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Harnessing technology for more meaningful ethical claims

Article-Harnessing technology for more meaningful ethical claims

A new generation of technologies is helping provide reassurance that foods and ingredients really are what they say they are, as ethical claims have multiplied.

An increasing number of food and beverage companies is keen to highlight their ethical credentials – but consumers are often sceptical. ‘Transparency Triumphs’ was Innova Market Insights’ top trend pick for 2021 as the public seeks more information – and reassurance – about the origins of their food.

“What we find brands are looking for – particularly startups – is how to get the ‘right certification’,” said Sarah Atkins, CMO and Membership Director at standards organisation GS1 UK. “It is hard to know what you need to assure and protect the consumer.”

That might mean ensuring a product is free from a particular ingredient, or that it is fairly traded, organic or ethically sourced, but products and ingredients must be traceable for a host of other reasons, such as efficient tracking of foodborne illness outbreaks or fraudulent food ingredients.

Supply chain transparency

The barcode has done a lot of heavy lifting in communicating product information for the past 50 years, but more sophisticated technologies now are coming to the fore. These include radio frequency identification (RFID), digital watermarks on fresh produce, harnessing satellite imagery, and blockchain. Each has advantages for different kinds of foods, ingredients and situations. RFID, for instance, can be used at a distance to check information about temperature and relative humidity, which is important to ensure food safety.

“We exist to drive greater trust and transparency around product data,” Atkins said. “The standards that we produce allow people to capture that data in a structured way…Now it is about driving traceability and transparency throughout the supply chain. You can see blockchain being used, and that is definitely on the horizon to serve greater information to consumers.”


Filling the gaps

Blockchain provides a permanent digital record of ingredients each time they change hands, from the farm to the end consumer. The record is accessible to everyone involved, but cannot be altered without authorisation from every participant in the chain. IBM is using blockchain to connect complex commodity ingredient supply chains like those for coffee, cocoa, olive oil and palm oil, for example. These typically might have visibility gaps, especially when supply comes from smallholder farmers, or from developing countries without strong regulation.

GS1 also has developed a range of systems that can be used for food, including Digital Link, which Atkins says works more like a QR code than a barcode, providing information from the producer, as well as copies of certifications, and everything then goes through one portal to the consumer.

Investment… and legislation?

However, she says there is still hesitancy among food manufacturers to invest in these systems.

“Strides are being made in digitisation within the supply chain,” she said. “The technology is there but you need the desire to have the data captured. That’s when you get into a chicken and egg situation. When will the brands invest in this technology?”

According to Innova, the prevalence of ethical claims related to animals, people or the environment on new food and drink products grew 47% from 2013 to 2017, with animal-friendly claims among those leading the way. Organic certification also touches on animal welfare and improved environmental practices, and FiBL data show sales of organic certified foods and beverages more than doubled in Europe from 2010 to 2019.

But Atkins suggests that brands, retailers and legislators will need to join forces to establish the infrastructure needed for full traceability.

“We are at the start of the journey on this rather than it being front and centre because it is not a priority for consumers right now,” she said.

“I do believe that there is a change, but most consumers are still focused on how to get affordable food in their kitchen cupboards. The challenge is how to make people’s societal needs more affordable. People are expecting organic or free range to be almost a benchmark – they certainly expect it to be an option.”