If you ask a food safety professional to define food safety, you’d get a pretty concrete answer, which would likely include the identification of hazards, instances where hazards become risks, and the mechanisms to control those risks so that public health is not compromised. But ask the average consumer, and you get a very different answer, based on research by Deloitte, which surveyed over 5,000 U.S. consumers for a report, “Capitalizing on the Shifting Consumer Food Value Equation,” developed in collaboration with the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and GMA (http://bit.ly/1Pt6jSC).
EVOLVING DRIVERS. What attracts a consumer to a product? Taste, price, and convenience, right? Historically, the answer would be yes, but there are increasingly more factors that come into play when consumers make purchasing decisions. These “evolving drivers,” as termed by Deloitte, are equally prevalent in all types of consumers, regardless of age, income level, or region of the country. Now more than ever, consumers are considering other factors when making food choices. That is: health and wellness, safety, social impact, experience (between the consumer and retailer or brand), and transparency (an overarching driver).
The combined preference of consumers for these evolving drivers is almost equal to that for the traditional key factors of taste, price, and convenience.
Food safety professionals should be excited to see safety on the list. However, the consumer’s view of safety may be different—and broader—than how we typically define it in the food industry. When considering the scope of “safety,” consumers’ perception includes absence of allergens; fewer ingredients; and detailed, accurate labeling.
Where are hazards like Salmonella? The report notes that consumers remain concerned with the short-term, and long-term, impacts of food on their health, but their examples of these are “toxin free,” and “carcinogens,” respectively. This reinforces that a consumer’s view of food safety is quite different from our own. The report goes on to say that consumers intimately tie safety to health and wellness and supports the idea that consumers take much more holistic view of safety and health than ever before.
TRANSPARENCY BUILDS TRUST. Although food safety staff often are involved in conversations around traceability, it appears that, to consumers, transparency encompasses a broad range of information, accessible in a variety of formats. Still, for the food safety professional struggling to attain buy-in on traceability initiatives, this report may provide external substantiation of consumer desires for more information about food, including where it comes from. And this cannot be provided without the back-end infrastructure that supports solid traceability data, supply-chain wide.
Transparency helps build consumer trust and confidence. So does a good food safety record. Despite the fact that when consumers contemplate our record of safety, they may be looking at more than outbreaks and recalls, we must remain vigilant when it comes to our core food safety goals. Given that the report singles out allergens as an issue of concern to consumers, let’s critically examine the systems and technologies available to ensure the right product gets into the right package, and that the label is accurate.
On the pathogen side, now that science and technology have evolved to the point of relating single cases of illness to an environmental sample from years ago, the likelihood of relating an illness to a product is greater than ever before. There are several implications of this: consumers may perceive there is more foodborne illness today than before (although we know it’s really an increase in detection). And, importantly, when it surfaces that some contamination issues may have been longstanding, this may reduce consumer trust in commercial food systems. Given the accessibility of information and the speed with which news travels, it is imperative that we ensure our systems and processes continue to deliver the highest level of safety – however that may be defined.
RETAILERS ARE ALSO RESPONSIBLE. Fortunately for manufacturers, you are not alone on the food-safety journey. An FMI survey referenced in the report shows that 42% of shoppers rely on retailers to assume a greater food safety responsibility, which is substantially higher than the 25% who made that assertion in 2009. Additionally, in a Deloitte survey, when consumers indicated that they patronized retailers due to the retailer’s reputation or values, the top attribute cited was the retailer’s commitment to food safety (69%) – with that broader definition of safety to include health and wellness features.
As food safety professionals, we need to remain vigilant in our efforts to limit and control contamination in the food production environment and ensure that consumers don’t fall ill due to the foods they eat. Increasingly, however, we also need to be aware that consumers take a much broader view of food safety. With the consumers’ consideration of long-term consequences of diet; ingredients used in food formulation; and labeling, multi- and cross-disciplinary conversations within food companies could aid in developing a holistic approach for responding to consumer expectations.
The Deloitte report, released in January, calls on companies to broaden their definition of “safety” to manage and satisfy an expanded set of consumer expectations. That could mean new ways of working across functions because, in many cases, company units that are responsible for safety do not focus on broader health and wellness issues, but concentrate instead on their traditional definitions of food safety.
The author is GMA vice president, science operations.