Seed World

Food Company Reps Discuss Consumers and Their Food

John Wiebold of General Mills says there are two groups of consumers: those who actively seek and research information pertaining to their food and those who want to but don't make it a priority.

Today (June 21), the American Seed Trade Association kicked off its 134th Annual Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with a panel of experts representing high-profile food companies seeking to: be transparent about the products they produce, connect with consumers in a meaningful way and deploy sustainable practices.

Consumers are overwhelmed with information about food today, how it was produced and how it got to our tables, says Andy LaVigne, ASTA president and CEO. He says with all the information and influencers out there, it’s hard to keep up on food trends as what was good yesterday now seems to be bad, and then good again two weeks later. These ever-shifting consumer perceptions make it challenging for companies such as Cargill, Land O’Lakes and General Mills to forecast trends and then get something on the shelf before they have to pull it and replace it.

LaVigne says it’s important for the seed industry to know what food companies are looking for so that “when we are producing seed, growing new varieties and using new technology, it’s got a place at the end of the day.”

Panelists included John Weibold, vice president of global sustainability and green operations for General Mills; Jenny Verner, commercial excellence leader for Cargill’s Food Ingredients and Bio-Industrial enterprise; and Autumn Price, vice president of government relations for Land O’Lakes.

What We Know About Consumers

“The changes going on today are impacting food companies in ways that they haven’t been in decades,” says Weibold. “Consumers today are changing faster than ever.

“Digital technology and social media have created new communications channels for consumers to research information, connect with each other and share opinions. And consumers use these tools to spend a lot of time researching food; they are asking serious questions that are tied to their values.”

Weibold says some of those questions are as simple as:

  • Where does my food come from?
  • Is the food that I’m eating safe?
  • Are the people who are making my food being treated fairly?

All consumer groups participate in these discussions, regardless of generation, Weibold says. People are on social media. They are talking. Their voices are strong and the passionate ones are very influential.

Cargill’s Verner adds that food has the opportunity to bring people together.

“It’s something we all have in common,” she says. “We all have to eat … and it’s a very personal thing. People care about what’s in their food.”

One trend Verner references is being “pantry friendly,” meaning when you look in the pantry, you see oil, flour, sugar and salt — things you know and recognize.

“When consumers read labels, they want to see friendly names or ingredients that they know and recognize,” she says.

Weibold shares that consumers can basically be divided into two groups, those who are deeply engaged and those who want to be but don’t take the time.

Consumers who are deeply engaged in the food discussion are actively researching and spending more time and more money on their food, he says.

“They are asking questions,” Weibold says. “What they do when they find their answers and form their opinions is use their ability to communicate broadly.

“For a food company like ours, we pay close attention to the attitudes and opinions that come out of these groups. They are not always based on science. They are not always accurate, but they are influential. That makes them important.”

When looking at the second group of consumers, Wiebold explains these consumers know they should know more and know they should be working harder to understand food, but they don’t make the time.

Cargill, in partnership with another company, recently completed a study in the yogurt aisle asking consumers if they read labels. Weibold says 70 percent of participants said they did but when observed, only 3 percent did. On top of that, he says the average consumer spends about four seconds per shelf making decisions about what they need to put in their cart.

This group, he says, relies on the deeply engaged consumer to figure out what they should be buying.

“All consumers want to do better,” Weibold says. “They want to know more about their food and the environment, but they don’t know who to trust.”

He shares that brands have let consumers down and science hasn’t done much better. As a result, consumers are confused and are reverting to nature and going with their gut.

“It makes sense for them: the less processed food is, the closer it is to nature … and the more I can trust it.”

That brings us to transparency.

“We are firm believers in transparency; we have nothing to hide,” Verner says. “We want people to understand where their food comes from and how it’s made. We find that people are curious about that.”

But she adds that most are far removed from the farm.

“If you asked a person how many ears of corn grow on a stalk of corn, you probably won’t get the answer of ‘one,'” she says.

To sort through all the confusion and information, Weibold says consumers are looking for shortcuts to help them make buying decisions.

“The ones they see, or go with, are the symbols on packing: organic, non-gmo and grass-fed,” he explains. “Consumers who don’t know [about their food] use these symbols to help make decisions about what they can trust and what they should put in their cart to help feed their families.”

Another way consumers are connecting to their food source is through farmers markets.

Weibold says today, there are about 8,000 farmers markets in operation in the United States, up from about 1,800 in the mid-1990s. In fact, he says consumers spend about $1 billion per year at farmers markets.

“Those connections are real,” Weibold says. “We as a food company know that memories are built around food people trust.”

But what about in the absence of face-to-face time with farmers? The next thing Weibold says that consumers can trust — and it’s small now, but it’s going to increase — is a reliable, trustworthy, fully-transparent traceability program.

Verner agrees, adding that “We, as an industry, need to be very transparent about this and how we operate and why.” People are interested in it and receptive to it, she says.

For food companies that operate at scale, Weibold says the challenge is to figure out how to tell the consumer a story that starts with the seed, goes all the way through the distribution chain and is made into a box of Cheerios and ultimately delivered to a shelf, which is bought by a mom.

That’s one area where General Mills is working toward a solution.