Consumer behaviour in respect to the food they eat has been changed forever and the pace of this change continues to increase. In order to future-proof our industry and evolve with the times we need to find the balance between what the consumer wants and what we can realistically achieve.
The way consumers learn about and eat food has shifted dramatically over the last two decades. Our diets and eating habits have become almost unrecognisable to those of our grandparents and great-grandparents. The way we shop, cook and dine has been significantly altered by our attitudes towards food and the rise of the internet age has been the enabler of this evolution.
As digital and social platforms have grown, tools like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube have allowed communications to flow faster and farther than ever before. Today, the world is a smaller place, where real-time has become the expectation and with a swipe of a finger or a click of a mouse consumers have ready access to a hive of information – offering the industry many challenges given the new ‘informed’ consumer.
Adding to the complexities of this new informed consumer, is the democratising effect of the web, which has given everyone the chance to become a food influencer simply through the power of their smartphone camera and social media. The effect this has on eating trends is to diversify the voices that are being heard. The result: a new breed of consumer – the ‘prosumer’. Rather than simply consuming products, people are becoming the voices of those products and significantly impacting the success or failure of companies, products, and brands.
The knock-on effect is that consumers have locked-on to the ideology that food and cooking is a lifestyle choice and a way of representing who they are by what they eat and cook. This focus aligns with popular beliefs around sustainability and making better food choices – with living to your best self. As Danone’s CEO, Emmanuel Faber, commented during the opening plenary session at this year’s GFSI Conference, “Consumers believe that the way that they eat defines them.” Food isn’t simply about sustenance anymore – “food is politics” and “food is religion”.
His words resonated with me. As a food safety professional it struck me that these consumer beliefs regarding the environmental, quality and social standards have begun to shift our industry focus from the ‘science’, which is so fundamental to the innovation of new food offerings as well as maintaining a safe and secure food supply for all. Therefore, what are the risks of these changing consumer beliefs to our industry and to our brands?
“FOOD IS RELIGION”: There is no doubt that understanding where food and drink ingredients come from and how they are processed is increasingly of importance to consumers. Today’s consumers want to understand the story of the products they buy and consume to ensure that it aligns with their own personal value system and moral compass. Sales of sustainably sourced and ethical products have experienced rapid growth over recent years and more and more shoppers are using their purchasing power to make a difference, by means of organic, fairtrade, environmentally friendly, and animal welfare assured products. But at what cost do these ‘trademarks’ come to your company?
As an industry we recognise the importance of our commitment to acting in a socially responsible manner, not only to satisfy our consumers but because it is the right thing to do. Our challenge is to balance the need to act responsibly with that imperative to ensure that the food that we produce is safe.
“FOOD IS POLITICS”: As more people become aware of food origins, that information is further impacting purchasing decisions, for example, the consumer limiting consumption of fruits and vegetables that aren’t locally grown. In many respects we are also seeing a significant shift towards the de-globalisation of eating. Consumers are wanting local. Are wanting food with their flag on the label. They’re wanting to understand the regionality of the products, with preferences for smaller boutique or artisan products. Preferences shifting to ‘local or speciality’ as opposed to ‘multinational or mass produced’
As an industry we have experienced years of consolidation, which in turn has resulted in the globalisation of our supply networks and the ability to achieve widespread distribution of products to all consumers worldwide. These changes have allowed for efficiencies of scale; enabling our industry to focus on the science of moving safe food across the globe at the right price. Our challenge now is how do we address these consumer demands for local products, but still continue to use our trusted global supply chains to ensure that food safety and security for all is not compromised?
There is no panacea and the challenge to meet this new consumer ethos and can’t be tackled alone. The answer lies in the industry’s willingness to be open; to share individual learnings and best practices applied as each of us work to address these existing and emerging challenges.
Afterall, every part of the industry may have a piece of the puzzle and by working together, and putting our collective knowledge to work, we have the opportunity to move with the times and future-proof our industry.
Kimberly Carey Coffin
Head of Food, Retail and Hospitality
SAI Global Assurance