Trust and the rising bar for ‘achieving’ food safety

by Keith Nunes
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The consumer’s definition of safe food is far broader than the most common meaning pursued by the food and beverage industry, according to recently released research. Food safety is no longer measured simply by the absence of short-term or long-term harmful consequences for consumers precipitated by the improper manufacture, handling or preparation of a product. Today, different consumers include a range of attributes, including the presence or absence of preservatives or gluten, or whether the production or manufacture of a product may do harm to the environment. This determination is yet another sign of how rapidly the business is evolving.

A new report published by the consulting firm Deloitte and developed in conjunction with the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association outlines how such emerging consumer concerns as health and wellness, safety, social impact, experience and transparency are becoming a part of the consumer purchase equation along with such traditional attributes as taste, price and convenience.

A key point of the study is that changes in purchasing influencers reach across all age ranges and demographic groups. It is not simply a millennial issue.

The redefinition of food safety is a shift that highlights the consumer’s increasing interest in food and beverage products made with non-bioengineered ingredients or certified organic. It also explains why freshness has become a key attribute at retail given concerns about the addition of preservatives and additives to products.

The Deloitte study findings follow the release of the International Food Information Council’s Food and Health Survey in 2015 that found consumers are more concerned about some ingredients than they are of the pathogens that may cause illness. The IFIC survey further notes that in 2015, 60% of respondents said they have confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply, a 10 percentage-point drop when compared to the same survey that was conducted in 2013. The authors of the IFIC study speculate the decline is a symptom of the heightened level of “noise” in news coverage and on-line commentary about food.

The redefinition of food safety is of particular concern to food and beverage industry executives because it underscores how little consumers trust the industry’s messaging or the federal government’s, for that matter. A key portion of the Deloitte report highlights the level of mistrust, which the authors note is significant when compared to similar assessments conducted for other industries.

A social media survey conducted by Deloitte in 2014 showed that consumers are 3.4 times more likely to harbor negative sentiment about food companies than a cross-industry average. The report further notes the tendency toward distrust is very apparent among those falling within the millennial demographic, who, in significantly larger numbers than other age groups, do not trust food and beverage companies perceived to be large.

To regain the consumer’s trust the Deloitte report recommends companies focus on being more transparent. Such recommendations include using clear labeling and certification by trusted third parties. In addition, companies need to provide access to relevant information and be prepared for two-way engagement to promote and maintain consumer trust.

To achieve this level of transparency and regain the consumer’s trust will require companies to join the discussion consumers are having about food, the industry, its practices and the products being manufactured. It is no longer acceptable to only respond when inaccurate information is circulated. Companies must constantly reinforce and disseminate corporate values to what appears to be an increasingly skeptical customer base.

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