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CEO Panel: A View From the Top

BY: Mary Ellen Kuhn
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CEO PanelThe role of diet and nutrition in health will be a major driver of the food industry, the three senior-level executives who spoke at Tuesday morning’s IFT15 CEO Panel agreed. Their insights came at the conclusion of a wide-ranging discussion on industry issues when session moderator, journalist Ron Insana, asked the panelists what topic they would expect to find front and center if they assembled again a year from now.

“The connection between health and foods,” was the prompt reply from Eric Larson, chairman, managing partner, and co-founder of private equity group Linden Capital Partners.

Panelist James C. Borel, executive vice-president, DuPont Pioneer, shared Larson’s perspective. “I think people are more and more interested in understanding the connection between health and nutrition,” said Borel. The CEO panel’s third participant, David Cotton, CEO of Flying Food Group, agreed.

Certainly consumers are fixated on the healthfulness of the food supply although they often don’t make the most healthful lifestyle decisions, the panelists further agreed in the course of a conversation that touched on topics such as consumer perceptions about food, the need for industry credibility, and the promise of new technologies.

Engaging in a fact-based dialogue with consumers is essential, according to Borel. “It’s important for us in the food industry to be willing to listen,” he said. “But we also need to stand behind sound science-based information so that people have the information that gives them the assurances they need.”

Insana highlighted the challenges of communicating with consumers when he shared a humorous video clip from the Jimmy Kimmel Live television show in which several seemingly health-conscious consumers who opted to avoid gluten came up short when asked to explain what gluten actually is.

Food companies are engaged in a balancing act, Borel suggested, observing that the industry needs to give consumers what they want—gluten-free products, for example, without communicating the message that gluten is bad for everyone.

Transparency is critical, he said, noting that the food industry would be well-advised to explore new ways of delivering the information that consumers seek. “If the real desire is for transparency,” he said, “let’s find ways to do that.” Everything can’t—and need not—be included on a product’s label, he said, but suggested that food companies might explore options like bar codes or QSR codes that link to more detailed information about ingredients for those consumers who want that level of information. “We think it’s important to be as transparent as we can,” said Borel. “Consumers want to know more about their food, and as an industry, it’s our job to provide that.”

Consumers tend to distrust big food companies, but their distrust of business is broader than that, Larson contended. “I think there is a higher level of distrust everywhere; I don’t think it’s just the food industry.” Larson said he is optimistic that if industry can move consumers toward a better understanding of sound science, that distrust may lessen. “If that level of understanding can be raised, I think there will be less distrust,” he said. The panelists agreed that some of the pervasive industry distrust is driven by millennial consumers, who tend to skeptical and place more trust in their peers than in establishment entities.

Cotton advanced the view that sometimes it’s smarter and safer for companies to get their message out through professional and trade groups rather than attempting to reach out directly to consumers. “If you’re in the industry and you try to talk to consumers, there’s a certain lack of trust,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the panelists agreed on the importance of a focus on technology going forward. “As you walk around the [food expo] floor, there is a lot of technology that is being developed to make food more efficiently,” Larson observed.

Technology will play a role in addressing the critically important role of water conservation, for example. “We’ve got to find ways to get more yield out of every ounce of soil,” said Borel, citing the role that technological innovations like drought-resistant crops can play in preservation of the water supply.

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