The safety of America’s food supply chain is of critical importance to any company involved in the production, distribution or sale of perishable or packaged foods and beverages. Consumers are transitioning from thinking food safety is about purchasing, preparing and storing foods to having a much broader definition of "safe" food.
Food production and sourcing is now very much a global affair. This has only intensified consumer immersion in topics that, up until five years ago, seemed only to be the purview of distributors, manufacturers and retailers and not American households.
Formerly industrial or non-government-organization-driven buzzwords like transparency, traceability, local, Fair Trade or COOL (country-of-origin labeling) now have meaning in the public mindset that generally coalesces around an increasing concern for products unlabeled or imported from abroad. Underscoring this mindset, a majority of consumers (73%) consider foods produced in the United States to be safer than imported foods. About 4 in 10 consumers feel that the
American food supply chain is "much" or "somewhat" safer compared to the European food supply chain.
Food product recalls and news of tainted imported foods are becoming so pervasive consumer attitudes toward the safety of food and beverage products, regardless of origin, have been affected. When asked who is responsible for the safety of the American food supply chain and protecting consumers from tainted imported foods and beverages, the burden of responsibility falls primarily on the government and manufacturers. Over three-fourths (76%) of consumers believe government inspectors should be responsible for the safety of the foods and beverages brought into this country.
As an antidote to headlines about tainted food and food ingredients (many of which point to imports), consumer in-home and in-store interviews conducted by The Hartman Group revealed consumers will actively talk about fresh, local or organic goods as products they buy in direct response to worries about what might be "in" imported food and beverages. Typically, when describing why they buy products with fresh, local or organic characteristics, one part of the conversation tracks back to an open fear of foods and beverages that might come specifically from China.
Consumers acknowledge an awareness for other nations exporting foods to the United States that also have contributed to tainted food scandals, yet, because of the scope of China’s exports to the United States (in both food and non-food categories) the public tends to now equate imported food worries with those products imported mainly from China.
Many of the characteristics that inspire shoppers to buy local foods and beverages also intersect with reasons for wanting to avoid imported goods. Local may designate the origins of food, freshness, seasonality, food miles, local economy or quality. Notions about the origins of foods and beverages are directly linked to fears regarding food safety and inspection processes, particularly for those consumers who prioritize what goes into their bodies. There is a fear that foreign regulatory systems are untrustworthy, particularly with respect to China.
Consumer perceptions of food safety are transitioning beyond the traditions of home economics class to include an understanding of how global food sourcing policies impact the environment, the economy and household safety. Because of the growing lack of trust among consumers about imported foods (specifically from China), today’s food marketers would be well advised to consider marketing narratives that speak to either reassuring consumers of standards in off-shore production or provide clear details about domestic production and inspection practices. Today’s shopper is increasingly interested in details that reassure them that they may trust where their food is coming from.
Laurie Demeritt is president and chief operating officer of The Hartman Group, Inc., a consulting and consumer insights firm specializing in the analysis and interpretation of consumer lifestyles, and how these lifestyles affect the purchase and use of today’s products and services in tomorrow’s marketplace. Ms. Demeritt may be reached at FBNEditor@sosland.com.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 28, 2008, starting on Page 52. Click