In food we trust – the case for radical transparency

We love our food. It is an emotional connection and we trust our retailers, brands and farmers to deliver on their promise when it comes to the authenticity and quality of food. But consumer trust is fragile and is increasingly being challenged. Consider the recent food scares in Europe, the frequent reports of counterfeit products in Asia, and add to that the growing scepticism towards big brands and nervousness around genetically modified food. The challenge is clear.

As a consequence, we have seen an increased investment in product labelling and packaging, but is that enough? When a statistic shows only 26% of us believe information on labels to be accurate1, companies will need to start thinking more radically about transparency and how they engage with consumers.

Radical transparency and the role of technology

In their quest for transparency, companies and consumers are looking for technology to provide answers. As an example, consumers can now buy a kitchen scale which visually scans food to provide nutritional information2. Italian nanobiologists recently developed a low-cost genetic test3 which provides a colourimetric result visible to the naked eye to help identify good from contaminated food. But perhaps the most promising technological advancement, often described as THE solution for transparency and consumer trust, is blockchain.

Blockchain, with its secure data platform and an immutable audit trail, has the potential to provide full product traceability and transparency. Product information, such as farm origination, processing data and logistics details, are digitally connected to food items and entered into the blockchain at every stage of the supply chain. It can record food miles, compliance with quality and food safety standards such as temperature and humidity levels and even labour conditions. All important to retailers and consumers.

Blockchain is still in its infancy, however it is encouraging to see so many consumer and agri companies investing in it. This could lead to a high paced evolution of the solution with exponential adoption rates. In fact, a Deloitte survey among executives knowledgeable of blockchain highlighted more than a quarter view it as a top-five investment priority4. Walmart is one which has been running trials for traceability. A test using traditional methods to trace the exact farm origin of a package of mangoes, took them six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes compared to two seconds using blockchain5.

However, for this transparency to truly translate into consumer trust, companies must find ways for shoppers to access that data in moments that matter, either at point of purchase or consumption. QR codes or the use of Near Field Communication (NFC) technology could enable consumers to scan or read the product using their mobile phone and find the information relevant to them. Some retailers already have interactive food display tables and real-time data visualisation to provide consumers with relevant product information. It is not hard to imagine the power of displaying product details captured in blockchain in generating trust in the product.

The need to build trust beyond the product

But trust in the product is only part of the solution. Consumers seek the same level of transparency and trustworthiness of the company behind the product. They want to be assured that companies genuinely place consumers’ interests ahead of their own. In its annual trust barometer Edelman explores why trust in business shifts. The common denominator is whether or not people believe business contributes or fails to contribute to the greater good6. This places an emphasis on the need for a clear purpose and a well-articulated social impact agenda.

Consumers want companies to become more personal. They want to see CEOs actively engaged in societal issues, requiring companies to intensify its dialogue with consumers and society on topics far beyond its product. This fundamental redesign of consumer engagement will be critical to the future success of food businesses. Particularly now values-based purchasing decisions (considering health, safety and social impact) are rapidly gaining momentum7.

Our relationship with food and the trust we place in businesses and brands is clearly being disrupted. The way companies choose to engage with consumers, act on their broader social purpose as well as the pace at which technologies like blockchain will be embraced, will determine how our relationship and trust will evolve.

  1. IRI Shopper Panel Psychographics Research 2017.
  4. Building up Blockchain, Deloitte, 2016
  5. Forbes, 22 August 2017
  6. 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer
  7. Connected Products, Restoring brand value and reimagining consumer relationships, Deloitte, March 2017

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