Big Food is big. With such size comes a lot of baggage: 100-year-old brands, factories that sacrifice flexibility for throughput and leaders who are forced to placate activist investors.
But Big Food has begotten a handful of leaders who have gone against the grain and found success, who have created new categories or changed their companies and, in so doing, have changed the entire food industry. Or at least are trying to. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with size; as one of our subjects, Gary Hirshberg, puts it, only Big Food can make big changes.
The editors of Food Processing developed a list of people who fits this persona, then we vetted that list with our Editorial Advisory Board, who made some new suggestions. While there are more people deserving of the recognition, on the following pages we look at the changes effected by Denise Morrison of Campbell Soup, Sam Reed of TreeHouse Foods, Jim Koch of Boston Beer Co., Scott Mandell of Enjoy Life Foods and Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm/Danone.
If you have people you think should have been on this list, email our editor and include a few sentences on why. We’ll post your responses on our website.
Denise Morrison, Campbell Soup Co.
Stirring the pot in many ways
The big companies in the food & beverage industry were unified in their opposition to labeling genetically engineered ingredients until January, when Campbell Soup broke ranks and said it not only was in favor of mandatory labeling but would start labeling its own products for GMOs … and “will withdraw from all efforts led by coalitions and groups opposing such measures.”
The groundbreaking statement was on Campbell Soup Co. letterhead but it was the heart of Denise Morrison speaking. Making the company more consumer-focused has been her obsession since becoming CEO in August 2011, after about eight years at the Camden, N.J.-based company and more than 30 years in the food businesss. “Even our own employees are questioning what’s in their food,” she told financial analysts shortly after the GMO labeling announcement. She also told them she wants Campbell to “set the standard for transparency.”
To that end, the company last year created www.whatsinmyfood.com to share more information about how its food is made. It has sections on “What goes into our food,” “How we make our food” and “The choices behind our food.”
She followed the GMO labeling announcement with a March promise to transition away from bisphenol-A can linings – another consumer concern – to cans lined with acrylic or polyester. Both the GMO and BPA decisions were not based on new evidence that those materials are dangerous – in fact Campbell clearly said scientific studies confirm the safety of both. Just as clear, however, is that these are changes consumers want.
Morrison said the announcements were “rooted in our consumer-first mindset and driven by our commitment to transparency – to be open and honest about our food. It is the right thing to do for consumers and for our business.”
“We’re at a critical inflection point in the food business,” she stated during a February presentation. “Consumers endlessly evolve their preferences, and unceasing pressure is placed on the industry to operate differently. To survive in this environment, companies must be agile to identify trends, make decisions and try new things quickly. My biggest worry is if we can go fast enough – patience is not one of my virtues.”
In July 2015, Campbell joined the group of food and beverage processors revising recipes to clean up labels and simplify ingredients – in Campbell’s specific case, to make soup without preservatives, artificial colors or artificial flavors. “Consumers have the right to know what’s in their food,” she says. “People have an insatiable appetite for transparency and expect information in a variety of ways.”
Other recent moves under Morrison’s leadership:
- Was named to Dow Jones’ Sustainability North America Index for the seventh consecutive year and its Sustainability World Index for the sixth consecutive year.
- Added more organic products in core businesses and expanded into faster-growing spaces.
- Revamped soups for kids with simpler ingredients.
- Plans to remove artificial colors and flavors from nearly all of its North American products by the end of fiscal 2018.
- She also was the only big-company CEO we saw at the March Natural Products Expo West, a bellwhether of what’s healthy, clean and up-and-coming.
Morrison says companies should embrace change or risk being left behind. “These seismic shifts are impacting how consumers engage with food,” she points out. “The consumer packaged-goods industry overall is navigating shifts in demographics and family structure, health and wellness, digital commerce and the ever-changing middle class in both developed and emerging markets. Only through flexibility and spirit will we thrive in this chaotic, pulling-and-stretching environment.”
—Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor
Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm/Danone
Businessman/environmentalist now fights to ‘Just Label It’
Gary Hirshberg has played a number of roles in his three-plus decades in the food industry. But like a good character actor, he never strays far from his strong suit: social responsibility.