Joining Forces to Build Transparency & Trust Back Into Global Food System

It’s been said that the next best thing to eating food is talking about it, and today, there’s a lot to talk about in regard to the state of our broken global food system. While consumers have become savvy when it comes to reading food labels, they also feel confused, frustrated and have a sense of distrust about both ingredients and process… and rightly so, as many food industry insiders feel this way too.

Greg Shewmaker, founder of Food + Future says, “Despite the significant advancements in science and technology and regardless of geographical or socio-economic position, we know less about the food we eat today than at any other time in history. Positive changes in food are still being outpaced by the negative side effects of our current system. The system is working as it was designed to and is rewarding those incumbents unwilling to change and being bolstered by outdated policies.”

The good news is that Shewmaker is part of a powerful force of individuals, organizations, and companies coming together to work collaboratively on creating solutions that will lead to food transparency and building trust back into the global food system. I experienced this work in progress at the Sustainable Foods Summit.

The current food system has consumers purchasing groceries from a place of fear and confusion rather than trust and transparency. In response to this, the Sustainable Foods Summit gathered a variety of people representing different sectors of the food industry to share perspectives, insight, pain points, and possible solutions. Speakers and attendees included an incredibly diverse mix of manufacturers, brands, growers/producers, ingredient/raw material companies, distributors, retailers, industry organizations, food certification/verification agencies, scientists, technologists, and data analysts.

The discussions revolved around finding solutions to producing food that is safe, nutritious, honestly labeled and accessible while supporting sustainable farming methods geared toward wasting less food and resources.

Symptoms of our broken food system:

  • Food fraud is abundant.
  • Consumers are savvy yet extremely confused.
  • Because of the global supply chain, it’s difficult to catch and stop all types of food fraud.
  • Consumers do not know who to trust; government, brands, manufacturers or retailers.

Related to these symptoms, one of the best sessions I attended was the Authenticity and Traceability workshop. Here are a few of the key things I learned:

I. Food Fraud:

The following answers on food fraud are from Ken Ross’ presentation at the Summit. Ken is CEO of Global ID, which ‘helps companies navigate an increasingly regulated global food economy demanding higher levels of transparency, accountability, safety and sustainability.’

Q: What is food fraud and how much of the market is impacted?

A: Ross explains food fraud as ‘the act of intentionally placing a food commodity on the market that is not of the nature, substance, or quality claimed with the intention of deceiving the buyer, usually for the purpose of financial gain.’

  • 5–7% of US food supply is fraudulent.
  • $50 billion of food sold as something it’s not. Genuine (i.e. not-fraudulent) food producers are losing substantial revenue in the neighborhood of $10–15 billion annually.
  • In the USA: 80% of seafood is imported, but we only inspect only 1% of it.

Top 3 Types of Food Fraud:

Substitution: Substituting one species for another. Examples: tilapia for red snapper, horse meat for beef or one quality for another such as GMO for Non-GMO, organic for non-organic.

Adulteration: Intentionally debasing the quality of food either by adding or substituting inferior substances or by the removal of some valuable ingredient. Examples: adding beet sugar to honey, mixing other oils with olive oil, adding colorant to spices.

Mislabeling: Intentional false labeling of a product or altering the label to hide true origin, age or production practices. Examples: farm raised fish labeled as wild, conventional labeled as organic or altering expiration dates.

Q: Why is food fraud happening?

A: Ross says, “Food fraud has been talked about for decades. We can detect fraud pretty easily, through old and new applications but it can’t be solved as easily. Certification plays an important part in minimizing food fraud today, however, the globalization of the supply chain makes food fraud very difficult to control, as verification is just a snapshot in time that can change over the very next step in the manufacturing/production process. Consumers rely on retailers, but retailers rely on suppliers. This doesn’t work. Retailers need to work on a deeper level with suppliers to minimize food fraud. FSMA (The Food Safety Modernization Act) mandates actions to address fraud now and companies can be held criminally liable.”

The FDA website notes that FSMA is ‘the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years, signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011. It aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.’

Q: How can we cure the symptoms?

A: “A risk management approach is the most effective way for retailers to organize company wide efforts. A tactful approach through testing and certification helps but isn’t enough. Any true solution will need to involve a system wide approach and a broad group of stakeholders from industry, government, academia, and the community. It takes a village. We need multiple disciplines involved; scientific, academic, commercial labs, criminologists, and all the touch points that food goes through with the critical point being retailers.”

II. Food Contaminants:

Jaclyn Bowen, President of Ellipse Analytics, is a self proclaimed ‘buzzkill at dinner parties,’ because she knows so much about food contaminants and is open about sharing her knowledge. She is working to change the power of information imbalance between manufacturers and consumers through science, data, testing, and analytics.

Bowen’s universal truths about food transparency:

  • Consumer demand for transparency is not a fad and it’s only going to accelerate. Having tangible data backed by science is what helps in improving transparency.
  • Brands need to differentiate themselves to retail buyers and consumers by providing this science and data backed information to consumers.
  • Consumers want to know both what’s in their food and what’s not in their food.

Q: What are food contaminants?

A: Bowen says, “Contaminants compromise ingredient quality and have the long term potential to impact our health. Acute exposure of contaminants like lead, arsenic, antibiotics, parabens, and pesticide residues in the long term will cause adverse health issues. These contaminants are across the board, not just in food but in many consumer goods. Degradation of soil, packaging seepage, leaching and heating issues are just a few of the many issues that can cause contamination. Globalization of the food supply is greatly increasing the issue of contamination. Contaminants are never listed on packaging but this topic is quickly increasing in consumer interest.”

Bowen stresses the direness of the situation noting that, “The United Nations has met on health related incidents only four times: HIV, communicable diseases, Ebola virus and now — antibiotic resistant superbugs. In 2013, the CDC said the single biggest threat to public health and safety is the overuse of low grade antibiotics in livestock, contributing to the emergence of superbugs. Antibiotics are found in 30% of baby food products, impacting our most vulnerable population.”

After testing so many products, Bowen’s 5 ingredients to pay attention to are:

1. Root crops absorb metals in soil; carrots, potatoes, beets.

2. Rice: arsenic in rice is in the bran, so brown rice holds more arsenic than white rice.

3. Added vitamins and minerals can have toxic metals.

4. Chocolate; some chocolate can be high in the chemical cadmium.

5. Meat and Dairy: from an antibiotic perspective, even products that don’t contain meat or dairy may be contaminated through exposure on fields where manure from antibiotic fed animals has been deposited.

Best in class manufacturers are:

  • Brands that use product specifications that include ingredient limits.
  • Manufacturers who don’t use co-packers. 85% of food products are co-manufactured which can lead to weakness. OR if a co-packer is used, there is a long term and special relationship, where both parties are involved in the whole process.

Bowen’s Contaminant Small Truths:

  • Smaller suppliers are not necessarily better.
  • Organic and natural isn’t always better.
  • There is no correlation between price and product superiority…yet.

Jaclyn Bowen looks ahead and says, “The next frontier will come down to the safety of the ingredients due to transparency. Mainstream media is helping to educate consumers on contaminants and regulatory and retailer authorities are paying attention. Brands need to use data and science with retailers/buyers to differentiate their products. There is big market opportunity in telling the story about brand product based on purity, sharing the story of the brand’s strength and efforts toward transparency.”

Food fraud and contaminants are just two of the many issues that contribute to our broken global food system. The good news is that consumers are learning more each day and continue to demand more information, authenticity and transparency.

Some of the solutions include product labeling such as organic and free trade, two of the top concerns of consumers. Consumers care where and how our food is produced. Understanding the new and evolving label distinctions is another challenge as more certifications become available to promote sustainable sourcing and supply chain ethics. Brands are standing out by creating value from merging organic, sustainable and premium attributes in products.

The most important piece of the puzzle in generating trust and transparency in our food system is collaboration. We are in the midst of a major shift that will hopefully hit the tipping point of massive improvement soon. Greg Shewmaker, founder of Food + Future says, “Millions of individuals and hundreds of organizations of all shapes and sizes are already working from where they sit to create more democratized and decentralized food systems that better characterize the network age. What they need is a way to connect with each other because the shift isn’t happening fast enough. Food + Future aims to become a system in which the most diverse and creative minds worldwide are connected and empowered to learn, design, develop and participate in acts of collective creativity toward making food a solved problem for everyone.”

As consumers, we need to keep the conversation going by asking questions of brands, retailers, industry organizations and government so that we can gain clarity and trust of the foods we’re purchasing, consuming and serving to loved ones.

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