Armed with their smartphones and the web, today’s grocery shoppers are more knowledgeable and hungry for information than ever before. A growing desire to know how foods are manufactured, where and by whom, has made product transparency the new norm. For retailers and food companies, taking the lead in guiding consumers down a path of greater understanding is vital.
“Consumers are taking more interest in how animals are raised and slaughtered, and how meat is processed. As a result, authenticity and transparency are also under the microscope,” noted the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s “What’s in Store 2016” report. “This is where an educated staff can make a difference. Educating consumers about deli meat producers and the products can build a connection for them and help them to feel invested in their purchase.”
Chicago-based Label Insight’s “2016 Food Revolution Study” highlights consumers’ growing demand for product transparency and their distrust in the way product information is provided to them. Among other findings, only one-quarter of consumers surveyed said they trust the accuracy of food labels. Moreover, 35 percent of consumers said they are sometimes confused by what labels on food packages say, and 38 percent said they are concerned about eating products that contain information on labels they do not recognize.
Enter the clean label trend. While there’s no legal or regulatory definition for “clean label,” the consumer-driven movement to reinvent product labels has prompted food companies to simplify ingredient lists by removing or replacing unpronounceable ingredients and by highlighting the naturalness and origins of their food products.
Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Greenridge Farm, for example, in April 2016 announced that its artisanal deli meats, sausages, cheeses and condiments would display a fresh new look and a cleaner, all-natural ingredient line. The company’s products are now free of nitrates, nitrites (except for those naturally occurring in celery powder and sea salt), artificial flavors, artificial colors, phosphates, MSG, gluten and soy.
“We understand our consumers are not only seeking meats that taste great and are unique in flavor, but we’ve also seen an increased demand for products with cleaner ingredient lines and less ‘junk,’” explained Sebastian Madej, co-founder and chief executive officer of Greenridge Farm. “In addition to delivering on taste and quality, we took a close look at our products and made necessary changes to ensure that only ingredients found in nature are going into our meats.”
Similarly, Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods in April 2016 announced a companywide clean label initiative to simplify the ingredient statements of many of its retail products through the removal or replacement of ingredients. The company’s Natural Choice meats were developed nine years ago with a simplified ingredient statement in mind as well; they are 100 percent natural with zero preservatives, no artificial colors or MSG, no nitrites or nitrates added, and they have no gluten-containing ingredients, according to the company.
“We know that a growing number of consumers are looking for products made with simple, familiar ingredients,” said Scott Aakre, vice president of corporate innovation and new product development at Hormel Foods.
Openness and the Retailer
Food retailers are also playing lead roles in the shift toward cleaner labels and product transparency. Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., for example, continues to see growth in its Simple Truth and Simple Truth Organic store brands, representing products free from 101 artificial preservatives and ingredients. Simple Truth Organic products are USDA-certified organic, and Simple Truth natural products meet or exceed federal standards for natural food.
“These foods provide simple, uncomplicated and trustworthy solutions to the challenge of simply better living,” notes Kroger’s simpletruth.com website. “Clean, simple packaging and easy-to understand ingredient statements take the chore out of selecting organic, Free from 101, and some natural foods.”
Whole Foods Market, meanwhile, has promised GMO labeling storewide by 2018, making it the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency.
“Whole Foods Market has supported all state-level GMO labeling initiatives where we have stores with the hope that any bills that pass will lead to national legislation,” co-CEO of Whole Foods Walter Robb wrote in his blog on the Austin, Texas-based retailer’s website. “We’ve long supported the idea of a national policy requiring mandatory GMO labeling because it would help accelerate change in the marketplace and provide transparency for all customers nationwide.”
A long supporter of transparency, Whole Foods also lists ingredients on its website that the retailer considers unacceptable and notes they cannot be found in any food products it sells.
Beyond the Ingredient List
Consumers’ greater scrutiny of the foods they consume also has heightened standards for accountability and transparency in other areas, including the fair treatment of both animals and employees.
To improve animal well-being and increase transparency with consumers, for example, Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods this spring released a new sustainability report that includes plans to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its broiler chickens by September 2017. The animal well-being segment of the report also features information regarding the Tyson FarmCheck program, which involves on-farm, third-party animal well-being audits.
In addition to these initiatives, Tyson also covers corporate giving, environmental stewardship, product development and the workforce in its sustainability report.
“Our newest report shows we’re committed to being more transparent about how we do business and our desire for continuous improvement,” said Leigh Ann Johnston, director of sustainability for Tyson Foods. “We’re providing more details – from how we’re reducing antibiotic use and auditing animal well-being on farms to our management of water and workplace safety – than ever before. We recognize that today’s consumers expect access to a new level of information so they know the food they buy is produced responsibly.”