The next scare – Food scares and the battle for consumer trust

30th July 2015
From Chris Morrison

As many retailers now know, food scares have the potential to erode consumer trust quickly. This was proven by a recent study from Leatherhead Foods, which found that, following the 2013 horsemeat crisis, 43% of consumers surveyed were not confident meat-based chilled and frozen ready meals contained the species on the label. Some further research we conducted recently showed less than 7 percent of consumers now trust the quality and safety of the food they consume. Food scares can lead to lasting distrust from consumers: potentially sabotaging the long term success of retailers and manufacturers. The industry must work together to prevent and contain food scares, to demonstrate that it can meet the global challenge they present.

Food scares – the damage so far

There have been a raft of serious food scares in recent years that affect a growing group of consumers. The Sudan 1 food scare of 2005 resulted from carcinogenic food dye entering chilli powder used in hundreds of products, while the 2013 Fonterra food scare started with Botulism entering the food supply chain and ended in a temporary ban in China of all powdered milk from New Zealand. More recently in the US, a number of hospital patients unfortunately died as a result of eating ice cream containing the Listeria bacteria. Whether malevolent sabotage, poor factory conditions or just simple human error, food scares can come from anywhere and cause severe damage to public health and, while harder to quantify, consumer trust.

More recently, consumers in the UK market were again disturbed when Campylobacter was found on the packaging of supermarket-bought chickens. While the bacteria is not harmful if consumers store and cook chicken properly, the news caused a public outcry as a large proportion of chickens were found to have the bacteria across multiple outlets. A good example of best practice in dealing with the problem came from ASDA, which implemented in-line intervention for campylobacter as well as new packaging to minimise the risks. As well as addressing the immediate problem, proactively taking measures such as these demonstrates to consumers that the retailer is doing everything in its power to prevent food scares happening again and so helps restore trust.

Overcoming the fear

On the global stage, the sheer complexity of the food supply chain makes it inevitable that further food scares will occur. While retailers can’t prevent all of these, the industry can learn from the lessons of the past and implement new ways of working to protect itself. Facilitating effective product recalls is the first course of action, ensuring that any affected products are taken off shelves as quickly as possible. Next, introducing greater accountability can help verify the credentials of suppliers; reducing the risk of poor practice, sabotage and fraud causing food scares. Finally, closer collaboration and greater transparency throughout the supply chain can identify where problems have occurred much more quickly and also identify the biggest risks on the horizon. The prospect of global food scares is indeed scary stuff, but the industry can arm itself with the right tools to help protect itself and its consumers.

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