business news in context, analysis with attitude

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Hi, Kevin Coupe here and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy, coming to you from one of the classrooms in the new Karl Miller Business School building at Portland State University, where I am once again enjoying a summer adjunctivity.

As I record this, though, I am thinking of the recent Organic Produce Summit in Monterey, California, where I contributed to the onstage content and have been lucky enough to be included on the agenda every year since it began. (It is remarkable, by the way, what Matt Seeley, the meeting’s co-founder and CEO, and his team have done with this event - it is almost double the size it was just a few years ago, and I find it always to be an instructive and energized experience. If you’ve never been, you should go.)

This year, there were a pair of excellent keynote presentations that I want to tell you about.

There was Dan Barber, who is the most renowned chefs in America - he is the owner and chef of Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barn, up in Westchester County, and is one the most prominent advocates of the farm-to-table movement in America. (I’ve eaten at Blue Hill and Stone Barn, and it was one of the most distinctive meals of my life. Also, by a long shot, the most expensive.)

Barber told some great stories, but his essential premise was that “deliciousness” is the ultimate differentiator if you are in the food business. That’s certainly a concept I can get behind, and I don’t think it has to be limited to expensive gourmet meals - I think that real ingredients used in imaginative cooking can help people in the food business stand apart. These days, the lowest common denominator shouldn’t be a goal … it should be a label to be avoided at all costs, because it is the opposite of being an achievement.

Even better than Barber was someone I’ve never heard of before - and that’s my bad. Robyn O’Brien is a financial analyst turned food evangelist, and she told a compelling story about how she evolved from being a working mom who didn’t think much about food - she said he’d feed her kids artificial waffles for breakfast and was highly capable of burning scrambled eggs - to someone with a serious agenda to change the way we think about the products we consume.

Her transformation came when one of her children developed a serious food allergy that could’ve been life threatening, which prompted her to start researching the additives and GMOs in many foods. Now, I’m not going to tell her stories word-for-word - you can learn more about her here, and see a version of her speech here. But I will offer one telling note from Robyn O’Brien’s story - she is clear that “correlation is not causality,” and that not nearly enough research has been done to prove that the growing use of additives and GMOs in food is responsible for the growing number of food allergies, especially in children.

But, she says, this means that as a matter of smart public policy we need to do that research, and that in the meantime, ought practice what she called “radical transparency.” When she said that, I knew she was playing my song - I’ve long argued here that retailers and suppliers ought to be as transparent as possible about the products they sell and the ingredients in those products (not to mention where they come from and how they are made and by whom) as a matter of good business, that it is not to be afraid of.

One of the powerful things about O’Brien’s approach is that she brought a financial analyst’s attitude and acumen to a very different subject, the result being a critically important message that needs to be heard.

That’s what is on my mind this morning and, as always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

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