Joel Crews
Joel Crews

The meaning of transparency has evolved. In previous years it was a catch phrase food companies used to highlight an initiative that gave their customers and consumers a glimpse inside their operations to get a closer look at how an operation was performing responsibly, efficiently and in a manner that would make their customers beam with pride. The well-intended, “we-have-nothing-to-hide” approach up and down the supply chain has resonated with customers and consumers, and still has plenty of value. But providing a come-one, come-all viewing window into all facets of meat and poultry processing isn’t necessarily a win-win, when considering the potential for misinterpretation and scrutiny. Because the industry has become the target for more than its share of scrutiny on many fronts, efforts to pull back the curtain have become much more complicated.

Transparency in the era of social media and at a time when photos and video opportunities are at the fingertips of a majority of food-industry stakeholders and consumers has made transparency a strategy that must be carefully considered and meticulously monitored.

In some cases, a company’s quality-based initiative results in customers and/or consumers being given a peek through the keyhole of its operations, behooving the company to swing the door open in the name of transparency.

Officials from BPI would likely attest to the challenges of reeling in a runaway media outlet that is hellbent on proving a hypothesis without letting scientific facts get in the way. Years before it agreed to settle its defamation suit with ABC News, BPI opened its doors to politicians, dignitaries and critics to prove it had nothing to hide, but the public’s tainted perception was largely already established.

McDonald’s Corp. is about six months from reaching its goal of serving its Quarter Pounder burgers using fresh, as opposed to frozen, beef patties, a practice its competitor, The Wendy’s Co., has utilized for decades, albeit on a much smaller scale. When the McDonald’s plan was announced this past March, the chain, which serves 60 million-plus customers per day, possibly created more concern than it added value in the minds of customers. Social media outlets buzzed with unknowing customers wanting to know why the meat used heretofore wasn’t fresh, not understanding the meaning of that type of industry jargon.

While McDonald’s marketing information is overt about the fact that the transition will allow restaurants to offer “fresh, made to order,” Quarter Pounders, using the descriptor “fresh” was misinterpreted by too many. This is one of those initiatives that had best been executed behind the scenes rather than as part of a marketing maneuver demonstrating McDonald’s ongoing commitment to investing in the quality of its menu.

While the company never went out of its way to hide its beef supply chain included using frozen patties for Quarter Pounders, more customers than ever are likely questioning the previous practice, which they never knew or cared about until it became an obvious issue put before them in the form of a marketing message.

Now questions abound about what this means for McDonald’s food safety, whether or not the made-to-order feature will mean longer waiting times in restaurants or drive-thrus and whether its other burgers are held to a lower quality standard.

To his credit, Stephen Easterbrook, president and CEO, has been very open about the changes suppliers and restaurants are making to ensure a seamless transition. By mid-2018, this system will surely have all come to pass and the next chapter of transparency will begin.