Concerns over food safety after Australia’s September 2018 adulterated strawberries scandal have created a lingering lack of trust between consumers and the food industry – even though a strong model for safety compliance and transparent information already exists.
Researchers at Flinders University have spent five years working with industry and regulators on a model that could help rebuild or maintain consumer trust in the food system if a food safety incident occurs.
However, a recent study shows that most consumers aren’t aware that such a system exists, and they remain sceptical about whether such action would be implemented effectively after an incident.
The research team initially designed a food security response model with regulators, the media and food industry representatives that resulted in a 2016 paper introducing the model, published in Health Promotion International Journal (https://academic.oup.com/heapro/article/32/6/988/2951029)
Now, the research team has conducted a study to gauge consumer responses to this model, and results show that greater trust needs to be built between consumers and food providers if public confidence is to be ensured about the application of adequate safety measures and transparency about the authenticity of food sources.
A qualitative study conducted from two full-day sessions in May 2018 resulted in the paper “Consumers respond to a model for (re)building consumer trust in the food System”, by Emma Tonkin, Annabelle Wilson, John Coveney, Samantha Meyer, Julie Henderson, Dean McCullum, Trevor Webb And Paul Ward. (Published in the journal Food Control, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodcont.2019.02.012
Researcher Dr Emma Tonkin, from the Southgate Institute for Health Society and Equity at Flinders University, says the model outlines 10 strategies that match consumer views about what is required to rebuild or maintain consumer trust in the food supply after a food safety scare. The challenge is now to promote the existence and application of this model more effectively.
“The main point of this model is achieving transparency, to provide clear information about what procedures are in place to counter confusion and misinformation during a food safety incident,” says Dr Tonkin.
“Consumers involved in our study agree that industry should do what our model suggests – but many people don’t believe it occurs.
“A trust gap currently exists. Our research suggests that consumers may question whether industry is being compliant with the model strategies, and a lack of acceptance or belief by consumers that strategies like full transparency would be acted on.
“Because consumers mostly don’t know that protocols exist for managing a food scare or scandal, but report that they would feel safer if they did, industry and regulators need to work harder at getting the message across.
“This research shows there is a big question about whose responsibility is it to access or share this type of information that already exists – is it the consumer, the regulator, or industry? The new study identifies a need for more clarity to prevent the type of confusion that currently exists.”
Dr Tonkin says the research group’s next goal is to learn how extensively the recommended model is being applied across the food industry. “There is a lot of adversarial talk between consumers and the food industry, but by using an effective model that has transparent communication at its core, we believe a lot of positive outcomes and progress in food security can be made.”
Food provenance and food integrity are at the forefront of global consumer’s concerns when purchasing food – underlined by plans for an EU General Food Reform that proposes greater transparency of the risk assessment process in the food chain and establishing a food fraud task force as part of the European Food Safety Authority. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is being especially proactive, recently issuing a new five-year plan to address consumer concerns about identifying ingredients, allergens and improving packaging.