Four reasons to check out FERN’s SXSW panel on Big Food

Next week, FERN is headed to Austin, where I’m moderating two panels at SXSW! One of them — The Future of Big Food: What’s at Stake? — will take on big questions about where Big Food companies are headed. As eaters increasingly want transparency about ingredients, healthier options, and more sustainable packaging, where does that leave manufacturers? And will new labeling regulations shift the grocery environment?

Here are four reasons you should care about the direction of Big Food — and come check out our panel on March 13 to hear more about the questions facing the sector.

1. Eaters are questioning Big Food …

Many consumers, and especially some millennials, are reportedly moving away from buying packaged foods in favor of fresher, more natural products. Rising awareness of the risks of consuming high quantities of salt and sugar may be contributing to the shift. And Big Food companies are trying to keep up — with earthier packaging, clearer labeling, and products with fewer ingredients. But the future is still uncertain for the top manufacturers, whose sales were flat or fell three out of the four years between 2014 and 2017.

2. … and so are investors.

When Kraft and Heinz merged in 2015, many industry watchers figured the involvement of Warren Buffett meant the deal would be a surefire hit with investors. But this week, Buffett admitted that his firm, Berkshire Hathaway, overpaid for the companies. Meanwhile, the merger has led to 10,000 layoffs across North America. The mess has sent the company’s stock spiraling down and left observers wondering if Big Food companies are still the reliable deal targets they once were.

3. Labeling has divided the industry …

The meat and dairy lobbies are protesting the labeling of plant-based “meat” and “dairy” products as Impossible “burgers” or almond “milk.” They want the products’ labels to make it clear that they aren’t made from animals, lest consumers be confused about what they’re eating. So what should the companies that make those products do? Well, there are differing opinions. Chobani and Danone found themselves at odds recently in their comments to the FDA over the question of non-dairy alternatives. The former said plant-based products should differentiate themselves with clearer labels, while the latter would prefer to maintain the status quo.

4. … and so has lobbying.

It was big news last year when several food manufacturers left the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the most powerful industry lobby group, due to disagreements about how to address changing consumer tastes. Four of the companies — Danone North America, Mars, Nestlé USA, and Unilever United States — even started their own industry group, the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, in July 2018, aiming to address issues like nutrition labeling and carbon emissions. This year, food manufacturing lobby groups are at an inflection point as they work to set policy priorities in an altered landscape.

Bonus: A killer lineup!

I’m so excited to share the stage with some truly great panelists who bring so much expertise to this discussion: