Keeping it safe and traceable throughout the food supply chain

Connecting with consumers is becoming increasingly important as digital distractions increase and shoppers spread their budgets across multiple trips to the store. And while food retailers are constantly seeking new ways to connect with shoppers via mobile channels and inside the stores, there is another piece of the puzzle that is somewhat less glamorous but just as important -- food safety. Food safety might not be one of the first terms that comes to mind when dealing with engaging and connecting with consumers, but giving shoppers information about the quality of the foods they buy and where their food came from can be vital when establishing trusting and meaningful relationships among retailers and shoppers.

When it comes to food safety, food retailers are on the “front lines” due to the fact that they have direct contact with the consumer, according to Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs for the Food Marketing Institute. Food retailers often also deal with food safety in a much different part of the supply chain when it comes to the production of private-label items, she said.

“We’re kind of embedded into the food industry and the supply chain of so many products that retailers really have a pretty strong voice in the supply chain,” Thesmar said.

And there has never been a time when consumers have demanded more information about their food and where it came from, she said. Whether a consumer is looking for complete traceability in a product’s supply chain, or she is looking for a few specific facts about a product, demand for food safety and traceability is at an all-time high.

Food retailers are “the closest step in the supply chain to consumers and retailers are always going to give consumers what they want,” Thesmar said. “They want to have more information about the food they purchase, they’re curious about production methods, they’re curious about what’s in their food, the ingredients.”

For some retailers, providing shoppers with information about food safety and tracing back through the supply chain is as simple as adding to food labels or putting up additional signs. For others, it can be more technological, using in-store kiosks, company websites and other things like QR codes to give shoppers information about the product within the retail environment or even further back in the supply chain.

“There are multiple ways right now where we’re seeing this information being provided to the consumer, probably the most obvious way is the food label, and then I think the newer ways are various forms of technology,” Thesmar said.

When it comes to food safety, nearly all consumers have their own routines for keeping their food safe at home, according to FMI data, but an increasing number of shoppers want to know that their food has been treated safely throughout the entire supply chain. More than 40% of consumers turn to food retailers to make sure their food is safe, and 93% think food retailers are successful at doing so, according to FMI’s U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2015 report. The organization will present this year’s findings about shopper trends at the FMI Connect show next week in Chicago.

“Overall, there is a generally high level of confidence in the food supply found at grocers, which has remained consistent over the past ten years,” the report said.

A significant part of this trend lies in communications between food retailers and shoppers, especially when it comes to food safety issues like recalls. And in an industry as varied and vast as food retail, there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution to establishing effective food safety communications between retailers and shoppers and really holding onto that well-established trust shoppers have in grocers when it comes to delivering safe products.

To communicate food safety and provide important information that traces back through the supply chain, each retailer has to talk to customers, find out what information is most important to them and be willing to provide that information, Thesmar said. Then, the retailer must decide what the most appropriate method is for sharing that information with their customers. For example, customers of a grocer in a small rural community might not want to get as technical as scanning a QR code to access product information, but that method could work well for a food retailer in a metropolitan area.

“The delivery method needs to fit the personality of the retailer and the customer,” Thesmar said. “So knowing what that personality is and what’s going to be an appropriate communication mechanism for the customers of that particular retail store is key.”

That being said, there is still work to be done when it comes to communicating effectively with shoppers, according to FMI’s data.

Shoppers want retailers to be proactive when it comes to food safety, and, in particular, food recalls, with more than half saying they would prefer to be notified by retailers via e-mail when there is a recall, but only 7% saying they actually receive e-mail notifications from grocers when there is a recall, the FMI report found. Shoppers also think that recall notifications on shelves and at checkouts in the stores would be helpful communications when it comes to food safety.

“This suggests that expanded or enhanced e-mail outreach regarding recalls would help retailers better align with shopper communications preferences,” the report said.

One of the biggest challenges for food retailers is keeping up with consumers’ increasing demand for information about the foods they eat and where they come from, Thesmar said.

“It’s not as simple as just sharing the information with consumers, there are multiple checks along the way to make sure that the information that is being shared is accurate,” she said.

Retailers ensure that accurate information makes its way to consumers through quality checks, tests, audits between retailers and suppliers and other methods, and technology is playing a growing role in this aspect of the supply chain. A decade ago, everything was done on paper, Thesmar said. Today, some things are still done on paper, but many things are done electronically. And in another 10 years, there will be even more streamlined information and further visibility into the supply chain.

FMI is involved in helping the evolution along, whether through its work with the Institute of Food Technologists’ Global Food Traceability Center on industry-wide best practices and framework for streamlined traceability systems, or its partnership with software firm ReposiTrak on finding solutions that allow retailers to have linear visibility throughout the supply chain and connect the many different pieces that bring food items from the farm to store shelves. And food safety and transparency and the technology that deals with them will be one of the many topics covered at the FMI Connect show by exhibitors and other presenters.

At the end of the day, the state of food safety and supply chain traceability is an ever-evolving issue that food retailers must keep up with to really connect with and engage shoppers, Thesmar said.

“Knowing your customer and having that relationship with the customer is where it all starts,” she said. “It’s a great conversation to have, and I think we’re just going to see an increase in the transparency in the food supply chain. Consumers just want to know where their food is from.”

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