Bakers Journal

Features Business and Operations
Truth in Food Production


November 27, 2007
By Laurie Demeritt The Hartman Group

Topics

Those who work in the food industry know that the term “food safety” has broad implications. At the national and local level, there are governmental agencies responsible for the safety of the foods people consume.

Those who work in the food industry know that the term “food safety” has broad implications. At the national and local level, there are governmental agencies responsible for the safety of the foods people consume. If you consider the negative food safety headlines that appear regularly in a multitude of media formats, perhaps it is little wonder that consumers are increasingly looking at the world around them with a heightened sense of curiosity tempered by anxiety for what’s “in” the various foods and beverages they purchase.

Fuelled in part by stories of tainted ingredients imported from outside the country and also by what seems like an almost weekly food product recall due to E.coli, salmonella or other contami-nations of foods and beverages, shoppers are increasingly looking for the story behind the ingredients that make up the products in their shopping carts and as a consequence are wondering just where these products and ingredients come from.

The Importance of Transparency

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Why should food companies be concerned with communicating openly and clearly with consumers? For one, consumers want to be better informed: they want to know “what’s inside” before they buy. What they want to know, however, extends well beyond product characteristics. Sure, they need information to make purchasing decisions. But the quantity of information does not make a company transparent, the relevance and usefulness of the information does. The term “transparency” can be defined, then, as the amount of quality information a company provides its stakeholders and consumers.

Another obvious occasion for full disclosure is when handling a crisis, such as E. coli contamination. Case studies abound on the after-effects on companies that were slow to disclose information relating to public health safety. When a company refuses to talk, consumers are left to conclude that the company is hiding something. Secrecy and lack of full disclosure or objective oversight was the chief culprit behind the wave of corporate accounting scandals in recent years.

At The Hartman Group, we’ve been observing various forms of transparency for quite some time. In the world of health and wellness, transparency is manifest through growing consumer interest in knowledge and authenticity. That is, as consumers become more and more involved in health and wellness lifestyles, they become increasingly interested in gathering more knowledge about healthy foods and other lifestyle choices, and bring increasing scrutiny to their product choices in a search for authenticity.

In the latter case, they want to know where a food product came from, who made it and (exactly!) what it is made of. At the core of the health and wellness world, where consumers interrogate their food, there is little tolerance for less than the real thing, less than the authentic. There is no room for compromised, adulterated, impure products. Knowing the source of those products eases those concerns. A local, organic farmer is likely to be found “authentic;” a factory in New Jersey is not.

Transparency: What to Talk About

The Internet makes it easier than ever for consumers to obtain information on products, brands and companies. They know where to shop for the lowest-priced and best-quality goods and services long before leaving the household. Food marketers could ask themselves whether they are providing the right type of information for various types of consumers and consumer interests.

Transparency has been used to great advantage by brands in the organic and natural foods category where companies will typically showcase the relative simplicity of a product’s ingredient list, the unadulterated wholeness of various ingredients or the straightforward reality of a product’s origin.

Transparency is already a significant and likely growing trend within the realms of fresh foods, food labelling, as well as retail settings. The entire revolution in fresh products is based to some extent on the idea that in order to market fresh products, the first element of competency is the ability to create the aura that the product is still fresh from the farm, kitchen (or oven). Communicating fresh from a transparency perspective implies that customers need to sense that the product has not languished on a shelf for long, or if a food is prepared, that it was made either right in front of the customer, or very recently. This means that the more transparently a marketer can communicate freshness, such as using date or time stamps, packaging, and product placement, the more relevant the fresh product will be to customers. The proximity of production or “localness” of the fresh product is also a desirable attribute to list in transparency.

In food labelling, whether or not products are new, reformulated or the same, there will continue to be strong inclinations to communicate as transparently as possible about various product attributes (e.g., “Now with More Whole Grain”), to attempt to correct for what are viewed as former shortcomings (“Now with Less Sugar”), and to very likely shorten ingredient lists.

In retail settings, the inclination to become transparent is led by natural grocery stores that post their “ingredients” for operation and their corporate missions typically on the walls of the stores for their shoppers to absorb. Retailers such as Wal-Mart, which has just constructed its second “environmental store” in Aurora, Colo., and whose CEO has voiced a corporate focus on sustainability, may in the future post “ingredient labels” that profile the energy-saving measures employed by various stores at the front entrance.

Companies that bridge the gap for consumers between information available and the ability to use it effectively will have tremendous advantages in the marketplace. In the world of lifestyle branding, both corporations and brands are using transparency to communicate what they believe to be their “real” ingredients and genuine values to consumers. Innovative companies are not afraid of “what’s inside” and make information easily accessible to consumers and stakeholders in useful and even fun ways. And remember, your consumer is: (a) the most sophisticated, savvy and educated in world history and (b) the best connected. The chances are likely that the consumer will know more about your product or service than most within your organization ever will. Don’t be afraid to look to your devoted consumers for help or advice.

Laurie Demeritt is president and COO of The Hartman Group, www.hartman-group.com.


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