business news in context, analysis with attitude

PARIS – Something interesting is happening here at the fifth annual CIES International Food Safety Conference.

We started off talking about food safety. But somehow, we veered into a broader discussion that included obesity and nutrition.

For some people here, though, this hardly takes the conference off track, but rather expands it to include different elements of the same discussion, elements that at least some people need to be included together in any frank discussion of the safety issue.

Here’s how the thinking goes, according to Alfons Schmid, vice president of food safety and consumer affairs at Royal Ahold. Since food safety initiatives are concerned with making sure that the food that people eat won’t hurt them, isn’t it logical to also make sure that the food they eat isn’t served in too-large quantities, and does not have too much fat, salt, etc…?

“It is a more holistic approach to food safety,” Schmid said, noting that he intends to take a leadership role in getting other CIES member companies to adopt the same strategy.

In other words, food safety needs to be more broadly defined as human safety.

It was, in fact, a strategy tacitly endorsed by Paola Testori-Coggi, director of food safety and health & consumer protection for the European Commission. In an address to the conference, she suggested that the same infrastructure that has been built to deal with food safety issues could be easily adapted to address obesity concerns.

This approach, to be sure, is not universally sanctioned. We spoke to a number of delegates to the conference – both European and American – who felt that such an holistic approach to food safety might actually have the effect of taking the main mission off course.

What struck us about this approach, however, is that it seems in synch with some of the research done by the Hartman Group. In the video produced by MNB and being shown at the conference this afternoon, Hartman COO Laurie Demeritt says the following about consumer behavior:

“Consumers give a lot of lip service about spending a lot of time reading labels but when we actually are with them what we’re finding is that they’re just looking in most cases for one or two things on the label and it doesn’t have anything to do with food safety in most cases. They have to do with avoiding certain ingredients like sugar or looking for ingredients they want like protein. And so they define that as label reading but in most cases it’s a very cursory two to three second look at the label and very infrequently does it have anything to do with food safety. Food safety in the consumers’ mind concerns things that are free of which we can speak to more contaminants, bacteria, whatnot clean or are properly processed in the words of the consumer and those are things they don’t necessarily look at on the label. It’s things they already believe about the product or believe the retailers taking care for them.”

In essence, this means that consumers may be defining food safety both more narrowly and more broadly than the industry does.

In the end, this is something that food manufacturers and retailers need to know, and probably need to consider as they develop strategies and initiatives dealing with both food safety and nutrition/obesity issues. At the very least, this holistic and inclusive approach needs to be the subject of open and considered debate both in the US and elsewhere in the world.
KC's View: