Consumer connection vital in restoring faith in food industry

By Anthony Fletcher in Paris

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Infant formula

Unless the food industry accepts that emotional connections drive
consumer decisions about what is and what is not acceptable, full
public confidence will be hard to restore.

This was the conclusion of Professor Lynn Frewer of the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, a keynote speaker at the Food Safety Seminar at Paris' FiE show.

The argument was also highly topical, given Nestlé's recent experience of withdrawing infant formula in Italy because of packaging ink migrating into the product.

"People still eat unhealthily because they don't fear sugar or soluble fats,"​ said Frewer.

"But an involuntary risk over which people have no control is perceived as being much more threatening."

Indeed, public reaction in Europe to Genetically Modified (GM) foods shows exactly how consumers think about food ingredients. The issue also demonstrates how important good communication is in allaying fears.

Frewer used the example of a GM tomato paste product that was launched by Sainsbury's in 1996. It was clearly labelled as GM, was fully traceable and received very little media interest."

Then, around 1998 to 1999, the issue suddenly received a huge amount of coverage, much of it negative. Saturation reporting led to a cemented consumer perception of the lack of any benefit from GM technology.

The integrity of nature had not formed any part of the food industry's communication. Effective traceability had not fully been put in place. The negative reaction to GM, according to Frewer, was not so much about risk as about consumer choice and the provision of relevant information.

There was, as a result, a decline in trust about what the food industry was saying. Some major corporations had presented the technology as the solution to world hunger, and such statements added to growing widespread cynicism.

"Emotional connections drive consumer decision making,"​ she said. "We need to move towards a risk benefit analysis."

This sentiment was complemented by Olivier Mignot from Nestlé's research centre in Switzerland.

"Consumers do not like surprises - like finding ink in their baby milk formula,"​ he said at the Food Safety Seminar. "We therefore need to build safety into the design of the food and anticipate new risks."

Mignot used the example of semi-carbazide in baby food jars to demonstrate how the industry can tackle a safety issue before it forms a negative public impression.

"Semi-carbazide was identified as coming from the polymer seals in baby food jars. A quick preliminary toxicological risk assessment confirmed this, the EFSA was informed via the CIAA and this resulted in the efficient ban and replacement of the chemical."

If only all food safety issues were tackled as effectively. A few years ago in Japan, 15,000 people were poisoned by a product developed by Snow Brand. The company's market share collapsed as a result, factories were closed and the president and seven executives resigned.

"When it goes wrong, it can have disastrous consequences,"​commented Unilever's Tineke Mosert.

Related topics: Ingredients

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