing greater ‘noise’ or increased volume of traffic. Two examples were used – GMO and pet-food. Side-by-side analysis showed that the sentiment for pet-food was positive (the bulk of traffic had occurred in response the positive move by a pet food company) and neutral or negative for GMO (there had been a spike in traffic caused by the release of the ruling on GMO labelling). A bit of an ‘a-ha’ moment came when Sims described the different modes of communication. For the arguably more contentious issue of GMO, most communication occurred through Twitter, conversely for the positive story of a pet-food company shifting to more natural products, the spike in conversations occurred through blog posts and websites. Intuitively this makes a lot of sense – we want an immediate outlet for things that might anger or infuriate (remembering that most of the GMO conversation was negative in sentiment) and ‘feel-good’ issues make nice blog posts.

Where consumers get trustworthy information

With regard to ‘asking’, the IFIC conduct an annual survey to assess consumers’ perceptions of the food supply chain and to dig deeper on issues that are identified in the ‘listening’ phase. There was really nothing stunning here – consumers want products they can trust; they care about taste and price, and although sustainability was measured, that measurement had changed from previous years- making it difficult to draw conclusions. A result, similar to one that Sumfood has found, is that the places consumers go to get trusted information is firstly government or official sources, followed by consumer organisations (not supermarkets or producers). Finally, Sims reported on the ‘sharing’ aspect of their business – a short social media campaign based on six static images was presented as an example. The take-home: if you want to be seen on social media, your images have to be crisp, and you have to ask a question. There- social media planning solved.

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Will data change the food system?

Wrapping up the day was a panel session on how data will impact food systems. Not a small topic, the panel represented a diversity of views and expertise. It was disappointing that the focus was limited to talking about current data uses- it would have been good to hear the art of the possible. This aside, the take home is that small, nimble start-ups will be the innovation labs for big companies, and, in turn, those big companies will acquire smaller ones who do not have the ability to scale. Sounds about right.

But in reality… big companies are still not listening

As one food technology company said when they found out that Sumfood was a small start -up from New Zealand and was harnessing, among other things, the power of AI – “our company doesn’t have anything to do with AI and we don’t work with NZ companies”. Well, ahem, you are a food ingredients company and you work with customers who produce food for the international market so, well, you should be interested in talking with a broader audience and you should be interested in AI. In his defence, the Expo reportedly attracts over 23,000 attendees so working out who you want to talk to, rapidly, is a sensible strategy. The volume of attendees does beg the question of how many tons of pens, squeezy toys and other ridiculous brand paraphernalia will be distributed throughout the event.

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