Food companies today face the four-pronged task of meeting the world’s burgeoning food needs, maintaining consumer trust, remaining competitive and pursuing sustainability goals.
At the European Business Summit held in Brussels last week, stakeholders came together to discuss how companies could reconcile all of these, with particular focus on technological innovation - such as nanotechnology or GM crops – and consumer scepticism.
Innovation is met with opposition
Arūnas Vinčiūnas, head of cabinet for health and food safety at the European Commission said: "It is unfortunate that sometimes food industries try to modernise and innovate using new approaches and techniques in full respect of a scientific advice, but then meet the opposition and hostility from consumers and pressure groups."
But for Greenpeace director Jorgo Riss, this hostility was understandable. He said that innovation in the food industry was synonymous with mechanisation and complex chemical processes - inherently unsustainable from both an environmental and economical perspective.
According to Steve Osborn of Aurora Ceres Consultancy, however, companies had a vested interest in ensuring that innovative practices were sustainable.
“Innovation is about adding long term value after all, not just ‘newness’. There is a paradox and the food industry must work honestly with consumer groups and media alike to break this down,” he told FoodNavigator.
“It is also time for the food industry to raise its head above the parapet and demonstrate that much of the food we eat today – often perceived as natural and healthy – is as a result of food science and innovation.”
“We should be proud of things that have been achieved. This will help end the negative treatment of much of the food industry practices.
But Louise Payton, policy advisor at the Soil Association, does not see an inherent paradox in innovation, sustainability and consumer support.
“Countless exciting new agricultural technologies are being developed which are environmentally sustainable and have huge public support (...) These technologies have been designed to work well on farms, not just in labs.
"Innovations that fall under the scientific name of ‘agroecology’ are also being developed – the best ones often being collaborations between farmers and scientists, like the Duchy Future Farming Programme run by the Soil Association. There are definitely exciting times ahead for farmers and agricultural researchers."
Regulation, collaboration, communication
Meanwhile, for those issues where consumers felt innovation was compromising public safety, Vinčiūnas said that strict regulation was key to reassuring the public.
"…One of the key challenges as a legislator [is] how to make laws and regulate in the face of emerging technologies in situations where science appears to be questioned by either deeply-rooted conservative groups, societal opposition or for any other reason."
Osborn said that collaboration between all stakeholders was essential.
“This should never be about setting two sides against each other. Good practice comes from open dialogue and inclusion of the stakeholders – industry, regulators and consumers.
Self-regulation is important, as is enforced regulation, but the two should go hand in hand with self-regulation leading the way and defining the context of the enforcement.”
Meanwhile, Jonathan Thomas at Leatherhead market research told FoodNavigator that companies needed to communicate directly with their consumer base.
“Social media has made it easier for a larger number of people to comment on these issues [such as GM]. I feel companies can work with this - rather than against it - to develop new products.”
Camille Perrin, senior food policy officer at European consumer rights group BEUC echoed this need for communication. For consumers, transparency was the currency of trust and food manufacturers needed to be open about the risks associated with new production techniques as well as the benefits.
She said that clear, informative labelling was one way to go about this - but regretted that industry had shown so much reluctance over labelling of nano-food ingredients.