By Katherine Rich, Chief Executive, NZ Food and Grocery Council

"Getting food labelling right is critical to any food business. Consumers rely on it, and sometimes it’s a matter of life and death. Food safety in New Zealand is assumed, but there are many countries where consumers don’t have the same faith, and for a good reason.

Imagine, as a retailer, not being entirely sure of the food you’re selling every day, or as a parent what you’re putting in your children’s lunchboxes or on the dinner table. In the food industry, it’ll always be a case of managing risk rather than eliminating it altogether. Why? Food is a living product, with variable inputs, and even when there are the best systems in the world, human beings are not perfect.

As we see from time to time, even the best food workers can make mistakes. But can consumers rely on labels for an accurate list of ingredients to avoid triggering an allergy, or that the nutrition and health claims about the content of nutrients are fair and accurate?

The answer is yes; consumers can rely on labels. Producers place huge importance on accuracy. Billions of products are sold each year perfectly and accurately labelled. Over the years in New Zealand, there have been only a minuscule number of breaches of the Food Standards Code, most due to oversight. As technology improves so do consumer expectations. Consumers are demanding more transparency around how safe products are, what’s in them, how they’re made, and the source and integrity of ingredients. Food companies understand this and work hard to meet these changing expectations.

Research shows shoppers are “hungry” for more transparency. For example, some 70 percent of those in a recent survey said they were more interested in the social, health, environment, and safety credentials of the products they buy than they are with the companies that made them.  That survey was conducted by global retailer and manufacturer organisation the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) for a guide to help businesses provide shoppers with more information about products.

The result is the Honest Product Guide, which looks at what experts and shoppers say is the most important aspect of transparency: the honesty of products. It reveals insights into what shoppers want and offers a guide on how companies can best meet that.

It says transparency is a “hot topic” for business, and suppliers and retailers understand why. Some 78 percent of shoppers surveyed said they trusted transparent brands more than they do those that aren’t transparent, 94 percent are likely to be loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency, 73 percent would be willing to pay more for a product that offers complete transparency, and 40 percent would switch from their preferred brand to one that offered more transparency.

But while that must be very enticing to companies, the guide says many still protect their commercial information, data and insight. The potential downside is that most shoppers (74 percent of those surveyed) seek more information on the internet, and that exposes them to consumer reviews, activist websites and random tweets – no doubt interesting reading, but often of questionable reliability.

For products to be trustworthy in the eyes of shoppers, the guide says companies need to enhance their product proof information, and it points to the three elements of an honest company: corporate practice (communicates policy and performance clearly), product proof (communicates proof to shoppers), and brand purpose (communicates values and belief to shoppers). It gives examples of what “the new honest brands” are doing to meet consumers’ demand for transparency and leveraging that to build trust.

One is Dutch confectionery company Tony’s Chocolonely, whose corporate practice includes an annual update on progress along with the roadmap to slave-free chocolate. Under product proof is the front-of-pack claim, “Together we make chocolate 100 percent slave free”, Fairtrade logo and details of slave-free claim on the back, plus website link for further information, and a chocolate bar that breaks into unequally-sized pieces to symbolise the inequality of the industry. Under brand purpose it says it is “Crazy about chocolate, serious about people”.

The guide offers tools for business, including a checklist asking such questions as, “does the product answer real consumer questions to help them make decisions, or is what’s shared just what the company wants to tell?”

In these times of rapidly changing shopper demands, the Honest Product Guide is a tool that companies of all sizes should look at, even if to reaffirm what they’re already doing. It can be accessed on the CGF website"