“Big reputations, big reputations. Oh, you and me, we’ve got big reputations.”[1] Taylor Swift’s catchy tune doesn’t immediately conjure images of the food industry, but one of its underlying messages is echoed daily through the halls of big food companies. Pop stars and food companies both share a keen awareness of brand reputation. For decades, giants of the food industry have built their empires upon the pillars of consumer satisfaction: safety, quality, consistency, efficiency, demand, and customer service. Brand reputation and buying decisions have traditionally centered on providing a high-quality, convenient product at a reasonable cost.

As younger generations of consumers assume a greater portion of buying power, companies are being forced to shift paradigms to embrace additional strategic arenas. Forbes commissioned a study in 2015 to better understand what areas impact this emerging generation’s buying decisions.[2] The study contained anticipated results around the importance of engagement, authenticity, and technology. Forbes found that, like previous generations, millennials (born early 1980s to mid-1990s) feel strong loyalty toward favored brands. Surprisingly, there were many more parameters associated with brand loyalty for this generation than for their predecessors. It’s not enough to provide a reasonably priced, high-quality product; the company’s commitment to social responsibility is also under the microscope. In fact, 75 percent of those surveyed said they expected their chosen brands to give back to society. It’s extremely important to this generation of consumers that they feel good about their buying decisions.

Saving Ugly Produce from the Landfill
“I don’t care about spots on my apples; leave me the birds and the bees. Please!”[3] Are consumers ready to take Joni Mitchell’s example and sacrifice perfection for sustainability? For decades, the food industry has been united in this pursuit of perfection. The main driver for this lofty goal has been consumer demand for an aesthetically pleasing experience while strolling through the grocery store aisle. In response to the growing epidemic of food waste that has stricken the globe, many nonprofit organizations are campaigning for global retail chains to find unique marketing solutions to highlight these stepchildren of the produce world. France’s Intermarché launched its “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign in 2014, selling these poor rejects for a 30 percent discount.[4] This strategy has paid dividends, reaching millions of consumers and driving positive social media traffic. It was so successful that Intermarché continually sells out and has noticed a 24 percent increase in store traffic. In the U.S., Giant Eagle has also embraced this cause with its “Produce with Personality” campaign, celebrating “ugly” fruits and vegetables.[5] As a recent transfer from across the pond, Lidl has brought their own spin, selling 10-pound “Too Good To Waste” boxes of rejected produce for a fraction of their original worth.[6]

The benefits can’t be ignored, but there are more hazardous effects to be considered. Fruits and vegetables that have sustained damage to their peel or skin could be susceptible to microbiological or pest intrusion, causing advanced spoilage or illness. Amid nationwide outbreaks, there is renewed focus on preventing foodborne pathogenic strains of Salmonella, Listeria, and Escherichia coli from entering the food supply. In recent decades, viruses and intestinal parasites, such as Cyclospora and Cryptosporidium, have also contributed to this danger. In avoiding the landfill, these produce rejects might be contributing to this risk. In fact, fresh produce is the leading cause of foodborne outbreaks in America.[7] Pathogenic contamination is much more likely when wounds allow easy access through the food’s protective layer.

Regardless of the hazards, many retailers across the globe have pledged to highlight these rejects, often combining quirky messaging and funny commercials to cajole consumers into making lower-quality choices to reduce food waste. This phenomenon has spurred a movement called “goodvertising”—advertising as a force for good. This shift toward socially responsible marketing resonates strongly with the consumer preferences of younger generations. Generation Z (born mid-1990s to early 2000s) has shown a similar preference toward organizations that advertise their good works. While limited trials have been very promising, it is still to be determined whether the greater American public is willing to compromise their perfect produce standards and embrace these less than perfect cousins.

Sacrificing Quality for Clean Labeling
Along the same lines, the American food industry is at the precipice of a revolutionary change that Europe went through decades ago: efforts toward clean labeling. It seems as though everyone is in the process of reformulating products to remove and replace artificial ingredients (colors, flavors, processing aids, and preservatives) with natural counterparts. Any ingredient with a chemical-sounding name is on the chopping block. Simultaneously, we’ve seen a huge rise in public demand for fresher food offerings that are more nutritious. Many of the largest food companies, such as Nestlé, General Mills, Whole Foods, Kraft, and Campbell’s, have scrambled to reformulate, offering promises to eliminate artificial ingredients in the next few years. The foodservice industry is also making this pledge with companies such as Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut), Panera, Chipotle, and Papa John’s leading the pack.

Some of these clean-labeling goals have also extended to eliminating artificial preservatives such as nitrites, potassium sorbate, and sodium benzoate, which have been commonly used in the food industry for decades. In fact, there is evidence of preservative use as far back as prehistoric times, although chemical preservatives have been used in food to combat microbial spoilage and pathogens since the 19th century. Despite their vital role in protecting the world’s food supply, they have been linked to possible carcinogen formation, which has resulted in a public outcry to eliminate them altogether.8 There has also been evidence that sodium benzoate aggravates asthma sufferers, causing many food companies to seek natural alternatives.[9]

Could this potential risk outweigh the proven benefits of these antimicrobials? There has been no shortage of foodborne outbreaks in the past 10 years. While many are unrelated to this issue, the lack of microbial hurdles could have contributed to conditions that allow opportunistic pathogens a vehicle to attack public health. One of the leaders in the clean-label movement, Chipotle, had a major issue with E. coli O26 in 2015, which led to a multistate outbreak, affecting dozens of people. Despite strong efforts by the company, the source of this pathogen was never discovered. The incident did lead to changes in food preparation practices inside the restaurants. In addition to this incident, this restaurant chain has experienced additional outbreaks, involving Salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni, and Clostridium perfringens. In light of these repeated failures to protect consumers from these human pathogens, a policy that removes microbial hurdles can be seen as a risky choice.

Obesity has become one of the largest public health concerns. As a result, a huge trend that has swept through almost all large manufacturers is adjusting product compositions to make formulas healthier. While reducing ingredients such as sodium and sugar is a noble goal that will definitely have a positive impact on public health, there are fears that research and development departments aren’t taking the bactericidal nature of these reduced raw materials into consideration. It’s dangerous to reduce any microbiological hurdle without understanding the impact on the product’s safety. Certain variables must be considered when taking on these projects. Adding alternate ingredients that will contribute to the robustness of the formula, substituting certain ingredients that have a high microbial load, different means of processing, reducing shelf life, and/or switching from ambient-temperature to a chilled distribution are all possible alternatives.

While removing preservatives and microbial hurdles such as salt and sugar can compromise the microbial safety of food and contribute to spoilage, removing artificial ingredients can also have negative sensory effects. These detrimental quality characteristics can take the form of diminished color, a difference in taste and texture, and/or a shorter shelf life. Strawberry syrup is an excellent example of the aesthetic sacrifices that are made when artificial colors are replaced with natural alternatives. While there are some good natural red colors, most don’t have the lasting power to preserve a bright, cherry-red color through the end of a long shelf life for a product like syrup. Relying on just the natural strawberry color will lead to a slow but inevitable browning. This natural degradation of color over time is generally more accepted in places like Europe where artificial colors aren’t commonly used. But in America, anything less than perfect is often considered unacceptable, especially when these changes are presented in a restaurant location. How many people are going to buy a brown strawberry sundae, and more importantly, how many will return to purchase the same product again?

A vast portion of the public firmly believes that preservatives and additives are unhealthy. Many are under the impression that companies seek to stuff formulations with unneeded ingredients and fillers. A good example of this phenomenon is McDonald’s struggle to convince the American public that their hamburgers are made with 100 percent beef. Despite decades of concentrated advertising on all forms of social media and virtual tours of their grinding facilities, some people are still convinced that there must be pallets of soy hidden in one of the back rooms. A few years ago, McDonald’s launched a social media campaign across many global markets called “Our Food, Your Questions.”[10] This website gives straightforward answers to some of the toughest questions and urban legends. Appropriately, when visiting the site, the very first question addressed is exactly how their beef patties are made. Even though McDonald’s has gone to these great lengths to validate their “100% beef” claim, people still refuse to believe there aren’t nefarious fillers involved. If you search “100% beef McDonald’s” online, you’ll continue to find page after page of conspiracy theories along with McDonald’s best efforts to combat this misinformation with transparent reasoning.

Despite all the risks, the public’s hunger for clean labeling and going back to simpler, fresher foods isn’t going to vanish. The food industry must proceed with reformulation carefully and employ novel techniques to ensure public health. One such strategy will be a greater dependence on advanced processing systems to compensate for the food safety and quality hurdles that are being bypassed by limiting ingredients. Technologies such as high-pressure pasteurization, irradiation, ultrahigh temperature, aseptic packing, and novel solutions can overcome many of these challenges. While the public has been leaning toward minimally processed foods, many of these systems aren’t visible to the end consumer. Another variable to consider is how employing these methods will change food costs. Many of these innovative solutions involve expensive equipment that limits production to batches instead of the traditional continuous processing. These solutions often consume more energy, contributing to higher costs, which will be passed along to consumers.

When you remove incumbent hurdles (traditional preservatives, salt, sugar, etc.), you must compensate to ensure that there’s not an increased risk of spoilage or foodborne illness. Food safety risks are often mitigated through advanced processing, shortening shelf life, and refrigerated storage, but some quality sacrifices are seen as acceptable. The question remains: Is America ready for this change and how much are consumers willing to tolerate to satisfy this need for minimal processing and clean labels?

Public Health Ramifications of Minimizing Packaging
Another huge trend in the global retail space is minimizing product packaging. There is no denying that a reduction in the amount of trash generated is greatly needed. Social media is inundated with stories that range from a beached whale with an enormous amount of plastic in its stomach to images of trash islands as big as some inhabited islands. This huge amount of plastic in the ocean is naturally degrading and has created a new issue: microplastics. This new hazard, which has garnered a lot of media attention, is usually defined as pieces of plastic that are 5 mm or smaller. The concern lies with their ability to pass through filtration systems, and their small size makes ingestion by marine life inevitable. The United Nations is forecasting that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish, and by then, 99 percent of all seabirds will have ingested plastic.[11] The ecological impact and future implications of microplastics have driven widespread awareness among the public, and many in the food industry have adopted this cause.

This new consumer demand has led many retailers to limit or eliminate packaging in certain categories. Many companies such as Evian, Mars, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Walmart have pledged to combat this growing issue by reducing packaging for their products. Smaller retail outlets are also pledging their support for this initiative. A Thai supermarket chain, Rimping, has devised a truly creative solution, using banana leaves in lieu of plastic packaging for produce.[12] Their store shelves are lined with bundles of veggies, wrapped in fresh banana leaves and secured with a bamboo twist tie. While this certainly reduces the store’s reliance on plastic and is extremely picturesque, there are true concerns about potential cross-contamination and pest harborage risks.

No one can dispute the benefits of reducing packaging, but there are potential harmful ramifications that must be considered. There have been countless cases of sabotage on the grocery store shelves by nefarious individuals who have intentionally introduced foreign matter into products. Their motivations are baffling to most of the public: mental instability, extortion, or terrorism. Their tools, ranging from rat poison to needles, are hidden in food and can cause significant injuries when consumed. Packaging, especially sealed or tamper-evident packaging, can serve as an effective hurdle to mitigate these types of crimes. Unfortunately, when cases start appearing in the news, copycat crimes often follow. Packaging also provides protection against unintentional cross-contamination during transportation and distribution. This barrier keeps out debris and moisture, and is a valuable shield against potential spoilage microbes and pathogens, extending shelf life. Is a reduction in packaging creating more food waste?

Another growing trend that is delighting consumers, while concerning food safety practitioners, is retail stores encouraging their customers to bring their own containers for food contact items. Certain bulk products, such as oil, vinegar, nuts, candy, nut butter, and coffee beans, are kept in bulk containers with easy-pour spouts so that consumers can buy their preferred amount and pay by weight. While this system definitely reduces packaging and potentially reduces waste, it relies on the consumer to properly clean and sanitize these containers. If there is an illness linked to a consumer’s container of this food, who would assume the liability? It might be impossible for the store to prove to regulators or the courts that the consumer’s own dirty container was the source and not their product.

Packaging serves another vital purpose, delivering important (often required) information to consumers. In recent years, we’ve seen increased requirements for governmental labeling laws across the globe. Most countries have very specific declaration requirements: ingredients, nutritional content, country of origin, and/or allergens. Manufacturers have trouble finding space for all this information on existing packaging as regulatory and marketing departments compete for visible square footage. Even the Thai grocery chain mentioned earlier couldn’t find a way around this problem and continues to affix plastic labels on all of its banana-leaf-wrapped produce. It’s likely that technology will eventually solve this problem as QR codes, scanned by consumer smartphones, can display all the required information, saving valuable space and unnecessary packaging.

In addition to food contact packaging, many countries have vowed to reduce plastic by tightening regulations, limiting one-time-use plastic bags in retail. Facing massive problems with littering, Kenya instituted harsh laws prohibiting the use of one-use plastic bags. Fines can reach up to $40,000 USD and up to 4 years in prison.[13] It has come with some challenging problems for retailers and had an adverse effect on exports. Nonetheless, more than a year later, many say they can see drastic benefits from this draconian law. Litter is down in highly populated areas and waterways, and Kenyans are seeing less evidence of plastic consumption in the stomachs of livestock. Officials say that the use of sanitary permanent toilets is up now that the “flying toilet” has been eliminated. Ironically, many have linked a 2016 single-use plastic bag ban in San Diego County to an increase in hepatitis among the homeless population.[14] A recent study[15] found that the plastic savings are often offset by an increase in garbage bag consumption, as single-use grocery bags often find a second life as trash bin liners at home. The study found a 120 percent increase in small trash bag purchases in California after plastic grocery bag bans went into effect. Paper bags, the traditional alternative to plastic at the checkout line, seem like a more environmentally friendly choice, but they consume more resources to produce and involve potentially harmful chemicals that could enter the world’s waterways.

These multi-use plastic or fabric bags are a common sight in the grocery store as the public reaches toward socially responsible alternatives to the single-use option. Consumers are taking matters into their own hands, some utilizing multi-use wraps and bags to store food at home, as opposed to the traditional single-use plastic “sandwich” bags. While this is definitely keeping tons of plastic away from the landfill, it comes with potential food safety risks to consider. A study16 out of the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in 2010 showed an alarming trend toward consumer ignorance, citing that 97 percent of people interviewed did not wash or bleach multi-use grocery bags. Swabbing accompanied this survey and large numbers of bacteria were found. Coliforms were found on half the samples, E. coli on 8 percent, and several pathogens besides. It would be logical to assume that multi-use at-home packaging would have similar or even larger results. This should not deter this sustainable trend, but additional educational outreach is needed to ensure the public is cognizant of this risk and taking action to prevent cross-contamination.

Growing Concern over Genetically Engineered (GE) Foods
GE crops, often referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been a regular staple in American fields since the early 1990s. Domestic farmers enthusiastically embraced this new technology as they saw better yields, utilizing fewer resources. GE plants that have been modified to add a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) are much more pest resistant than their traditional counterparts. This leads to a reduction in the use of pesticides, which is much desired by the public and a true cost savings to farmers. Fewer pest intrusion sites will also lead to less food waste and fewer opportunities for microbial pathogens and spoilage organisms to gain entrance into the plants’ interior tissues. Weed control became infinitely easier when farmers gained access to herbicide-tolerant (Ht) crops that could withstand potent herbicides such as glyphosate, glufosinate, and dicamba. Since then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has seen an ever-increasing trend toward GE crops planted by American farmers. In 2018, 90 percent of domestic corn contained the Ht gene and 85 percent contained insect-resistant (Bt) crops.[17]

Despite the benefits to farmers, many Americans aren’t as excited about this mounting trend. Many, especially the younger generations, tend to believe that GE foods are unhealthy. In a 2016 survey, the Pew Research Trust found that while almost half of those surveyed didn’t think GE foods were more or less safe, 39 percent thought they were less healthy than the non-GE alternatives.[18] The same poll shows that fewer than 20 percent of Americans have confidence that scientists truly understand the negative ramifications of GE foods. Some believe that scientists are skewing studies to help support the food industry’s adoption of GE foods. In reality, much of this GE research is being independently funded and conducted in university and governmental labs. Much of the scientific community believes that this technology is safe for consumers. In 2014, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine commissioned a study by 20 scientists to determine the risks of GE foods. After examining hundreds of studies, these scientists could not find any link to health issues or increased cancer risks associated with genetically modified products in our food supply.[19]

Despite this reassurance, lack of funding and sharp public criticism have contributed to a marked decline in academic and public funding for GE research in Europe.[20] Several Asian countries have outright banned GE food production and placed strict regulations on importing products containing GE material. Despite this lack of interest across the pond, the American food industry is experiencing an increase of new GE produce offerings utilizing the new gene-editing technology, CRISPR. CRISPR-Cas9 proteins are utilized like enzymatic scissors to cut and slice chromosomes in plant DNA.[21] This explosion of GE development has led regulatory agencies to scramble to ensure that proper channels are being followed to protect public health. Some GE products don’t contain foreign DNA, leading regulators in many countries to rethink their policies on what constitutes a GMO or GE label. The USDA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have revamped their legal framework for reviewing and approving these products. Public outcry has prompted American politicians to enact the bioengineering labeling rule, which goes into effect in 2020. Critics think that it doesn’t go far enough, and that the exemptions, such as highly refined beet sugar and soybean oil, cripple the spirit of the rule. Many in the food businesses worry it will deter consumer purchasing of American agricultural products.

A growing global population coupled with dwindling natural resources and climate change are all contributing to food scarcity. GE foods that are easier to grow, able to withstand harsh growing conditions, and produce greater yields are a sustainable answer to these concerns. The trend in Europe toward abandoning GE technology and the outright ban on GE foods in many countries isn’t something that the world can afford. The food industry must be cautious in these pursuits, governments should pursue smart regulations, and scientists must continue to educate the public to assuage their fears.

To the majority of the public, all the initiatives above are very clearly the right thing to do, but to industry professionals, it’s not nearly so black-and-white. The echoing effects of such policies and choices create ethical decisions that must be made. Should we sacrifice quality or risk public health to pursue socially responsible conservation efforts? The answer isn’t always as easy as it looks on the surface, but most of these efforts are vital to sustaining our environment and bodies. However, there is a desperate need for thoughtful evaluation of all the potential ramifications before changes are made. To ensure the success of these programs, the public must be further educated to understand the effects such changes will have on the aesthetics, taste, and safety of the food supply.

As younger generations constitute more of the consumer market, the American public seems poised to sacrifice their definition of perfection for sustainability. It’s ironic that they seem to be in better agreement with Joni Mitchell’s song from the 1970s than their parents are. The food industry might not be so willing to compromise their reputations with anything less than perfect. In this litigious society, they are definitely not willing to risk public health. Extreme changes to formulations, policy, and practices must be assessed to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks. Despite these conundrums, progress is being made with the aid of new technologies and innovative thinking. Both governmental bodies and food companies around the globe are examining the risks and developing creative solutions to preserve a better future.   

Wendy White, M.Sc., is the food safety project manager at the Enterprise Innovation Institute of Georgia Institute of Technology. She is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Food Safety Magazine.

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