In food makers we trust?
food companies now need to work hard to ensure they clinch public
trust, as a matter of insurance. This means more than compliance on
traceability and labeling. This means being seen as a force for
If consumers view food producers as ethical and committed to their wellbeing, they will be a lot more understanding when mistakes are made.
So, what does it take to come up as a good guy of food in the public eye?
1. Be honest about health
Many companies are making their foods healthier, but this trend will only build consumer trust if the industry plays a straight bat. The test is simple: would consumers rate this product as healthy if they were given all the facts?
It's no use positioning a cereal as healthy if consumers then discover high salt and sugar content. Similarly, the public does not want to be misled into believing a yoghurt is made with organic ingredients because it is branded as 'Bio', or discover that a fruit drink contains very little fruit juice.
If a tasty food can't really be healthy, and a healthy food is not tasty, manufacturers would do better to concentrate on the core positioning rather than disappoint on both.
Consumers, battered by media reports about obesity, are about to get label-savvy. Companies that take the high road, with fair labeling, will do better than those who create a wake of suspicion by deliberately writing around products' vices.
2. Take safety seriously
The biggest immediate threat to consumer trust are safety recalls. Tighter laws on the food supply chain will, ironically, lead to far more of them.
Every food company now needs to work harder to stem the recalls prompted by food decay or the inadvertent introduction of suspect ingredients.
But a far more damaging prospect would be the first "asbestos" of the food industry - a food widely used today, which in future is confirmed as a killer.
Whether its aspartame, soya, GM foods or high fructose corn syrup, in today's information-driven world, pressure groups quickly move to raise public awareness of missing, or conflicting, scientific evidence.
Manufacturers need to be at the forefront in monitoring such risks. They must take a proactive role in credibly removing doubts, or in replacing foods where the doubts cannot be laid to rest.
Only a responsible approach to science, that engages with new evidence and commits to further investigation into possible health risks, will retain trust in food makers' fitness to feed consumers.
3. Go for the "good" in ingredients
Food manufacturing remains governed by price-driven factors. But consumers increasingly value evidence of social responsibility by faceless, multinational producers in the sourcing of ingredients.
Fair and sustainable trading is becoming a profitable marketing tool in mainstream channels - sales of food and drink products carrying the Fairtrade mark grew by 50 per cent in the UK last year, reaching £140m.
Moreover, ingredients should be of the highest possible quality.
A study by British analysts IGD recently found that high quality ingredients are the single most important factor in making a product premium. Shoppers, while still price conscious, are willing to pay the extra for something special.
As the trend emerges for branded ingredients, manufacturers must demonstrate their use of the best quality ingredients available if they are to appear to be doing the best for consumers.
In sum, where health claims mean healthy, health risks are as worrying to producers as consumers, and ingredients are the finest available, the food industry will be deserving of public trust.
It's an equation that will go far further than charity commitments.
If we now start to promote these three pillars as the food industry's ethics, manufacturers will find that morality offers a significant long-term return.
And even if it didn't, shouldn't an honest desire to benefit consumers be key to every food firm's mission statement?
Dominique Patton is the editor of NutraIngredients.com, where she has been recognised by industry awards for the publication's strength and for her own news reporting.
If you would like to comment on the article, please contact Dominique Patton.