One side-effect of 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic has been a heightened awareness of “safety” in the realm of hygiene, especially food and groceries. Early last year we were treated to videos of how to handle your groceries after you bring them home and generated such a high volume of prepared food delivery that we developed “contactless” delivery where someone in a mask rushes up to your door and leaves a non-descript package in front of it before texting you to get you to open the door (yes, how things have changed!).
Prior to the global spread of COVID in 2020, Zebra Technologies conducted a study on safety in the food supply chain (“Closing the Trust Gap: Technology and the Food Supply Chain”), covering both consumers and industry executives around the world, incorporating responses from over 5,000 respondents. We’ll take a closer look at their findings today as well as provide some additional insights from our own work in the food and grocery distribution industry.
The Speedy Evaporation of Trust
Like many other examples in life, for the food industry it is much easier to LOSE trust than to earn it. An excellent case study of the domino effect that food handling incidents can have occurred in Japan in 2020 when it’s largest dairy brand “Snow Brand” (“Yukijiurushi” or 雪印) was found to be at fault for the largest case of food poisoning ever seen in Japan – 14,000 – a country that is generally more fastidious about food safety and hygiene than almost any other culture. The scandal not only led to the collapse of a dominant, 75-year-old national dairy business, but seemed to have unleashed a torrent of additional scandals as whistleblowers and investigations brought to light other handling and labeling errors or intentional mislabeling or other shortcuts. Trusted brands stretching from ham and sausages being mislabeled to prized domestic eels actually being cheaper imports and even some processed sushi being found to contain artificial ingredients all led to a sudden, steep drop in trust in what was considered a source of pride for the country’s finicky eaters who are famous for their insistence on freshness and quality.
While incidents like these happen almost daily somewhere in the world, this was a particularly good example of how a series of incidents can bring down the public’s trust across the entire industry.
Start With Consumer Concerns
While the study highlights some very stark differences in perceptions held by consumers and industry executives, we’ll start with the consumer’s views as a priority. Unsurprisingly, consumers are focused mainly on what they can see and understand up close to how they interact with the food. Surprisingly though, there appears to be little concern about food origins, authenticity or quality and freshness, even though these are all potential indirectly related to the things they are concerned about.
As we’ll see from the data, the responses from consumers about the role of the food industry seems a bit disconnected from their views about food safety and the connection between the production of food and the delivery of it into consumer’s homes and onto their tables.
Perceptions of the Food Industry’s Capabilities
As the graphic on the right indicates, despite the fact that consumer’s Top 5 concerns all related to their direct consumption of food, the survey illuminated they also have high expectations of the industry’s responsibilities while maybe also having doubts about their ability to meet those responsibilities.
The origin of where food comes from, the ingredients and how it is prepared and handled are considered “highly important” to 70% of the respondents, but only 22% say they have complete confidence in the safety of their food based on the information they currently have available to them.
So, while current “satisfaction” is low, and expectations are high, only 35% of consumers feel the industry is ready to manage the traceability and transparency of their food production.
This shows one of the biggest gaps in the survey as over two-thirds of the industry decision-makers (69%) say the ARE ready to manage these challenges.
A Two-Pronged Response is Required
It’s clear that the gaps highlighted in the survey present a couple of big challenges for the food industry. The first relates to “transparency”, but not in the cold, technical sense that tends to be the default approach by trying to use technology to solve the problem. When the industry fights efforts to improve labeling – be it for ingredients, ingredient definitions, origin, etc. – it just adds to the perception that consumers can not trust the industry. Rather than make large, visible, and public investments in fighting voter referendums and other regulations that actually BENEFIT consumers, perhaps taking the long view and look at how to intentionally improve the transparency as a matter of Branding. Particularly for Brands that already are, or intend to go global, it is perfectly logical to look at your major market with the most demanding level of transparency and match it in your other markets. It’s important to look at where things will go eventually and take the quickest route there.
The Role of Technology
While just about everyone in the industry agrees that technology offers opportunities to increase food safety and plan to increase investment in technology, the priorities and perceived impacts may not be equal across the industry or across different regions.
There areas of potential benefit cited by respondents from the industry include:
- Reducing risk through improved handling, transportation and storage.
- Better tracking of product perishability
- Optimization and increased transparency of the food supply chain
- Stricter compliance with food quality and safety guidelines
- Improved intake management of raw materials and ingredients
For some industries, technology has limits and won’t address some key perception issues. The chocolate industry, for example, is dominated by two global giants who have admitted they have NO method or technology in place to determine how much of their raw cacao supply is created from child labor. Ethics-conscious consumers who expect better will continue to mistrust Brands that don’t re-evaluate and reconfigure their supply chains.
If food industry Brands can overcome the ethical and environmental issues that may be associated with their product (i.e., sustainable palm oil, fair trade coffee/chocolate, etc.), then technology can address the other parts of the puzzle that raise consumer confidence. The top three technologies that industry executive identified as helpful included scanner-equipped rugged handheld computers, barcode labels and printers and rugged scanners. However, while an average of 90% of respondents indicated they would have adopted these technologies in the next five years, there is less than 40% penetration of any of these in the industry now.
Finally, while RFID tags are deployed by only 31% of the respondent’s organizations, they were highest ranking technology in the survey deemed able to “improve food traceability within the supply chain”.
Retaining Freshness in 2021
In 2020 we were fortunate to be able to help some of our clients in the food industry take some giant steps with technology that were in some part necessitated by the combination of the extreme pressure put on the industry from the impact of everyone eating at home (groceries!) and the increased safety concerns in the workplace (COVID). Whether you feel the need to improve your supply chain at the origin point or in your warehouse, the experts at Advanced Mobile Group have the tools to help you take on the challenges posed in this study.
To see the complete study, download the original Zebra document here.