Building the foundations of food safety and trust
Professor Moira Dean from Queens University Belfast explains how she, as part of the Food Fortress research team, has developed a toolkit to measure consumer trust in different aspects of the food chain.
Professor Moira Dean is an expert in Consumer Psychology & Food Security and has been working on the EIT Food Project ‘Food Fortress’ since 2018. Led by Professor Chris Elliott, the project aims to give consumers and other key stakeholders in the food industry a transparent view of a food product’s journey to the consumer throughout its life, or ‘from farm-to-fork’ as it is often known. Moira sees this is an important gap that needed filling:
“Currently actors within the food sector only have to trace their food chain inputs back to the immediate supplier and be able to identify who their product has been supplied to; full farm-to-fork traceability is therefore not a requirement. The Food Fortress project is looking to gain consumer trust in the sourcing, processing, and retailing of a product through improving the transparency of the whole supply chain by using a combination of technologies.”
The project is a cross-industry and cross-European collaboration between key organisational members of EIT Food. In the UK there is representation from Queen’s University Belfast, Waitrose supermarket, ABP Food Group and Analytics Engines; plus Azti from Spain, and Sodexo from France.
Building a toolkit to measure consumer trust in food
In 2018 the Food Fortress trust team focused on building a solid methodology for the toolkit. This involved reviewing the current research literature on trust and surveying 1,500 consumers on their attitude to trust across the four European countries of UK, Finland, Germany & Greece. Through their research they found that it is possible to measure trust in different aspects of the food chain.
The findings from this research have helped build a toolkit that contains 45 ‘items’ and measures six different levels of trust. For example, if you want to measure how much consumers trust pork chops produced in the UK, then there’s a tool for that; if you want to measure how much people trust or distrust others (similar to a personality characteristic), there are tools for that. In this way, the Food Fortress trust toolkit can be used to measure trust in different aspects of the food chain (actors, food products and organisations) as well as general trust, which compares to the EIT Food’s Trust Tracker that is designed to measure consumer confidence in the entire food sector over time.
How consumers could soon be tracking journeys of the food they buy
Now that the tool kit has been created and validated, Moira and her team are looking to identify and define tangible project outcomes for consumers in 2019. They will initially be working with consumers to get their feedback on labels or scannable QR codes that provide information on the provenance of specific food products of interest, and in future they’d like to turn this into a user-friendly app. In the near-term they want to trial this consumer-feedback in a supermarket and cafeteria setting, to see if this changes a consumer’s decision-making in different food environments. Moira is particularly interested to understand if having greater transparency on where their food comes from will enhance the consumer’s perception of value and trust:
“Our hope is that if we can demonstrate to consumers where a food has come from and that it is safe and of high quality, we can improve the value of the food product in the consumer’s eyes and thereby encourage food companies to invest more in making food transparency a greater focus.”
The challenge of improving consumer trust in food
Moira is fully aware that improving trust in the food that we eat is complicated. Firstly, not all consumers will be willing to pay a price premium for full farm-to-fork traceability:
“One of our studies found that just over one quarter of people are unwilling to pay any price premium for beef steak/mince with full farm-to-fork traceability”.
It follows that for many people who are food price sensitive, they will be unwilling to pay any more money for information that proves the safety and provenance of the food they eat. However, Moira is hopeful that as long as there are enough people interested in food transparency, that this will drive the industry to innovate and invest money. Ultimately if this kind of information becomes standardised then everyone will benefit.
Another challenge facing the Food Fortress trust team is being able to provide the right kind of information on each food product once the consumer has scanned the food label. For example, it might be possible to prove with certainty that a steak came from a specific cow, but if the product is beef mince that comes from several cows, will it be enough for consumers if you can only prove that it came from a certain farm, or even a certain area? It is these types of challenges that Moira and her team are looking forward to getting their teeth into in 2019.
Professor Moira Dean is Professor of Consumer Psychology and Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast. She has carried out research on the psychology of food choice and risk perceptions in the areas of organic food, wholegrain, portion size, healthy shopping and food labelling, with children, adults and older people.
About the author: Matt Eastland is the Writer and Content Manager for EIT Food. He holds a degree in Politics and Masters in Renewables. He is passionate about the connections between food, sustainability and innovation.