Consumers want transparency. It’s a phrase I hear all the time in supply chain and food safety circles. Ask consumers if they want transparency and the answer is overwhelmingly ‘yes’. It seems obvious; transparency equals knowledge, knowledge equals informed decisions, informed decisions result in good purchasing practices and good purchasing practices are a win for both consumers and suppliers. But is that how food purchasing really works?
If consumers say they want transparency, and in a study by BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility a total 82% of consumers reported that “ingredient transparency is a very important or important factor” when shopping for food and beverages, why is it that ingredient transparency remains relatively unusual for most food products?
As a young food technologist working for a large snack food manufacturer, I learnt a valuable lesson in understanding consumer behaviour; those of us in marketing and product development jobs were very good at imagining the wants and preferences of our core consumers. We were almost always wrong. I was lucky enough to work for an organisation that was willing to spend money on focussed, in-depth and product-specific market research and we used that research to refine our product offerings and strengthen our brands. What we learnt was that our own white-collar preferences were quite unlike the preferences of our core consumers and that self-reported attitudes to products almost never aligned with actual purchasing behaviour. When it was time for consumers to select a bag of snacks from a retail store shelf, the qualities that we had been focussing on in our product development laboratory contributed very little to the decisions that were made.
I see the same thing in the current commentary of food safety and integrity professionals. Traceability and transparency are important to food professionals and this is likely to be reflected in our food purchasing habits. But for most people, food purchasing decisions are dominated by availability, cost, quality and sensory preferences. Transparency is nice to have, but if it comes with a higher price tag it is unlikely to result in increased sales of a food product. I don’t doubt that this is something most large food processors already understand. We will continue to hear calls for supply chain transparency but we won’t be seeing it on an ordinary big-brand box of cookies any time soon.