Bernie Pacyniak

It was difficult leaving the sun, surf and seminars of Miami Beach yesterday, but as much as I wanted to stay and soak in the people and presentations that are part of the NCA’s 2013 State of the Industry conference, duty and deadlines called.

Besides catching a glimpse of all the hard bodies lounging by the pool at the Fontainebleau Resort, I also had the opportunity to absorb some of the hard numbers and truths discussed at the morning and afternoon sessions at the conference.

In general, the figures and facts dished out by several experts bode well for global operators in the confectionery industry. Chocolate, in particular, stands out, with premium chocolate projected to grow by 7.5 percent and mainstream chocolate 4.5 percent, emphasized Todd Hale, senior vice president of consumer and shopper insights for Nielsen, in his presentation.

The general consensus for multinational confectionery companies was that BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as well as emerging markets, such as Columbia, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey, will fuel the global confectionery market by recourse of a growing middle class.

But it was Debra Sandler’s remarks that stirred my soul the most. The recently appointed president of Mars Chocolate America reminded the audience that “consumers are redefining their relationship with food.”

As such, the confectionery industry must become “better stewards of our category,” she said. It “…must demonstrate who we are and what we stand for. We must be clear about our role.”

One of the areas that the industry must tackle head on is the obesity debate, Sandler argued. Although the industry maintains that confections only contribute 2 percent of the average caloric intake, confectioners must be “more than 2 percent of the solution.” 

 One of the solutions involves reducing calories, the other embraces transparency with regards to nutritional and caloric content. It’s the industry’s responsibility to “help people make informed choices,” be it with on-pack labeling or portion-control servings.

“Why hide what we’re doing with hard-to-read labels?” Sandler said. “The whole industry has to step up.”

The consequences of not doing so makes the industry “an ideal target for every group,” she said.

Well, it didn’t take long for her words to ring true. Although I was winging my way home to a snowstorm in Chicago yesterday, Kris Collins, my publisher, informed me that a small group of demonstrators from Oxfam appeared near the hotel’s beach entrance to the hotel.

Today, Oxfam, an international relief and development organization, issued a press release claiming that the 10 largest food and beverage companies have failed “millions of people who grow their ingredients.”

Among those listed as poor performers are Kellogg’s and General Mills. Mars, Unilever and Nestle fared slightly better, but didn’t get passing grades.

Chances are that many of you have never heard of Oxfam. Regardless, the group has heard of us. I’m sure some of us recall the criticisms Hershey received from various groups about its failure to join others in embracing Fair Trade certification. As a result, those groups singled out Hershey as a target and pushed their agenda using a broad range of media tactics. Despite Hershey’s long-standing involvement with cocoa farmers, its message was difficult to convey over the din.

In today’s world of instant media headlines, sound bites can have more immediate impact that comprehensive and factual revelations about a problem or an issue. Consider Sandler’s admission that she was “incredibly daunted by the task at hand,” after paying a visit to cocoa farmers in the Cote d’Ivoire.

Issues such as lack of fertilizers, aging trees and scarcity of water make cocoa farming challenging, not to mention a less than enviable career move. Hence, the sons and daughters of these farmers are moving to the cities, hoping to find a better future. Of course, even getting to the city isn’t easy when there aren’t enough roads to get you there.

So, Sandler’s call to the confectionery industry to come together so “we can shape our future for our category,” rings not only true, but also louder in its urgency, be it tackling obesity concerns or sustainability and mutuality responsibilities to cocoa farmers.

The time to act is now.