5 key issues for the food industry in 2016

Looking forward to 2016, there are 5 key areas in the food sector that are likely to be significant:

  1. Sustainability

Sustainability can be a grey area but, in 2016, it and all it encompasses will be key for food companies, underpinning marketing, new product development and consumer choice.

The concept of sustainability will cover a multitude of aspects. It is the support of localism and UK based producers with associated shorter more transparent supply chains. It is the clarity of the link between the purchased product and how it was produced as well as the consumer’s own decision on the ethics of how that product was produced; whether that is the support of local producers, welfare or environmental concerns.

  1. Social media & brand reputation

Social media has become mainstream and its’ saturation means that consumers are empowered to group together, circulate information and start viral campaigns much more quickly and effectively than ever before. This brings risks as well as opportunity for food companies.

If a company does not have a dedicated social media policy which also dovetails into their complaints handling process, crisis management and communications policy they are exposed to significant risk.

Additionally, the potential for adverse online publicity is having greater resonance, even over and above any legislated penalties, this is likely to be an ongoing trend. For example, the requirement under The Modern Slavery Act 2015 art 54 is that companies of a particular size must publish a statement on the risk of forced labour within the entire length of their supply chain via a prominent link on their website homepage. This recognises the importance of the reputation of a company via its’ presence online in how its’ brand is perceived –consumers will be reluctant to align themselves with an ethically toxic product.

  1. ‘Junk’ science

Food, (how it is produced, what it contains, what effect it may have,) is an emotive subject. Whilst sustenance for life has been a necessity since time immemorial, the increased sensitivity of testing for different chemicals and the science of mass production combined with campaigns that seek to simplify complex biological processes into one line slogans potentially demonising certain food categories can breed fear and distrust of certain foods or forms of processing.

The target of these campaigns varies; it has been salt and now sugar is at the forefront. But no category is safe as has been seen from the recent references linking processed red meats with cancer. Extrapolating from minor statistical correlations to real life scenarios via the example of sausages ‘doubling’ the risk of heart attacks is ‘junk’ science or at least junk science reporting.

It is likely that 2016 will be further taken hostage to this pseudo-science reporting and scare-mongering of certain foods. For example, we are likely to see the Advertising Standards Authority restrict advertising of certain foods high in fat, salt and sugar before a certain time despite their own earlier references to the report of Professor David Buckingham that food choice is only one factor in obesity and the impact of advertising is only very small.

Food companies should ensure they are protected from any claims of liability or reputational harm and respond to new developments in science and medicine or test results that concern any matters of food safety or quality of any of their ingredients or products. It is advised that they adopt a clear position on any matter of developing scientific opinion and that this is part of a robust risk assessment process .

However, the corollary to this will be increased interest in those products perceived as more ‘natural’ or ‘authentic’; which leads us on to:…

  1. Foods ‘with benefits’

The consumer interest in health and nutrition will continue into 2016. Unique selling points about the product and any extra benefits it can give will provide a competitive edge.

Care should be taken to avoid denigrating any competitor product and the making of any health claim is strictly regulated. The criteria for making a nutrition claim, whether explicitly or implicitly, is equally strictly set in EU law. The challenge to reformulate so that these claims can be made will continue.

However, there will also be an increase in ‘voluntary’ claims such as ‘free from…’ and lifestyle choices such as the ‘farm assured’ or welfare labels. Where voluntary claims are made there is a heightened responsibility for food companies to ensure that these are appropriately evidenced and substantiated.

  1. Packaging / Waste

In October 2015 the 5p per plastic bag requirement was introduced to England. In 2016 it is likely the use of packaging to add value, innovation and decrease waste will be increasingly scrutinised.

In such a competitive industry the design of your product packaging can set it apart from rivals and is an area that still has much scope for improvement.

Very best wishes for 2016 and all it will bring with it.

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