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February 8, 2007

“Trust us, it’s safe”

Food security is high on the agenda of modern consumer concerns, but are shoppers right to be worried? Bernice Hurst investigates instances where a growing culture of fear is more than justified and claims confidence in food security is being undermined by sloppy practice.

Food security is high on the agenda of modern consumer concerns, but are shoppers right to be worried? Bernice Hurst investigates instances where a growing culture of fear is more than justified and claims confidence in food security is being undermined by sloppy practice.

There are three strands to current food security concerns. First is the literal question of safety. Can we have confidence that the food we buy will do us no harm?

Second are the varying definitions used by the United States Department of Agriculture, namely “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life,” and the World Food Programme, which defines food security thus: “secure ownership of or access to resources and income earning activities, including assets to offset risk, ease stocks and contingencies”.

Just as pressing are issues relating to perception and trust. Food safety scares, large and small, have seeded among consumers a culture of fear and suspicion, uncertainty about where food comes from and how safe it is to eat. While many people are working to ensure that the food supply is safe and secure, a few may be working to endanger it. Achieving complete safety and security is a difficult goal to attain, as is inspiring confidence in the extent to which it has been achieved.

In the UK, for example, a recent survey by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on behalf of the European Commission found that four samples of mushrooms and nine samples of nuts showed levels of cadmium above the legal limit. The FSA said such levels should not cause concern, however, leaving consumers to wonder how and why legal limits are set if there is no problem when they are exceeded.

In the US, a poll conducted by Harris Interactive for the Wall Street Journal Online in December 2006 showed that 95% of participants take note of food safety announcements and that 67% of those stop eating a product until they are convinced that it is safe to eat again.

Three recent, unrelated incidents illustrate questions about how easy it is for retailers to make promises and attempt to build customer trust based on what they say rather than what they do.

Incident One involved an out of date package of smoked fish spotted in a refrigerated cabinet and handed over to a department manager who promised to pass it – and the customer’s complaint – on to the relevant department’s manager. Some twenty minutes later, the pack of fish was back on the shelf but neatly positioned second to front.

Incident Two occurred at a fish counter in a grocery store where a customer asked the manager which fish had been previously frozen. He answered knowledgeably and went on to admit that he had labels available to display the information and should have put them out but made no move to do so.

Incident Three also concerned labelling. Biscotti in a small specialist store included fractionated palm kernel oil. The sales woman had no idea what this was or whether it was similar to hydrogenated oil but called the supplier, who explained that it was an ingredient in the chocolate he had used and, therefore, had to be listed on the biscotti. The chocolate manufacturer, however, denied selling his product to anyone for use in other products and also denied using fractionated palm kernel oil. The owner of the original store then discovered that the fractionated oil was, in fact, hydrogenated and announced that she would be seeking a new supplier.

The question all these incidents raise is to what extent the retailers could be trusted. Short of going back repeatedly to check whether they had changed their ways, they may simply have been saying what was necessary to pacify an irate customer holding up the queue in their store.

Consumers could be forgiven for wondering whether such incidents are isolated or symptomatic. Where food security and accountability are concerned, information should be transparent, easy to understand and trustworthy. Once doubts are sown, it is little wonder that suspicion is aroused. Such suspicions can easily undermine efforts made to ensure food security whichever way it is defined.

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