Big ag, big food, big pharma; they've all taken their lumps for being too big, too evil, too bad and too bottom line money oriented. They are nothing more than monstrous, soulless entities. But 'big' is something usually required to finance big things. A really big idea needs generous inputs of big money to become a reality and that's when a big business comes in handy.
The problem, according to many so-called social critics, is finding a company with a soul, a company that isn't entirely wed to tomorrow's financial report. They simply do not exist. If something can't be measured on a financial spread sheet, it doesn't count.
A few years ago, a guy by the name of Jeff Ettinger decided to adopt the littlest people of Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. To be precise, he directed Hormel to develop something that would ease the hunger and malnutrition hurting tens of thousands of Guatemalan children.
He had an advantage: Ettinger is the President and C.E.O. of Hormel Foods Corporation. Still, it's refreshing to see a "C" level exec ask a company to do something that isn't designed with the sole purpose of pumping up next quarter's financials. Instead, he directed the company to do something that proved to itself and its stockholders that it had a soul.
Ettinger asked Hormel's research and development team, one of the best in the food industry, to create a product that would not appear on a supermarket shelf in Peoria or contribute more dollars to his bottom line. And then he asked his company - all of the employees from the well-paid folks in the corner offices to the newest hourly hires - to get behind that product.
The solution to the health crisis suffered by Guatemala's children was a food product Hormel called "Spammy," not to be confused with their ubiquitous Spam. It's a fortified, turkey-based protein resource currently given to more than 8,300 Guatemalan families, representing over 30,000 children. The final recipe for the product was developed after research showed them the nutrients that were missing from the Guatemalan diet. Filling the need is a culinary art as well as nutritional science. Uri Friedman, writing about the science in The Atlantic, described it in detail in the magazine's June 2014 issue. Read it by clicking here.
Here is what Hormel's people said about the project:
Q: Joe, what was happening in Guatemala?
A: Joe Swedberg, V.P. of Legislative Affairs: " When we first went to Guatemala, we saw a real problem with malnutrition everywhere. It was causing stunted growth, children were falling victim to disease and death and they were losing some of their cognitive abilities.
Q: Dr. Minerich, what was the science behind the development of Spammy?
Dr. Phil Minerich, V.P. of Research and Development (Retired): "We didn't want to just give them calories. Guatemalan children were lacking protein in their diet so we wanted to add that as well as the essential vitamins and minerals. We researched what they needed and included those things in the mix. We can easily vary the recipe to fit the needs of children in any country."
Swedberg: “What's so attractive about Spammy is it can be included with the usual Guatemalan diet. It can be incorporated in rice, beans, tortillas; they don't have to change the way they eat to use it. I think that's why it has been so successful.”
Q: Did you run into any roadblocks?
Swedberg: "We had to get special clearance to produce Spammy in our Beloit plant from the USDA. It's against the law to produce fortified meat products in this country. We had to show them what we planned to do with Spammy. They saw the need and gave us the green light to go ahead. The USDA is now partnering with us on this project."
Q. You're not just drop shipping Spammy to Guatemala. This is a company wide project. What are you doing to get everyone involved?
Swedberg: "We invited our employees and their families to travel to Guatemala to help with this project. We can only take a few at a time and there is a waiting list of people who have signed up to go. Last year, 44 employees gave up their time to make the trip and we donated over 2 million cans of Spammy through our partnership with Food for the Poor and Caritas Arquidiocesana."
Facebook comments from people who made the trip:
Christopher Perdue: "Apparently selfie is pronounced "selfie" in Spanish.
This is Angie, a five year old from the March trip. We played soccer, jump roped, made bracelets, sang songs, worked on the computer, and taught each other's languages together. Despite a language barrier the connection made with the children in a matter of days is amazing."
Kris Carlson-Spinner: "Excellent first day for the September trip! Great day at Caritas headquarters (one of Hormel's partners in the project) and touring the pediatric hospital. So many wonderful and dedicated people on this project."
Marcene Sonnek: "It's hard to choose just one experience, but I think spending the day at the community center teaching the children was near the top of my list. They are so joyful and innately loving. One little girl was saying something in Spanish, so I asked someone to translate. She was asking me if she could kiss my cheek. Absolutely melted my heart!
Bottom line: Granted, some businesses can be correctly classified as soulless behemoths but there are a few that stand out as great examples. Some observers say a business is the product of its DNA and Hormel has great 'genes' that lead it to accomplishing great things like this.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.