In August of 2015, Nestlé was accused of falsely advertising the nutritional ingredients in Gerber Graduates Puffs. The action highlights the delicate balance that all companies—even icons like Gerber and Nestlé—must maintain between regulatory compliance, consumer demands, and their own commitments to safety, quality, and transparency.
Kevin Goldberg, Nestlé Nutrition’s general counsel, oversees North American operations and also heads compliance. He points out the difficulty of actions like the advertising lawsuit, which typically portray manufacturers as “bad actors,” especially when the scenario involves what he calls “our most sensitive consumers of all: babies.”
“The new empowered consumer environment has certainly helped our already high standards evolve to become even more stringent.”
However, those matters can also provide opportunities to demonstrate companies’ true standards, their efforts to uphold them, and platforms to engage with consumers about their expectations.
“The social media environment has changed everything because there is so much immediate access to information, both true and false,” Goldberg says. “Plus consumers have a heightened awareness of many different food-related issues. So even an accusation like this one gives us a chance to continue an ongoing dialogue that clarifies our approach and intentions and ensures we understand consumers’ priorities.”
He points to Nestlé’s commitments to reduce artificial flavors and salt in its products as well as attention to issues such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), arsenic, BPA, organic ingredients, and allergy sensitivities as examples of their responsiveness to calls for greater transparency.
“Our commitment to safety, quality, and compliance has always been a top priority, but the new empowered consumer environment has certainly helped our already high standards evolve to become even more stringent,” Goldberg explains.
As he responds to better-informed consumers and their expectations, Goldberg must still provide balanced legal counsel that supports compliance and company objectives.
Modern Counsel: What’s your strategy for offering the most effective advice to clients?
Kevin Goldberg: My approach is always to remove barriers between the business and law. We do that by ensuring we’re in alignment with an operational master plan that provides a comprehensive understanding of the top business priorities and objectives. That way we never operate in a vacuum. As lawyers, we also have to understand the overall value equation and how our activities create benefit for the company in the context of the master plan. That’s where the equation begins. If the goal of a contract is strategic ingredient sourcing, then focusing on penalties for noncompliance may be much less appropriate than emphasizing quality specifications or sustainability best practices. We have to understand the value of the activity in the context of business objectives. Otherwise, the contract could effectively be worthless.
MC: How do you ensure the right balance between business objectives and appropriate legal advice?
KG: My job isn’t to tell clients what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s to make sure they have all the information they need to make an informed decision, or enough that they can work with me to make it. It comes back to alignment of objectives and execution, risk and opportunities, good business practices, and compliance and transparency.
MC: Can you give an example of how the legal department’s work is being influenced by and responsive to a new era of consumer expectations?
KG: One of the most recent examples is legislation in Vermont that may ban GMOs from all foods and beverages in the state. We’re making sure our businesses understand the full scope of that prospect so that we will be fully compliant if and when it goes into effect. That includes closely examining products and recipes to ensure they’re GMO-free.
MC: What kind of impact will those sorts of changes, social media, and on-demand access to information have on your work in the coming years?
KG: It’s already pretty clear what’s important to consumers: food safety, integrity of ingredients, and labeling transparency. Our challenge will be to effectively demonstrate how committed we are to all of those concerns. The issues will remain the same, but the bars for all of them will definitely be raised even higher than they are today.