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In 2020 we witnessed a global pandemic shining a new light on workers in the food industry as “essential workers” — a level of support somewhat similar to that seen with first responders and front-line workers. We also learned that the U.S. Department of Justice handed the two largest ever fines to food companies due to their failures to keep food safe for consumers (Chipotle and Blue Bell).

These two seemingly unrelated changes highlight the roles food companies play, not only in terms of corporate social responsibility (CSR), but also in terms of providing for human (employee and consumer) needs.

Any examination of Archie Carroll’s 1991 Pyramid of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) — Economic, Legal, Ethical, and Philanthropic — should include its comparison to Abraham Maslow’s 1943 Hierarchy of [Human] Needs: Physiological (air, food, water, sleep, shelter), Safety and Security (health and financial), and Social (friends and family, esteem, and self-actualization).

If a company were to be meeting economic and legal responsibilities — but not keeping a focus on ethical and philanthropic responsibilities (CSR) — then gaps widen for support of workers’ and consumers’ most basic human needs. How can food workers focus on food safety if they, themselves, struggle to meet their food, shelter, or health needs? How can consumers strive to eat higher quality foods when they cannot even access basic foods?

Perhaps an important consideration is the inclusion of all consumers as stakeholders in the food industry. For companies anywhere along the supply chain to incorporate a more complete definition of consumers, they need to include characteristics such as age, income, education, health, culture, etc. to achieve a more complete picture. To some extent, this becomes an extension of a risk assessment. Rather than simply analyzing risks that can arise prior to a product entering commerce, this would include an analysis of the risk factors that consumers face when it comes to accessing safe food that has quality, authenticity, wholesomeness, and nutritional value.

Safe food is not cheap food. Consumers, like corporations, should be able to look at their food purchases with an eye to a return on investment. One should not simply consider the example of a consumer purchasing an organic banana vs. a non-organic banana, but instead the single banana that costs the same as a candy bar or a fast-food sandwich. Why buy a healthy banana for a dollar when one can buy a burger for the same price?

One can easily agree that education is needed for consumers to be able to make healthy food purchasing decisions and that cultural awareness plays an important role in enforcing healthy eating habits. With these considerations, we can flip the script and suggest that true inclusion of all consumers as stakeholders in the food industry would take these factors to heart. The return on this type of investment will go a long way to build communities while building brand reputation. This will also build healthy consumers while fostering brand loyalty.

Sure, this creates a sense that the focus on inclusion of all consumers is transactional in nature. When portions of a population are ignored as stakeholders, then disruptions and complications in the supply chain become weak links in that last mile of foods’ journey to the consumer.

Ultimately, CSR in this aspect becomes the catalyst to provide for the needs — beyond preferences — of all consumers. When we improve the safety and quality of airplanes, we benefit all passengers regardless of how much they paid for their seat. More people will see the value (financial, health, safety) and be more willing to invest in those companies that, in turn, invest more in their end-users.

Keenan Davis, President, One Institution; Chairman, One Institution Fund; Adjunct Professor, Northeastern University

Darin Detwiler, Assistant Dean, College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University