Editor’s note: In part two of this four-part series with SafetyChain Software, Food Safety News reviews how food firms can become resilient in the face of 2021’s new challenges, how resilience will be needed in reducing supply chain risks.

Dr. David Acheson, CEO & president of The Acheson Group, suggests that food firms will need resilience when addressing consumer-related challenges in 2021.

Consumer shift away from preservatives
A recent survey found that seven in 10 Americans are concerned about the presence of chemical products in food. The poll by Mérieux NutriSciences and bioMérieux also found that 70 percent of respondents were troubled about pesticides, antibiotics and additives.

Acheson points to preservatives as an issue specifically on consumers’ minds.

“When it comes to appealing to consumers, pure science doesn’t always win. For example, consumers have pushed for a shift away from preservatives recently,” Acheson said. “When these additives are removed from products, however, it introduces new risks.”

This survey also found that consumers still care about bacteria, with two-thirds concerned about pathogens such as Salmonella and Listeria.

Demonization of processed foods
Acheson says there is a balance that must be maintained because of the demonization of processed foods. There is a call for clean labels, with leaning toward organic, non-GMO, local food. He says companies need to stay flexible as these phases often ebb and flow. Food companies must not only understand and respond to consumer demands but they also need to be aware of any risks that these consumer-driven changes may introduce.

Expectations that all food types will be available all the time
“To add further complexity, consumers typically expect that all food types will be available all the time,” Acheson said.

Apple pie cravings don’t always come during peak apple season. And when preparing meal lists for their family, how often do consumers think about which fruits and vegetables are in season?

Acheson explained how consumers place responsibility for safe food on the producer. They also hold the ability to damage a brand through media attention.

“These factors can put a strain on food companies, who must pivot and change frequently to accommodate new trends,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened these already existing concerns.

According to the Mérieux NutriSciences and bioMérieux survey, nearly 70 percent of respondents were more worried than before the coronavirus pandemic about the safety of the food they eat.

Building consumer trust
So, what is the solution to these consumer concerns? Now more than ever, it’s trust.

In March 2020, before the coronavirus shut down such events, Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, gave a keynote presentation at the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference in Seattle. The presentation focused on how trust is the most important intangible aspect of any company.

Arnot explained how questions about food safety have become an issue of trust between companies and consumers. He told the corporate and food safety leaders at the conference that more than one in four consumers strongly believe small food companies will put their interests ahead of public interest, and more than half of consumers strongly believe that large food companies will put their own interests first.

To show resilience in 2021, food and beverage manufacturers will need to recommit themselves to building consumer trust.

Consumers have social, rational and emotional needs
Arnot explained that consumers have three types of needs: social, rational, emotional. He said these needs have to be met to get rid of the dangerous disconnect between consumers and businesses.

He suggested this means companies need to ask more questions that satisfy the rational need. But they should also ask the ethical “should” question, which provides the emotional need.

Then, to explain how to meet the social need, Arnot told a story from a recent consumer panel. A woman on the panel said that she is part of a mom’s group on Facebook, and it is where she gets her information on what products to buy or not to buy. The mom is more likely to listen to these 100 other moms than to doctors and research, because of a tribal and network model of the communication world we live in, he said.

“We need to say we appreciate her concern,” Arnot said.

His idea is to try to better understand her motivations and fear as a consumer and then ask, “what can I do to be a resource to you?” Answering questions in a social way that recognizes the need for the source to be credentialed, relatable, competent, confident and possibly most importantly, having shared values.

“You aren’t given permission to share data until you have that trust and confidence,” Arnot said.

He gave three ways for companies and individuals to be able to share information in a way that people will listen to.

Arnot left listeners with three suggestions: Companies should begin all public engagement using shared values; they must commit to being more transparent; and they should engage consumers early and often.

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