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Walking the Talk
Why the Food Industry Can’t Risk Anything Less Than ‘Radical Transparency’

As food supply chains grow more complex, consumers are setting higher expectations for food quality, safety and sustainability as they seek more aspirational choices around what they eat. But food scares continue to happen, one of the most famous being the horse meat scandal in 2013.

As food supply chains grow more complex, consumers are setting higher expectations for food quality, safety and sustainability as they seek more aspirational choices around what they eat. But food scares continue to happen, one of the most famous being the horse meat scandal in 2013.

Certainly in the UK, public trust in the food system remains low, with supermarkets coming under increased scrutiny regarding their operations across a range of activities, from plastic packaging use through product branding to tackling food waste. Further upstream in the supply chain, British food regulators launched a national review of the meat industry earlier this year following a series of high-profile food safety breaches at processing factories.

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While there are no quick or easy solutions to rebuilding consumer confidence in a somewhat fragile food system, progressive companies such as Cranswick are hoping to spark debate on the issue. Last week, the British meat manufacturer released a report, Radical Transparency: The rise of disruptive consumerism — in association with sustainability consultants Veris Strategies — to highlight the risks that food companies face if they don’t take action to address the growing issue of farm to fork provenance.

“The exposure that results from food scandals is never good news for anybody,” Cranswick CEO Adam Couch told Sustainable Brands. “It doesn’t reflect well on the industry, overall, but you have to put into perspective that these are very much on the fringes of the industry. If you take a company like ourselves — we have over 300 compliance staff working to ensure food safety, food integrity, quality and provenance.”

But Couch believes the food industry is entering a new era of transparency which will require many companies to take a more radical approach when it comes to demonstrating accountability.

“We already invest heavily in integrated supply chains to offer full traceability from farm to fork, and insist on high standards pertaining to ethics and animal welfare,” he says. “But if we are to help futureproof the entire industry, we will have to work with others to deliver the scale and pace of change required.”

The report maps out how this might be achieved. Technology is one area highlighted. The study suggests technologies such as blockchain will play a huge role in enabling food companies to disclose the level of data required by both customers and consumers through their ability to harvest tamper-proof data on the origin and authenticity of food products. In the future, this could enable shoppers to access real-time information on traceability issues from the convenience of their smartphone as part of an ‘open kitchen’ approach.

The use of on-pack certification labels and logos could also offer an innovative yet simple route to communicate this information to consumers in a matter of seconds. The report goes on to add that data will continue to play a pivotal role in communication, as consumers look for food companies to move away from storytelling efforts towards evidence-based, verified accounts as a solid source of transparent information.

Couch says adopting these type of systems is crucial if consumer confidence is to be rebuilt. He points to his company’s leadership on issues such as food audits as a case in point: “We’ve led the calls for unannounced audits; we are subject to some of the most stringent audits that the industry has to offer. We’ve had CCTV footage within our facilities for 10 years, and only now is that about to be subject to legislation. The industry has to become more transparent.”

According to the report, blockchain could drive new levels of openness and efficiency when it comes to food audits, helping to facilitate an ‘open book’ auditing regime in which industry stakeholders have access to all audit outcomes. Audits tend to be time-consuming, repetitive and undertaken in isolation from each other, but adopting such an approach, when combined with data analytics, could help auditors identify trends and cases that require further scrutiny so they can target resources more effectively.

Cranswick’s group commercial director, Jim Brisby, says that the UK food retail sector is a “pretty progressive bunch” that strives to have clarity of supply chains and visibility of where things come from. That said, he acknowledges that the sector faces cost pressures and that these pressures, in some instances, could potentially hamper such efforts.

Brisby feels that the whole food supply chain – not just the retail end – needs to become more visible, so customers can have a deeper connection with where their food comes from: “There’s a lot more that manufacturers like ourselves need to do to make food more convenient, healthier and sustainable to answer all the needs of the modern shopper.”

The report highlights significant opportunities for integration along the food supply chain in order to build this collective transparency. Producers could develop more strategic relationships with retailers, creating opportunities for joint investment and innovation. One example is whole crop purchasing, whereby buyers and manufacturers commit to purchasing a producer’s entire crop and redistributing any food that doesn’t meet specification to other parts of the supply chain.

On a wider level, cross-sector partnerships could help unlock innovation, particularly for open data solutions. Blue Number Initiative is a far-reaching collaboration between various stakeholders — including the UN Global Compact and Rainforest Alliance — to produce a global register of farms and growers, with the aim to improve farm-to-fork product traceability through a single communication and technology standard.

Meanwhile, Cranswick is working with the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board on an electronic tagging project which uses RFID pig ear tags and DNA to link finished pork meat products back to their place of origin, providing provenance from birth to slaughterhouse.