Consumers fear some ingredients more than pathogens

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — Within the International Food Information Council’s annual Food and Health Survey is a disturbing fact for the manufacturers of food and beverage products perceived as processed. The 2015 survey, which includes responses from 1,007 Americans ages 18 to 80, found that 36% said “chemicals” are their top food safety concern followed by 34% who were concerned about food borne illness from bacteria.

Think about that — A sizable number of consumers view some ingredients to be a greater safety risk than pathogens.

The IFIC Food and Health Survey is conducted annually and in 2014 the percentage of consumers who expressed concern about chemicals in food and packaging was much lower, at 23% compared to 34% who said they were concerned about food borne illness. However, it must be noted the questions on the surveys were different. In 2014, IFIC asked “What is the most important food safety issue you consider when shopping for food.” In 2015, the question was changed to “In your opinion, what is the most important food safety issue for you and your family today?” It is unclear how the changed question may have affected the results, but a 13% jump from one year to the next must not go unnoticed.

The IFIC survey further notes 60% of respondents said they have confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply. That number has fallen from 70% in 2013 and, IFIC speculates, it is “a symptom of the heightened level of ‘noise’ in news coverage and on-line commentary about food.”

It is safe to argue that such “noise” has reached a deafening pitch for food and beverage processors and many are or have been responding. Many consumer packaged goods companies have been removing ingredients of concern from formulations for more than five years. During the past few weeks alone a number of food service operators, including Panera BreadTaco Bell and Pizza Hut, have announced similar efforts.

But the question before the food and beverage industry is will such clean label efforts improve consumer perception of the products it manufactures? It is at this point in a column such as this one looks for reasons to be optimistic. Unfortunately, there are few.

No matter how companies “clean up” formulations in an effort to improve consumer perception of their products a competitor is going to seek a point of differentiation by questioning an ingredient or ingredients in the formulation. This is a marketing strategy being employed by many companies and its level of success ensures it is going to continue.

So the next question facing marketers is what ingredient may be of concern next? According to the market research firm Mintel International, it may be grains.

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