Trends in Transparency - How Food Companies are Stepping Up

Globalised supply chains, stronger reporting of food safety scares, and digitalisation have seen consumers demanding greater transparency when it comes to knowing what’s in their food and where it comes from.

In response, we’ve seen a trend of both companies and public regulators using modern technologies to deliver more transparency and adopt it as a business proposition to build trust, enhance two-way communication, and set the record straight on a few urban myths along the way.

In the developed world nearly 80 per cent of people have access to the internet while social media allows brands to connect directly with their consumers. The rapidly increasing penetration of smartphones, coupled with investments in internet infrastructures globally, also means consumers are engaging with their favourite brands and companies in their everyday life more. A recent survey by Deloitte showed Singapore now tops the world for smartphone use, with nine out of 10 respondents having access to one.

For years, McDonald’s encountered rumours and myths surrounding the origins of its food – “the chicken nuggets are made of pink slime, pig fat is used in the ice cream, or earthworms are ground up in Big Macs”. Harnessing the power of social media, McDonald’s launched its own global myth busting campaign, “Our Food. Your Questions”.

Liam Jeory, Vice President, Corporate Relations Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa at McDonald’s said that the success of the initial campaign in Canada inspired the company to make it part of its global proposition. “From an early stage we saw the immense value of being part of the conversation and giving consumers the facts. As a company we’ve been moving in this direction for some time but creating this opportunity for two-way communication every day has really shifted the dial for us in delivering greater transparency.”

Earlier this year Kellogg’s launched a campaign in the US market with similar goals called “Open For Breakfast”, which offers an open forum online for people to communicate directly on what’s on their mind at the breakfast table.

In comments to media at the launch, Kellogg’s said, “More than ever, people want to know what's in their food, how it's made and what companies are doing to contribute to a better world. With Open For Breakfast, we want to earn a seat at peoples’ breakfast tables by opening up and showing how we’re working to make their mornings better.”

On a smaller scale companies are also using QR codes on their products. Last year in Thailand, Tesco Lotus expanded on its successful QR code system by allowing consumers at 1,600 of their outlets to trace back the source of meat products sold on their shelves.

Tesco Lotus worked with five of its suppliers to provide sourcing information to the Livestock Development Department to create a traceability database. Over two years they said they planned to further expand the QR system from fresh pork and, chicken to four other main food product categories - eggs, frozen food, bakery, and ready-to-eat meals.

With the focus towards harmonisation of food standards under multi-lateral trade agreements like the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC); and the introduction of new food safety regulations in China, both the private and public sector share many of the same goals in building consumer trust and education in the safety, origins, and quality of their food. Both sectors are looking to examples around the world as they develop new initiatives in Asia.

In the public sector globally, one of the most recent innovative initiatives to launch in the area of consumer transparency is a nationwide information campaign by the Swedish government called ‘Hello Consumer’. The service allows consumers to find information easier and connect with experts, consumer agencies and advice organisations via phone, live chat, email and Facebook.

Set-up with 12 other government agencies and consumer organisations including the National Food Administration, the goal of the service is to bring together consumer advice under one umbrella so that consumers have independent and accessible information to allow them to make more informed purchasing decisions.

Other public regulators on food standards around the world, such as the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom and the US Food and Drug Administration also invite consumers to connect with them and keep in touch via social media platforms from Facebook and Twitter to Pinterest and Mobile.

So how will we see the public and private sector innovating together towards greater transparency in Asia in the future?

The Asian region continues to face a number of fundamental challenges in nutrition education, food safety, and harmonisation. These hurdles will only fuel consumer demand for greater transparency and it is therefore vital that we remain considerate of how and where consumers are getting their information and the opportunities for the public and private sector to harness new technologies together to ultimately drive benefits.

For more information on Food Industry Asia's (FIA) work in Health & Nutrition, Regional Development & Food Safety across Asia see here.

FIA issues regular e-bulletins with analysis on relevant food and beverage industry issues across the region. To subscribe to this service, please click here