Opinion

Is transparency the key to growing a food business?

23 March 2017

Richard-Hanwell-200x200
Richard Hanwell, associate director of FMCG recruitment agency, The Sterling Choice

The word ‘transparency’ began circulating as an industry buzzword, but due to the wealth of knowledge that we can instantly access and the paradigm shifts in attitudes toward food, it’s no longer optional – transparency has become basic consumer expectation. 

These days, those businesses in the produce and FMCG sectors that choose to ignore transparency risk losing customer loyalty and trust. However, in truth, transparency isn’t solely focussed on earning consumer trust; it is also an exercise in uncovering internal problems, including those within the supply chain, leading to improved processes.

Today’s consumers are demanding to know the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to industry policies, processes, suppliers, and ingredients, in order to decide for themselves whether they want to continue their relationship with the brand. For decades, the information, and therefore choice, was taken away from consumers. For example, when GMOs were introduced, it was concluded by Governing bodies that they were safe for consumption; little information was released about them into the public realm, and the public were unaware of what they were consuming – the control had been taken away from them. 

While it’s true to say that there are a number of individuals and families that are forced to make choices about the food that they buy and consume based purely on price, does this make them any less entitled to receive information, even if it will not affect their buying decisions? The answer of course, is no. 

After the much-publicised horsemeat scandal in 2013 and similar incidents in West Yorkshire where the contents of food items were discovered to be vastly different than what was indicated on the packaging, 63% of British consumers admitted that their trust in the food industry was severely dented. 83% of consumers also stated that they wanted industry transparency to increase and to have access to further information when it came to food products, to enable them to be confident in the origin of the food and the ingredients.

Of course, these incidents are only a few that have been investigated by the National Food Crime Unit, part of the Food Standards Agency that was set up after the horsemeat scandal; other scams have included toxic vodka, fake Manuka honey and olive oil contaminated with colourings and flavourings. Shockingly, food fraud costs the UK around £1.17 billion a year.  In fact, it is only today that The European Parliament has passed new rules that aim for “tougher food inspections from farm to fork” to prevent further repeats of scandals of this nature – however, there have of course been vulnerability assessments have been around for a number of years to protects products from food fraud. VACCP, TACCP and HACCP are all in place to aid businesses to assess threats from within their manufacturing environment, identify and protect products from internal or external contamination.

The issue with these protocols is that there have been many mixed messages when it comes to explanations of them, and which protocol should be applied to which situation. Clearly, this had led to them not being implemented correctly, and cracks have appeared in the system.  

Since the shock Brexit decision last year, there has been speculation that the UK will change its food standard laws. If this is the case, we may see the introduction of new processes and training, perhaps even equipment to comply; current food and beverage laws are governed by EU regulation but could be changed, or at least modified, post Brexit.  

I think an important question that needs to be posed, is WHY there has not been authentic transparency until this point? The obvious answer is because it was in the best interests of the businesses involved; rather than taking a ‘future-proof’ long-term approach, manufacturers focused on the fact that being honest would lead to increased costs on packaging and advertising, along with media and public attention that they wanted to avoid. In addition to this, being privy to these failings may have also meant increased costs by being forced to instead purchase quality, authentic items, essentially reducing profit. 

Despite the retailers having responsibility to shoulder, in the publics eyes – it’s the manufacturers and suppliers who are being deceitful. The sugar debate is a classic example; it’s becoming widely known that many varieties of fruit are being grown to contain higher levels of sugar and those who feel particularly strongly about this, and who can afford to – will seek out ways to purchase varieties that aren’t grown in this way. The consumer-centric approach is not exclusive to those who offer services, those within the food industry are going to have to completely switch their approach – those who continue with a ‘profit over people’ attitude will sooner or later, see themselves become obsolete. 

Consumers are now looking to brands for assurance, and if they can’t offer it, those once-loyal brand advocates will not think twice in finding brands that can offer it. Clinically reporting facts and quoting science doesn’t necessarily fulfil the definition of transparency – the entire business needs to realign themselves with modern day values. Present society is far more driven by ethics, welfare and wellbeing, and these values without question, extend into the food industry. 

Since the digital explosion, businesses have increasingly been at the mercy of their audience, especially given the rise of social media. It’s no secret that transparency is critical to gaining consumer trust – because being transparent about all elements of a business that is in the public’s interest, is an indication of the values that an organisation holds. Just because food is essential to survival, it doesn’t mean that manufacturers and retailers are exempt from working hard to build trusting and lasting relationships with the public, any other stance on this is pure ignorance.

Having a brand that is largely avoided due to suspicions over its integrity and honesty, will soon be seen to be preying on those families that aren’t educated in the area or can’t afford to switch to a brand who can provide them a more wholesome offering.

At The Sterling Choice, we’ve not been backwards in coming forward when it comes to voicing our opinions on the shortcomings in the food manufacturing industry. The lack of adoption when it comes to disruption and innovation means it is running the risk of becoming outdated and out of touch with the values of modern society. We repeatedly come across businesses that are simply not meeting the needs and demands that a younger workforce are bestowing upon them, and therefore, are missing out on a wave of fresh talent. The same appears to be said for meeting the demands of modern day society. 

Produce Business UK welcomes letters to the editor and other input from the industry. If you wish to respond to an article on Produce Business UK or join the conversation on any industry issue, please send your thoughts to [email protected]

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