Keith NunesKANSAS CITY — As direct interaction with consumers grows in different ways ranging from social media and personalization and customization to emerging direct-to-consumer business models, food and beverage companies will gather greater amounts of personal data about individual customers. The data will be crucial to future innovation, marketing and promotional efforts, but recent events underscore the importance of ensuring such information about individual customers is both protected and respected.

Personal privacy is becoming a signature issue of the 21st century. Much of the current conversation focuses on protecting a consumer’s personal data and a discussion of how companies are using such data to influence consumer behavior. Additionally, companies are under pressure to better understand how partners they may share such data are using it.

Data food and beverage companies may one day collect includes on-line ordering preferences, the results of health testing to assess a consumer’s nutritional needs, input from wearable devices that monitor health attributes, and data collected via internet search history and the internet of things, which will allow greater connectivity to consumer appliances and personal technologies.

Individually, each personal data set may offer limited value. Combined, such information will allow marketers to develop very personal relationships with consumers, build behavioral profiles and potentially to influence the products people purchase and consume. Food industry executives may find their companies squarely at the center of some of the most sensitive issues around the personal privacy issue as a result, and under greater scrutiny given how food affects consumer health and well-being.

"Companies already are exploring business opportunities that may one day expose them to the challenges and liabilities related to protecting a consumer’s personal privacy."

To date, food companies trail retail and food service operators in using a consumer’s personal data to influence sales. Loyalty programs are standard fare in both businesses and many have been executed with great success. Yet most current loyalty programs only scratch the surface of what will be possible as more technologies with data collection capabilities become integrated into the daily lives of consumers.

This may seem to be an abstract issue as it relates to today’s food and beverage manufacturing industry. Yet companies already are exploring business opportunities that may one day expose them to the challenges and liabilities related to protecting a consumer’s personal privacy. The Campbell Soup Co., for example, has invested in Habit, a company that uses the results of DNA testing to develop personalized nutrition plans for consumers.

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation goes into effect on May 25. The regulations give European consumers greater control over how their personal data is used and makes those who use and manage the data accountable for misuse or breaches. Similar guidelines may one day be established in the United States.

Proactive company leaders must develop internal policies to guide managers in how personal consumer data is to be used and protected. Many food companies are striving to earn greater levels of consumer trust through transparency initiatives. The proper handling and use of a consumer’s personal data may one day improve a company’s bottom line and enhance its relationship with consumers.