How Passionate Consumers are Changing the Food Industry

At 5:12 pm on Friday, February 5, I got to do one of my favorite things in the world. Just as the East coast was heading out of work for Super Bowl weekend, I called Renee Shutters to share the news that she won her Change.org petition.

After more than 200,000 people signed Renee’s petition asking M&M’s to stop using artificial dyes, Mars announced it was eliminating the dyes from all food products within 5 years.

The news left Renee speechless for a few moments, and as she found the words to express her excitement, she quickly turned to talking about how much this victory means for her own kids and families like hers where children suffer from behavioral problems linked to artificial dyes. She told me she was constantly inspired by the massive support on her petition since it launched in October 2013 and by the strategic support she received from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She also told me that her family had prayed for this change.

Renee and her family.

Renee and her family.

The power behind Renee’s story is the authenticity of her experience. Renee is a working parent from New York who loves her family and wants the best for them. She spends her time and money in ways she feels are best for her family. She’s the real deal, and if Renee Shutters can rally 217,124 people around her single Change.org petition, imagine what food manufacturers must be thinking about the future of artificial dyes in their industry. The consumer-led movement is only going to grow.

The influence of consumers like Renee is not lost on the world’s largest food companies -- it’s very much a central part of their business model. Grant F. Reid, President and CEO of the $33 billion privately held parent company of M&M’s, Mars, Incorporated, acknowledged consumer demand for change in announcing the company’s products. “Our consumers are the boss and we hear them. If it’s the right thing to do for them, it’s the right thing to do for Mars,” said Mr. Reid.

Renee isn’t alone in her success. Vani Hari’s petition on Change.org brought together 365,000 consumers to persuade Kraft to remove artificial dyes from its Mac & Cheese products. Sarah Kavanagh’s Change.org petition to Gatorade resulted in a victory after 206,000 supporters agreed they did not want brominated vegetable oil in their sports drinks. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola agreed to remove the ingredient from all of their products as a result of consumer outcry.

It’s inspiring to hear consumers speak out about what they do not want in the food industry, but let’s not forget Change.org can also be a platform for companies to listen to what people do want. Jenny Foy and Doug Reed petitioned Ben & Jerry’s for a vegan ice cream, and the company just announced four new non-dairy flavors hitting stores in the coming weeks. Popular comedian and stuntman Steve-O made a video and petition on Change.org to inspire Wendy’s to add a veggie burger -- and it’s now testing in several markets.

Consumers like Renee Shutters have more power than ever before. Online platforms and social media networks amplify individual voices, but just as importantly, they empower consumers to engage with each other.

It’s fascinating to watch consumers publicly and creatively mobilize around food, and inspiring to know many of the biggest changes in the food industry are sparked by ordinary consumers who start a petition and believe a better food system is possible.