Consumers Push for More Transparency in Food

March 24, 2009

For those who are familiar with The Omnivores Dilemma, Michael Pollen’s manifesto of mastication, or Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin’s sugar-less spoonful of medicine, Skinny Bitch, it’s not just about what we eat, but also our food’s journey from pasture to plate, and what is really going on behind the scenes.

It’s remarkable how utterly undiscerning many of us are about what goes into our mouths.  Fortunately, we’ve begun to ask about those nine-syllable additives in our breakfast cereal, and learned the truth about misleading, “hydrogenated,” “natural” and “enriched” labels.

Accountability and transparency are not specific to the food industry, or characteristics of a passing trend.  The internet has leveled the information playing field such that consumers now have all the power.  With blogs in their holsters, average people spread criticism like wildfire.  Staying on the up-and-up has never been more important, or more difficult for businesses and their marketers.  Companies large and small are realizing they better not bite the hand that feeds.

According to Margaret Kime, the director of branding consultant, Fletcher Knight, as reported by MediaPost, “Consumer awareness of and interest in being intimately informed about their food has never been stronger,” says Kime.  “As the organic, fair trade, local and artisan food movements grow and food contamination scares persist, consumers are demanding more detail around the origins of a product and each of its ingredients.  Faceless or ‘orphan’ ingredients will be viewed with increasing suspicion.”

Food labeling in particular has toed the fine line between “ambiguous” and “leagalish” for too long.  In this country, only 51% of a product must be manufactured domestically for it to carry the “Made in Canada” sticker.  Not to mention the “Recommended Serving Sizes” and favourable calorie scales which allow products to appear better for you than they actually are.

According to a 2007 study by the Consumer Reports National Research Centre, 92% of those polled support better labeling for products imported into the United States, as food security issues have risen to what most agree are unacceptable levels.  A GreenerChoice.org article reports that “…nearly 9 out of 10 consumers want natural meat to come from animals that were raised on a diet without drugs, chemicals and other artificial ingredients.  Currently, the natural label on meat only pertains to how the cut of meat was processed and not how animal was raised or what it ate.”

The US Government in 2002 enacted a program called Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) which requires almost all products to carry specific information about where they originated.  Originally passed in 2002, the program was delayed for nearly 7 years (with the exception of seafood) and has seen its first limited implementation just this month.  The COOL initiative hopes to resolve questions surrounding interpretation and definition of product descriptions, but there is still a lot that is not known about this program.

As these changes have created problems for some, it’s presented new opportunities for others.  Products which emphasize local origin, artisan skill, pure, pronounceable ingredients, and responsible procurement have earned the respect of consumers, and gotten many of them talking.  A popular example is Welch’s Grape Juice.  Employing the services of popular food personality, Alton Brown, Welch’s has made a splash touting the benefits of its anti-oxidant-rich product, and also brings you right to the farm to have a close look at who is producing its fruit. While it’s not cynical to point out that cute little farmers hauling baskets of grapes onto a beat-up truck is not representative of the manufacturing process as a whole, it does use an everyman, human marketing strategy on which companies in other industries, including Ford and Microsoft, have started using as well.

As of now it’s still relatively easy to mislead consumers about product origin and ingredients, as regulatory oversight is still being established.  But businesses must be more truthful with their offerings, because if any evidence to the contrary (real or implied, the bloggers don’t care) could spell disaster for your brand.  So if you’re trying to carve out a niche in your market, and lend some credibility to your product, it might not be a bad idea for you to bet the farm.

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