Supply Chain Matters has featured numerous prior commentaries regarding the difficult challenges and structural business challenges facing large consumer packaged goods producers and their associated supply chain ecosystems. Yet while the industry continues to respond with severe cost cutting and a sense of crisis, the industry may well be overlooking the more important strategic need for meaningful investments in organic and sustainable food supply chain capability and supplier development.
Currency headwinds and activist investors focused on short-term shareholder value and increased earnings add more cost cutting pressure to the crisis. Signs of increased merger and acquisition activity, most recently the announced HJ Heinz and Kraft Foods mega merger, add more turmoil and stark actions surrounding CPG supply chains.
Today’s consumers demand healthier food choices and more natural ingredients, shunning high volume, well-known iconic food brands. Consumers are more interested in knowing where their food originated, the ingredients within food and how food is produced with sustainable methods. Well known producers, food service providers and suppliers such as Hershey, Nestle, MacDonalds, Tyson Foods, Costco, Yum Brands and others have all embarked on initiatives directed at curbing the use of antibiotics in animals, artificial food coloring within food, and higher quality standards for suppliers.
In a previous commentary, we advocated the need for CPG producers to focus on increased product innovation and quicker introduction of new and healthier products. These capabilities need to be obviously enhanced, in spite of continued pressures to reduce costs. However, we have wondered how the ever increasing consumer needs for more organic and sustainable food products can be fulfilled among current food supply chains. Is there a discernable capacity shortage?
A recent report published by The Wall Street Journal, Hunger for Organic Foods Stretches the Supply Chain (paid subscription or complimentary metered views) brought forward such a perspective. According to the report, the increasing need among consumers for more organic foods is literally: “hampering the growth of one of the hottest categories of the U.S. food industry.” Farmers, dairies and ranchers face significant costs and risks in attempting to convert from conventional to organic farming or animal production techniques. “While organic produce or livestock can command prices as high as three to four times that of conventional food, farmers generally have to sell their food at conventional prices during the transition.”
Mentioned specifically are organic and natural foods producer Hain Celestial Group, soup maker Pacific Foods and fast casual restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill recruiting, financing and training more farmers willing to utilize and adhere to organic methods. Some producers such as Hain Celestial have had to initiate long-term buying agreements, as much as three to five years, to insure the transition to more organic supplies. Two years ago, Chipotle began providing financing incentives to help black bean farmer’s transition from conventional to organic production. This fast-growing restaurant chain that prides itself on higher quality, ethically based food ingredients recently took the bold step of suspending sales of its pork product in nearly a third of its restaurants after discovering a supplier was not complying with animal welfare standards.
With increasing reports of supplier bullying and cost squeeze tactics occurring among the larger traditional packaged foods producers, we wonder if that approach actually lends itself to required investments in organic and sustainable food supply. If the ultimate strategy among activist investors is ultimately to squeeze existing costs across the entire conventional processed food supply chain to free-up cash to fund acquisitions of smaller, more organic and healthier food producers, will such innovative and dedicated producers wither amidst an environment of draconian cost-cutting?
By our lens, it may be an argument for supply chain and individual brand segmentation anchored on market differentiation and segments.
For us, one tenet appears obvious, the industry needs to respond to growing consumer tastes by actively investing in boosting capacity and capability in organic, sustainable and healthier food products. To do otherwise is opportunity lost.
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