Trust has been having a hard time over the last few years -- and nowhere is this closer to our daily lives than the brands we look to for nourishment and refreshment.
You would hope that in this new world of corporate responsibility and transparency that the big brands, we rely on to make good decisions on our behalf, would have got to grips with the big issues by now. But it doesn't look like this is the case.
Sadly, I don't think many people were surprised when last week's horseburger affair, which has sucked in the likes of Tesco, Asda, Co-op and now Burger King, once again called into question the trustworthiness of our largest supermarkets and the food industry in general. While the industry is far from a paragon of virtue, there was at least a basic expectation that when we purchase a beef burger it would be just that - rather than an unspecified beef/horse/pork hybrid.
Strangely enough, according to some commentators, the health impacts of this scandal could actually have been positive, with the lean horsemeat making the burgers healthier. But somehow I don't think this was done with our health in mind.
While this incident seems to have been down to poor quality control in a supplier - many other breaches of the trust we place in food and drink brands are simply related to overblown claims. For example international sandwich maker Pret A Manger encountered problems when the "fresh" chicken in some of its sandwiches was found to have been shipped frozen from Brazil. Not quite what most people would think of as fresh.
This lack of transparency has dogged the industry for years, but as we find ourselves in the era of ultra scrutiny where we can all act as investigative journalists, real transparency can surely no longer be too much to ask for.
In this vein Coca-Cola has been a lightning rod for repeated calls for greater transparency on the health impacts of products high in sugar, salt and fat. Last week it responded to the heated debate on obesity in the US (and the impending vote to ban large sugary drinks in New York) by running its first ever TV advert dealing with the subject. The advert focuses on the amount of exercise that you will need to do to burn off the 140 calories contained in a can of Coke but also points to the low-calorie options that the company offers across its range of products (although see other news last week for a legal case on false claims about VitaminWater!).
Many critics will say that this is too little, too late and is simply another ploy by the soft drinks industry to avoid or limit regulation. However, it does point to the fact that food and drink brands are at the sharp end of the health and environmental issues facing our planet and are responding by being more transparent and dealing with some of these issues head on.
However, for every company like Coca-Cola (like their campaign or not they are at least talking about the subject) or many others that are becoming increasingly transparent there must be at least another ten that have yet to even consider communicating these issues to their customers.
This is where we reach the central questions. Can the food industry be trusted to do the right thing of its own accord? Can we as consumers use our purchasing power to drive change? Or do we need governments to step in to legislate for more transparency?
I, personally, don't have a problem with the space that brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald's fill. As I see it, we all need to make our own choices. But we do need to be able to make these choices based on accurate, meaningful and genuine information about the product, its provenance and the way it has been made. And if we can't trust the biggest brands then who the hell can we trust? And the reality is that I'd rather have more transparency and trust in the brands than require the deadening hand of government intervention and regulation.
So can we trust the food industry? The short answer is not yet and it may take some time before we see a level of transparency that enables us to make informed decisions that will positively impact our lives. However, there are an increasing number of brands that are using transparency and openness as a key selling point and if you combine this with the rise of mobile tools, such as Good Guide, that help take the strain out of the research, we can all start to use our daily consumption as a real driver for change.
I think the food and drink companies are at time's feeding us some nonsense - but I also think we're complicit in this and we either need to demand more transparency ourselves, wait for government intervention or just trust blindly in the brands we all consume. It's simple - we need to demand, and the brands need to provide, better (and that doesn't just mean more) information.
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