Using Supply Chain Transparency to Win the Hearts of Consumers

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

The first job I ever had was at a Blimpie’s sub shop in my hometown. While I no longer remember the signature sandwich recipe by heart, there is one piece of industry knowledge that has stuck with me over the years: Never eat the tuna at a sub shop.

A couple of decades later, Subway’s tuna fish sandwich topped headlines across countless leading media outlets. The news? Reports alleged that the fish in the tuna fish sandwich wasn’t actually tuna at all. There was an immediate backlash on social media, with consumers attacking the brand and wondering how something like this could happen.

Luckily, it seems there were no reports of consumers falling ill from the alleged counterfeit tuna, but other industries haven’t been so lucky. Chipotle has experienced multiple E.coli outbreaks over the past few years. Chiptole paid a $25 million federal suit for criminal charges associated with its role in the foodborne illness outbreaks from 2015-2018 where an estimated 1,100 Americans fell sick. As recently as 2020, Chipotle was accused of food poisoning. Whether or not Chiptole was to blame, it turned out that romaine lettuce was identified as the likely culprit.

If the romaine producers, Chipotle or Subway had captured supply chain data points of their ingredients (much like cannabis seed-to-sale software), these counterfeit products would likely have never been brought to market. In the instance that a recall needs to be issued due to contamination, producers would have been able to identify the exact pain point in the supply chain where the issues began, pull any contaminated batches and find a solution for moving forward safely.

These cases have had detrimental effects on each restaurant’s brand, which happened to be two of the country’s top fast-casual and affordable favorites. In the wake of the tuna crisis, Subway had to revamp its menu while launching new marketing campaigns and tactics, including signing celebrity spokespeople, creating a new website and sharing new messaging. It’s still early to tell if these tactics will help the brand long-term, but the Subway team certainly has dedicated significant money, time and strategic resources to do so.

Similarly, Chipotle struggled to regain consumer trust in the wake of their incidents. Multiple stores were temporarily closed and the company had to make massive readjustments to its product formulation and testing strategies. Although it came at a significant expense, after a few years, an enormous spend, successful marketing and re-branding tactics, and new leadership, Chipotle was able to regain many of its losses in profits, consumers and stock price.

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While the incidents were different, one clear similarity caught my attention: In the wake of these instances, both companies turned to increased fresh and natural food messaging, likely to appeal to the increasingly conscious consumer.

Modern consumers continuously seek products, foods and brands that provide in-depth information about where the products were sourced and developed. This trend has been prevalent across the food, beverage and other CPG (consumer packaged goods) industries, exemplified by increases in clean beauty products and rises in demand for farm-to-table dining and locally sourced ingredients. Conscious consumers want to know where their products are from and how they were traced, transported and kept to safety standards.

In response to these demands, B2C (business to consumer) companies are offering increased transparency into their processes.

As demonstrated by the vaping crisis of 2019, the cannabis industry is no stranger to similar issues. However, it’s critical to note that the contaminated vapes were products of the illicit market, not the legal market. The legal cannabis industry operates under highly regulated safety precautions, similar to alcohol and pharmaceuticals. These regulations require businesses to prove compliance with laws and the safety of products. If Subway or Chipotle implemented the same supply chain standards, I imagine these issues would have been contained before the majority of the damage occurred. Regardless, these businesses have a responsibility to deliver the correctly labeled products safely.

Regulators are not the only stakeholder with whom the B2C industry has a responsibility to transparency. Companies should be proving product safety to consumers. This can be accomplished through the implementation of supply chain software and an increased understanding of products’ origins and pathways before these products reach the B2C company. This provides transparent information and data along every part of the product’s lifecycle — from point of origin to sale to shelf.

When I began working in the cannabis industry over a decade ago, I knew we would never get cannabis legalized if we couldn’t show it could be tracked and regulated safely. Today, the cannabis supply chain is one of the most transparent due to the compliance and seed-to-sale standards. Technology, software and a better grasp on their supply chains can ensure that businesses are bringing accurate and safe products to market.

Any business or brand creating products that consumers put in or on their bodies must ensure product safety throughout the entire supply chain, from seed to sale — or, in Subway’s case, from sea to sale.

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