Used too often, even the most well-intended words can lose meaning. At MegaFood, the word transparency has long been a one-word mission statement, but now the company is “taking it up several notches,” MegaFood CEO Robert Craven said yesterday at NBJ Summit.
It’s not just transparency anymore. It’s “Big-T" Transparency.
In an afternoon session, Craven announced a new set of show-and-tell initiatives built around unprecedented disclosure. In addition to 24-hour webcam access to MegaFood production facilities, the public will now be able to read every GMP inspection report from the FDA and NSF investigators. ISO inspections of the company’s labs will also be released. Consumers can also review every step in new product development, including ingredient sourcing, formulation and lab results for every new product, including the ones that don’t make it. The company believes a warts-and-all openness is essential to building trust for an industry beset by questions and controversies. It’s not the safe strategy, Craven said. It’s just the right strategy.
“It’s really about being vulnerable," he said.
Craven believes transparency is paramount in building trust, but the word has begun to lose meaning. “Even McDonald’s is talking about transparency,” the CEO said. The solution isn’t to abandon the word, he explains, but rather to make it mean something and put the “Big T” in front of it.
“To me, Big-T Transparency means we're not just talking about it,” Craven said. “We’re doing something.”
The most ground-breaking move may be offering up the unedited audit reports. Every audit turns up problems—“Nobody gets an A+ on an audit,” Craven said—and MegaFood intends to be completely honest and out front with every checkmark, good or bad.
The webcams offer an additional openness, but the product development represents a detailed look into the process that had been invisible to consumers. “Everybody will know what’s coming from MegaFood, how we make it, how we test it, the ingredient identification and supply chain review,” Craven said. “We’ll even share the failures.”
MegaFood executives designed the new initiatives to build trust in the brand but also benefit the industry, Craven says. “The goal for us is to create positive headlines.” He pointed to the repeated salvos of negative headlines coming out of the New York attorney general’s office, calling the investigation a “catalyst” that woke up the industry to structural problems. He predicts the MegaFood model will catch on: “Our industry is growing up and this is going to be the new norm.”
The primary challenge, Craven acknowledges, is getting consumers informed about the new initiatives and explaining why they should care. The company is depending on retailers for part of that educational push. “We’re still a small brand comparatively speaking,” Craven said. “We don’t have millions of dollars to spread the word.” He also hopes the next news story about the next inevitable adulteration incident could include a reference to companies like MegaFood and the steps they are taking.
That kind of media coverage could help accelerate the industry’s evolution to this new level of openness. MegaFood’s Big-T transparency should be standard operating procedure everywhere, Craven said.
Qualitas Marketing VP David Hart called Craven’s programs encouraging. While he doesn’t expect all companies to follow Craven’s lead, “You always need a leader.
“The good companies are already doing all of this,” Hart said, referring to audits and record keeping. “We should be sharing it.” Hart said the model of openness could be applied to controversies like DNA testing. If more of the industry’s reaction was discussed in public, he said, consumers might trust the industry’s position more fully. “We just need to be more open.”
Tracy Oliver, spokeswoman for Rainbow Light, praised the “sheer open kimono” position Craven put forward. “If you put your finger to the wind right now, the direction you will see the industry going is toward traceability,” Oliver said. Rainbow Light has its own transparency program, but companies like MegaFood trying new models is important. “We need lots of companies doing lots of things.”
The initiatives announced yesterday will be followed by new programs, Craven said. Future steps could include making certificates of analysis for every tested batch available online. That program is complicated and still in development. Craven said dumping the certificates online may have little meaning for many consumers. It can’t be “just a lot of numbers on a page,” he said.
The goal in the end is not to be a “maverick” launching a transparency and traceability arms race. Rather, MegaFood wants to be joined by more companies providing more tangible and accessible openness. It’s vital, he said. “We need to have lots and lots of trustworthy brands to be a trustworthy industry.”
United Natural Products Alliance President Loren Israelsen called Craven’s announcement a sign of where the industry is going. “This is bold. This is timely, and many will be watching closely to learn how to follow suit."