Consumers’ Changing Views on Food Safety, and the Opportunity for Action

Behind the Label_FConsumers demand safe food, and they prioritize purchasing from brands that they trust to be safe. The food industry knows this and wisely makes safety a top priority. But consumers’ definition of safety is changing, and the food industry needs to evolve its practices to keep pace with consumer demand.

Customers have traditionally defined safety as “free of harmful elements.” Last year, more than thirty-six percent of consumers said chemicals in their food was their top food safety concern. A new report from Deloitte, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) found that definition of safety has expanded — that consumers consider safety both a short-term (e.g., toxin free) as well as a long-term (e.g., no carcinogens) concern and, as a result, it aligns with their health and wellness concerns.

Deloitte-FMI-GMA-report-coverThis expanded definition of safety includes attributes such as clear and accurate labeling; clear information on ingredients, both label and sourcing; fewer ingredients, processing and no artificial additives; and better nutritional content.

The message is clear: Retailers and food manufacturers need to adapt, or they risk losing market share to competitors who meet evolving customer demands with safer ingredients and improved transparency.

Evolving Safety Expectations

FMI-GMA-blog-quoteSmart companies will adjust to these evolving consumer expectations as soon as possible. While the criterion ‘free of harmful elements’ is still cited by 62 percent of consumers, the rise of evolving consumers has introduced the four new attributes mentioned earlier, which are broken out in the chart below.The report identified two groups of consumers – evolving and traditional – that were split roughly 50/50 and equally distributed across regions, age groups and income levels. Traditional consumers focus on price, taste and convenience. Evolving consumers make purchases with five additional drivers: health and wellness, safety, social impact, experience and transparency. From the report, evolving consumers are more likely to be millennials, wealthy and west-coast dwelling. The five drivers above influence their purchase decisions across all product categories. However, they scrutinize freshly prepared meals, breakfast food, frozen meals and canned goods the most.

FMI-GMA chart

The report also warns that “companies still operating under the old definition of safety will likely feel ongoing pressure to address consumer concerns in a way that meets this evolving, long-term need.”

To Consumers, Transparency is Fundamental

For the evolving consumer, Deloitte, FMI and GMA found that product and company transparency is essential. Transparency positively impacts consumers’ views of product safety, especially of the four new purchase drivers shown in the chart. The report noted that transparency “is especially important in today’s environment, where consumers are significantly concerned that manufacturers would put profit over transparency and are distrustful of large food companies.”

The Food Industry is Responding…

On the transparency front, GMA launched its Smart Label initiative to help consumers access information on ingredients in products. What’s not clear yet is whether Smart Label will provide enough information for consumers, a question raised by six senators in January. They sent GMA a letter raising concerns about “significant anti-consumer loopholes.” GMA’s response, and reactions by others, can be found here.

In 2015 leading food manufacturers and restaurants committed to reformulating tens of billions of dollars in iconic brands, which we reported last fall. That trend continues this year with Mars’ commitment to reformulate all of its brands to remove synthetic colors by 2021. These efforts still trail those of food retailers including Kroger, Whole Foods and Trader Joes, which removed artificial flavors and synthetic colors from their private label brands several years earlier.

…But It’s Not Enough

However, the focus on removing ingredients that are or sound artificial to consumers continues to miss the mark. It tells consumers what they want to hear, but it doesn’t actually address the heart of their concerns. Just because something sounds natural and is legal does not mean it is safe.

Many ingredients – as well as the chemicals used to manufacture food or packaging – have never been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for safety due to the ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’ legal loophole in the law that regulates food additives. FDA, the agency that consumers rely on to ensure food additives are safe, has acknowledged that it cannot vouch for the safety of additives that it does not review.

There’s a simple solution.

Before a product can make it to the shelf, retailers and brand owners must require that all ingredients used in the food be reviewed by FDA. If FDA hasn’t reviewed an ingredient, manufacturers should keep it out of any recipe until a review is completed, usually a six-month process.

The question we should all be asking is… why isn’t this simple assurance of ingredient safety already happening?

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