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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Growing food safety concerns could be boon for naturals

Food safety concerns may be good news for the natural and organic industry, even if consumers hold retailers more responsible for communicating recalls.

A new survey showing consumers have growing concerns about the food they eat could mean a boost for the naturals industry. But along with the lift comes added responsibility on the part of manufacturers and retailers. That's because, according to the Deloitte 2011 Consumer Food and Product Insights Survey, consumers are not only more aware of food safety issues, they also "want more information from more resources" about food recalls.

"Consumers want checks and balances in the information they receive and are insisting on a greater level of transparency about the safety, ingredients and origin of products," said Pat Conroy, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and U.S. consumer products practice leader. "This is a wake-up call for consumer products companies; they need to get ahead of this shift and work more directly with consumers to build brand advocates and stronger customer relations."

Among the survey’s key results:

  • 73 percent of respondents said they were more concerned about the food they eat than they were five years ago vs. 65 percent of respondents in 2010.
  • 68 percent said they had never heard of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in January. The legislation gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to order product recalls, requires food manufacturers to keep more detailed food safety plans and allows the FDA greater access to food company records.
  • 73 percent said manufacturers should be responsible for communicating food recall information, 69 percent said it’s the government’s responsibility. But consumers also placed slightly more responsibility on retailers in this year’s survey: 56 percent vs. 53 percent in 2010. And responsibility placed on advocacy groups grew from 23 percent in 2010 to 35 percent this year.

"The Food Safety Modernization Act is in place, but its effects have yet to trickle down to consumers," Conroy said. "This is the time for consumer product companies to more actively talk about the safety and health of their brands."

Good news for naturals?

Debby Swoboda of Stuart, Fla.-based Debby Swoboda Marketing Solutions said she’s not surprised by the growing concern about food safety and sees it as both a burden and a blessing for natural products retailers.

In particular, she noted the increase in the number of consumers who place responsibility on retailers for communicating food recall information. "That’s a lot to put on a small retailer," she said. "But I think that could parley into trust. Consumers are more savvy. You have to rely on your trusted source. Retailers have a real opportunity to educate consumers."

Cara Welch, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Products Association, also reasoned that consumer concerns about product safety should help boost sales of natural products because retailers in the channel are known for their adherence to strict standards.

One way retailers can help assuage consumer food-safety fears is to sure to tell customers "where their food and other products come from," Swoboda said. Locally produced natural and organic food could become attractive to consumers "because you have more control over the source," she added.

PCC Naturals in Seattle works to help allay customers' "constant concerns" about food safety by maintaining "close relationships with suppliers, especially producers of fresh and raw food products," said Russ Ruby, the chain's director of merchandising. The retailer also "constantly reinforces proper food handling procedures with staff to ensure that products are safe," Ruby added. According to PCC Spokeswoman Diana Crane, the store advises shoppers about PCC standards through its website, monthly newspaper and in-store signage.

Retailers also must become more familiar with new food safety regulations and stay up-to-date on product recalls so that they can pass along that information to their customers, Swoboda said. The FDA recently revamped its product recall site, making easier for retailers and consumers to get the lowdown on recalls going back to 2009. 

Welch said the survey results signal that the NPA, as well as other natural and organic trade associations, should continue to work with their industry members, which include retailers, to educate consumers about food safety legislation and offer information for consumers online. "We all can do more to make sure the public is aware of the regulations and protections that safeguard their food," Welch said.

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