It is clear that market leadership is being redefined by consumers, particularly those with an evolving value equation, driven by emerging factors such as Health and Wellness, Safety, Social Impact, Experience, and Transparency.

– Deloitte Consulting LLP, Capitalizing on the Shifting Consumer Food Value Equation

With an unprecedented amount of information now available to consumers, the priority placed on food safety has reached a new milestone. Deloitte Consulting LLP, in partnership with the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, recently conducted a survey of 5,000 consumers and interviewed top-level executives at more than 40 companies. The overarching message was clear: consumers care about food safety more now than ever. They seek transparency and accountability throughout the food supply chain.

As one researcher noted, “Companies should broaden their definition of safety to manage and satisfy an expanded set of consumer expectations.” In addition, the researchers stated that retailers selling these companies’ products have an increased responsibility to meet enhanced consumer demand regarding food safety. In other words, both the companies that produce the food products and the retailers that sell them have a responsibility to uphold in terms of adhering to expectations about food safety.

Survey Findings

The survey and interview process also revealed that consumers are now demanding enhanced levels of “accountability and transparency” throughout the food supply chain. In particular, consumers are placing an emphasis on accurate and clear labeling of food from the manufacturers. In terms of the retailers’ responsibility, the survey reveals that in duck2014, 42 percent of shoppers stated that they rely on retailers to take an enhanced role in food safety. The figure is up from 25 percent in 2009.

Approximately two-thirds, or 62 percent, of survey participants stated that the food that they purchase should be “free from harmful elements.” Other concerns revealed in the survey include a preference for accurate and clear labeling, no “artificial” ingredients, less processing, better information about sourcing and ingredients, and greater disclosure about the nutritional content of food.

Comparing the food industry’s defined set of food safety expectations to those of consumers, researchers discovered consumer expectations to be broader in scope. “Consumers’ definition of safety reaches beyond industry’s more narrow focus,” one researcher said. Today, buyers are also placing greater importance on the long-term effects of food, as opposed to short-term safety concerns, such as pathogens.

Participant responses

An assessment of the participants’ responses appears to demonstrate the conclusions reached by the authors. Participants’ affirmative responses to two food safety classifications included in the survey—“commitment to food safety” and “free from harmful elements”—outnumber those criteria that are not considered to be traditional elements of food safety.

The affirmative responses to food safety criteria are as follows:

  • Commitment to food safety: 69%
  • Free of harmful elements: 62%

Responses to non-food safety criteria include:

  • Clear information on sourcing and ingredients: 47%
  • Nutritional content: 41%
  • Fewer ingredients, less processing, and no artificial ingredients: 42%
  • Accurate and clear labeling: 51%

In terms of company values, respondents cited a commitment to food safety as more important than other factors. Fair treatment for workers, local sourcing of products, and overall mission and values are all overshadowed by an increasing demand for adequate food safety measures.

Effects on the Market

While food safety is considered just one of the five “evolving drivers” of consumer purchasing decisions, the rate at which the issue has garnered the attention of buyers is quite evident. Evolving value drivers include safety, experience, social impact, transparency, and health and wellness. In examining participants’ responses, a consumer shift in buying attitudes is further evident in the margin of difference between evolving drivers, such as food safety, and traditional drivers.

oystersResearchers are quick to point out that “traditional drivers”—price, taste, and convenience—will continue to have a measurable impact on what consumers buy, albeit to a lesser extent than previously thought. In fact, it is ascertained that traditional drivers will be at the forefront in the minds of many consumers when they make purchasing decisions.

Perhaps more importantly, as it relates to the context of these research findings, is the overarching and rapid trend of consumers to consider food safety and other evolving drivers more heavily than the previously dominant traditional drivers. Approximately 51 percent of survey respondents stated that evolving drivers, such as food safety, are more important than traditional value drivers.

Buyer behavior

Consumers who self-classify as favoring evolving drivers are more likely to use digital channels and social media in order to make purchasing decisions. In addition, such individuals are more likely to take a cautious view of the food industry in general despite manufacturers’ and retailers’ efforts to engage consumers. The findings are significant in two important ways:

  • Consumer dissatisfaction in a product or company is much more likely to go viral
  • Producers and retailers are pressured to a larger degree to appease evolving consumer demands.

In conclusion, both food manufacturers and retailers may find it necessary to account for such changes in buyer behavior. It will be interesting to observe the subsequent actions of various stakeholders, and whether or not they are attuned to such changes.