Transparency: The New Must-Have Ingredient

Grocery shoppers are entering a new age of concern about what they're putting in their bodies -- and we're not just talking about calories and fat. As Americans seek to understand what's in their food, where it comes from and how it's made, companies are on the hook to provide information and help consumers understand the myriad food concerns that pervade today's grocery aisles.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the current GMO debate. As the discussion reaches a boiling point on a state regulatory level, consumers lack crucial understanding to make their own educated decisions. In fact, the 2014 Cone Communications Food Issues Trend Tracker reveals half of Americans don't understand what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are, and, at a very basic level, 55 percent don't even know whether they are good or bad for them.

The GMO conversation highlights an irrefutable need for greater corporate transparency. Although GMOs may be the "issue du jour," this is not the first food issue we've seen come to the forefront and it certainly won't be the last. From cage-free eggs and rBGH-free dairy, to pink slime and sustainable beef, Americans increasingly expect companies to communicate the intimate details on how their food is produced and handled, from how animals and workers are treated, to the environmental impacts of packaging. A striking 88 percent of Americans want companies to tell them what they're doing to operate more responsibly, and another three-quarters wish companies would explain how their food purchasing decisions impact the environment.

In this burgeoning era of hyper concern and awareness, food companies must understand that a skeleton in the closet won't stay there for long. And companies that don't want to end up in the news next to sensational headlines like "yoga mat bread," or face class-action lawsuits for misleading "all natural" claims will need to open up and participate in -- or better yet, lead -- the conversation around these evolving issues. The consequence for not doing so is substantial -- nearly 9-in-10 Americans will stop buying a product if they feel they are being deceived.

Though a company's proverbial "skeleton" may not be making headlines today, that doesn't give license to stuff it further into the closet. Food companies must think proactively about potential issues by asking one simple question: "If my consumers knew what was in this product, would they still buy it?" If the answer is "no," then it's up to the company to think about why consumers might be shocked to discover what's in their products, and what can be done to change that. Companies can preempt consumer backlash and concern by first attempting to seek out alternative ingredients or processes; if that's not an option, then companies must offer education and authentically communicate an explanation consumers can understand.

Companies ready to take transparency seriously must think beyond what's on the package label or corporate website. It's important to integrate communications across channels, especially social media, where many consumers are seeking out answers and posting questions or complaints. This means providing information and resources so consumers can make educated decisions, and having an active and candid social media presence that engages consumers in the conversation, instead of avoiding the issue or sticking to reactive statements. Companies that can create an honest dialogue will win the hearts (and stomachs) of thoughtful consumers. And the good news is they're not expecting flawlessness: 9-in-10 Americans say it's okay if a company is not perfect, as long as it's honest.

A handful of companies have worked to bake transparency right into their brand values. Annie's Homegrown has been a supporter of "real food" for more than 20 years. In fact, when the company started back in 1989, founder Annie Withey put her own address and phone number on each box to answer consumer questions or issues. Today, Annie's Homegrown provides a wealth of information about each product including "What's In It" and "What's Not" tabs for each product page on its website. The company also features "Meet the Farmer" vignettes, so consumers can put a face to the people producing their food.

Whole Foods is another company taking a leadership role in providing robust consumer education around transparency issues, setting the standard for sustainable food retailers. Beyond the company's commitment to label all foods containing GMOs by 2018, the company released a new sustainability rating system for produce and flowers which will hit shelves this fall, labeling products "good," "better" and "best." The ratings are based on a variety of performance factors from farmworker welfare to pollinator protection.

This robust transparency isn't limited to more niche players. In January, McDonald's announced it would only source "verified sustainable beef" by 2016. Interestingly, the fast-food giant made the commitment before an industry-recognized definition for sustainable beef existed. Instead of waiting on the sidelines, McDonald's is helping to lead the conversation around, and also define, sustainable beef, joining with other industry leaders and nonprofits to convene the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef. McDonald's acknowledges its commitment is a "journey" and by making the commitment public, it opens a dialogue with consumers and other stakeholders around a complex issue.

Americans want companies to be partners, not adversaries, in the path toward greater understanding about the food we eat. We're entering a new age of transparency, where the "issue du jour" only underlines the need for companies to open doors and talk about issues proactively. This means companies must not only provide information, but also take a hard look at supply chains to bring latent issues to the forefront or innovate products before consumers are up in arms. When faced with the alternative (consumer shock over fox meat, crushed beetles or "tuna scrape," to name a few), it seems like the easy choice to make.