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Can Big Food Win Friends By Revealing Its Secrets?

A man scans a voucher code in with his smartphone. Some food companies use labels like this to provide details about ingredients and manufacturing processes to consumers.
A man scans a voucher code in with his smartphone. Some food companies use labels like this to provide details about ingredients and manufacturing processes to consumers.

The special holiday version of Hershey's Kisses, now on sale nationwide, is an icon of the food industry's past, and perhaps also a harbinger of its future.

Back when Milton Hershey started making this product, more than a century ago, it was a simpler time. He ran the factory and the sales campaigns — although, for decades, he refused to advertise.

Today, The Hershey Company is a giant enterprise with factories around the globe. It owns food companies in China, Brazil and India.

That's typical for the food industry, of course. Lots of food companies are huge. And with vastly increased scale comes growing skepticism about what those companies are up to.

Amanda Hitt may be an extreme case. She's director of the Food Integrity Campaign for an activist organization called the Government Accountability Project, which tries to expose the food industry's darkest secrets: dangerous slaughterhouses, contaminated meat and exploited workers. "This industry is almost always wrong, and always doing something messed up," she says. "So yeah, when I look at anything they do, there's a certain level of skepticism."

Charlie Arnot, who has studied consumer attitudes as a consultant to big food companies, says consumers have lots of questions: How is this food made? Is it good for me? And they tend not to trust answers from big companies.

"There is a significant bias against Big Food," says Arnot, who is also CEO of the nonprofit Center for Food Integrity in Kansas City. "In fact, the larger the company, the more likely it is that people will believe that it will put profit ahead of the public interest."

Companies can't change that with marketing campaigns, he says. The one thing that they can do — and the only thing that works, according to Arnot's research — is open up, and reveal details of their operations.

Which brings us back to those Hershey's Kisses.

Deb Arcoleo, who carries the freshly minted title of director of Product Transparency for The Hershey Company, has brought a bag of them along to our meeting, because there's something new on that package. Printed on the bag, so small that you'd easily miss it, is a little square QR code. These are the codes that you now see in lots of places, like airline boarding passes.

Arcoleo takes my smartphone, aims it at the code, and I hear a beep. Suddenly, the screen of my phone is filled with information about these Hershey's Kisses: nutrition facts, allergens in this product and details about all the ingredients. Lecithin, for instance.

"Let's say I don't really know what lecithin is," says Arcoleo. "I can click on 'lecithin,' and I will get a definition."

Tap another tab, and we see a note about whether this product contains ingredients from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

There's a place where Hershey's could list certifications, such as whether an independent organization such as the Rainforest Alliance had certified that a particular ingredient had been produced in a way that protects the environment. "What's not allowed is marketing spin and fluff kinds of claims, like, 'America's favorite popcorn,' " says Arcoleo.

Hershey's created this system, called SmartLabel, but other companies are now adopting it, too. Very soon, Arcoleo says, there will be tens of thousands of products on supermarket shelves with SmartLabel codes.

"I really, really hope that we can make this as easy as possible for lots of companies to follow our lead. I think this is a game-changer for the consumer packaged goods industry," she says.

I took the Hershey's Kisses back to our skeptic, Amanda Hitt from the Food Integrity Campaign, and demonstrated SmartLabel for her. Her reaction was guardedly positive. "Anything that informs consumers is a good thing, and gets us closer to a certain level of transparency," she said. But SmartLabel only shows us part of the picture, she says; it's highly unlikely that companies will voluntarily reveal the most unappetizing aspects of their business.

Charlie Arnot, the food industry consultant, thinks that some companies may, in fact, be willing to do this. Consumers are forcing them to do it.

"Consumers are interested in the good, the bad and the ugly," he says. They are saying, "Give me the information, treat me like an adult, and allow me to make an informed choice."

Arnot is telling big food companies that "transparency builds trust," and advising them to post on their websites documents that may contain bad news, such as outside audits of their food safety procedures.

When companies do this, it can force executives to ask difficult questions, Arnot says: "Is that information that we're comfortable sharing with the public? And if not, do we change?"

There are risks to this, he says. But the risks of not doing it may be even greater.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
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