As a series of high-profile food scandals and scares have progressively eroded public confidence in recent years, consumer protection and the interests of the food industry should go hand-in-hand. Building and maintaining consumer trust is hard. But following a food safety incident or revelation of dubious practices, restoring consumer trust is harder still. The implications for missing the mark in terms of how the incident is handled can come at a high cost from both a revenue and brand perspective.
While more and more manufacturers are explaining how they source and make products, a significant portion of shoppers remain wary. The human brain is wired to be sensitive to potential risks, therefore bad news spreads like wildfire, and the actions of a tiny minority of rogue suppliers can discredit the entire industry. The reality is that companies invest heavily in optimising food safety, yet very few consumers understand the challenges involved:
Accidental or deliberate contamination
When our pantry is global, so are the chances of contamination. The majority of food recalls stem from operational deficiencies, and come at a high direct and indirect cost to firms. In undifferentiated markets, where consumers can’t distinguish between sellers of good product and contaminated product, this can result in consumer avoidance of the entire category.
Food fraud – when products are deliberately diluted, tampered with, mislabelled or otherwise misrepresented, or substituted with another product – is a highly lucrative business and often integrated with organised crime networks. But when economic times are tough, the opportunities to cut corners become harder to resist, even for otherwise legitimate businesses, as evidenced by the adulteration of food safety records by a major UK poultry supplier which made the headlines in late 2017. Food fraud also impacts on sustainability, nutrition, animal welfare and human rights, which are becoming increasingly important to consumers.
Food labelling is a huge area of contention: on one hand, consumers want more product information to make informed choices; on the other, they often distrust the accuracy of labels or are confused by them due to inconsistency or information overload.
Fundamentally, consumers’ needs are simple: they want to know they’re buying food that’s safe to eat, and doesn’t harm people or nature. In today’s digital world, relevant information needs to be made available to connected consumers at the time of purchase, particularly online where the shopper is at arm’s length from the physical product and packaging.
Greater supply chain complexity
No food safety system is perfect, but the greater the number of links in the supply chain, the more points available for penetration. Food supply chains are becoming longer and more complex, and therefore more prone to potential disruption. Most food retailers know all their first-tier suppliers, or have a good understanding of those suppliers with whom they have the highest spend, but a lack of insight into subsequent tiers or smaller suppliers means many can’t determine where ingredients are sourced from or how those ingredients are processed or handled.
Establishing the vulnerability of suppliers, especially those operating in higher risk jurisdictions, can be time-consuming unless companies implement ways to monitor and manage increased sourcing complexity. But without effective visibility into the supply chain, businesses can have significant blind spots in their enterprise risk management structure, leaving them exposed to potential legal, financial and reputational damage.
Shifting regulatory framework
The food industry has had to contend with a large number of new regulations and standards in recent years, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, together with numerous national programmes and industry initiatives that attempt to address the issue of food integrity and authenticity.
It’s therefore worth looking to the pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors, which provide a leading indicator of what’s likely to come in the food industry. Several bills and directives have been introduced across the EU and US dealing with pharmacovigilance, such as the use of serial numbers and track-and-trace technologies to prevent counterfeit drugs entering the legal supply chain.
Given the impact of food on public health, it’s feasible to expect to see greater regulatory focus on implementing similar requirements in the food industry.
Amid this complex landscape, food businesses can respond to these risks and challenges effectively, and help to restore consumer confidence in the industry as a whole, by taking five fundamental steps:
Step #1: Promote a culture of safety and quality from the farm to the shop floor – Forward-thinking companies develop a culture of food safety through education and communication to ensure staff are aware of the importance of good practices and the controls to be applied. They are also proactively identifying and managing potential risks by analysing data within and beyond their organisation on leading indicators such as customer complaints and media reports. There is a range of nationally and internationally recognised standards for certification relating to product quality, social and environmental sustainability and system and process certification. Voluntary participation in such schemes can enable organisations to provide various assurances as a competitive differentiator.
Step #2: Lead risk-resilient business culture and best practices from the top – The buck stops in the boardroom. Business leaders need greater over-sight of and engagement with food trust issues, and executive buy-in is essential to developing a culture that is relevant and responsive to both current and emerging concerns. Food businesses need not reinvent the wheel, but should instead look to adopt proven practices from similar, highly-regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals, to start building transparency and trace-ability into their processes now, rather than waiting to be forced by evolving regulation.
Step #3: Continuously review supply chain risks and benchmark against best practices – Businesses are held accountable for their supply chain actors’ performance, yet for many, supplier risk management is regarded as something of a tick-box exercise. Regardless of which point in the supply chain may be responsible for a food crisis, customers tend to blame the brand from which it was purchased.
So it’s vital to have end-to-end visibility of the supply chain and carry out regular reviews of suppliers’ food safety and quality standards. Taking a pro-active approach to supplier risk management can pay dividends in terms of product integrity, reducing compliance costs, and minimising the need for product recalls.
Step #4: Make considered investments in technology-enabled solutions – The key to transparency is to capture full and accurate data about product movement. Modern manufacturing, warehousing and traceability solutions are designed to help businesses improve standards, manage risks and provide consumers with better information about food products. Industry-specific solutions are purpose-built to support full compliance with food regulations and guidelines, such as GS1. Real-time visibility enables businesses to pinpoint inventory at any stage of the production or logistics process, and automate quality controls and monitoring from end to end, so any problems can be caught before products make it into consumers’ hands.
Step #5: Focus on consumer transparency and prepare to handle crisis events – If a crisis should occur despite all reasonable endeavours, food companies should be able to support near-surgical recall – getting the minimum amount of product off the shelves at maximum speed. This capability can be developed through scenario analysis, planning and drills, underpinned by robust product recall and crisis procedures. A swift response is also reliant on the availability of data in a suitable reporting format within minutes rather than hours, which can support both the crisis event itself, and open and honest consumer-facing communications after the fact.
As bargaining power in the food industry shifts towards the consumer, we will see the lines becoming increasingly blurred between food safety, health and well-ness, and corporate social responsibility. When risks are well managed, there are opportunities to deepen relationships with today’s connected and demanding consumers, and create the conditions for sustainable, profitable growth in the process.