The clean label trend was also cited as a food safety issue.

HOUSTON — A panel discussion at the Global Food Safety Conference that took place Feb. 28 and featured the CEOs of some of the largest food and beverage companies quickly shifted away from the topic at hand to consumer trust and what’s at stake if the wave of nationalism and protectionism sweeping many federal governments in developed countries, including the United States, takes hold.

David MacLennan, chairman and CEO of Cargill

David MacLennan, chairman and CEO of Cargill, Minneapolis, said in his opening remarks that the work of the 1,100 attendees at the international conference taking place in Houston this week directly translates to how consumers perceive the companies they work for as well as the industry as a whole.

“The GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) is not just advancing food safety,” he said. “We are living in a world that does not have a lot of trust. We need to create that trust and transparency.”

Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO of Mondelez

The idea of using food safety as a competitive advantage came up during the session and Irene Rosenfeld, the chairman and CEO of Mondelez International, Deerfield, Illinois, said it was not a good idea.

“It’s imperative we have the ability to get all of our products safely through the supply chains we operate,” she said. “I don’t think of safety as a competitive advantage.”

Douglas M. Baker Jr., chairman and CEO of Ecolab

Food safety incidents related to fresh salads in the US, fresh chicken in China and infant formula in China that prompted severe downturns to all companies competing in the categories were raised as examples of what happens when one company has a problem. Speaking of the infant formula issue in China, Douglas M. Baker Jr., chairman and CEO of Ecolab, Minneapolis, said the “whole category got crushed. There was a bad actor and everybody got hurt.”

MacLennan emphasized that the world must also stay connected, noting that companies must battle against such trends as nationalism and protectionism that may impact the security of global supply chains. When asked how he sees that happening given the rising specter of nationalism and protectionism that appears to be taking hold, his answer was succinct when he said, “Yes, I am worried.”

“I’ve said it publicly and I will say it again here,” he said. “I do believe trade is necessary as well as an inclusive immigration policy. That being said, and I know what the new administration has said and done with the elimination of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), I remain hopeful. There are plenty of people in the new administration who have worked with open trade agreements.”

Rosenfeld noted that a positive that may come from the Trump administration is its focus on regulations and eliminating those not considered useful.

“Regulations are lagging considerably,” she said. “Some have even lagged in their implementation and usefulness.”

The clean label trend was also cited as a food safety issue by Rosenfeld.

“There is no question consumers trust our brands and we violate that trust at our peril,” she said. “… But as we evolve our portfolio there is a desire from consumers to see simpler ingredients.

“Many of those ingredients were placed there for safety reasons to get (products) through the distribution system. As we renovate our brands in that way it is essential we have access to technologies and new ingredients that apply the same level of safety.”