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Eat, pray, trust. This is why you should care about food transparency

Trust in the food supply impacts consumer confidence, and food companies and restaurants in the region are telling stories about the origin of their products.

Eat, pray, trust. This is why you should care about food transparency
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Having a bowl of salad with about 60% of the ingredients—romaine lettuce and cherry tomatoes-–grown in the country’s tech-enabled, temperature-controlled farms has extra goodness. In cities like Dubai and Doha, many might not think about the salad bars and restaurants they frequent. But the food transparency movement is growing. 

Food companies and restaurants are telling stories about the origin of the vegetables, fruits, and meats they use or sell, and it’s changing people’s food habits.

“The Middle East’s discerning consumer is tech-savvy and well-traveled. With easy access to information at their fingertips and issues like sustainability and health high on their agenda, food transparency is trending in this region,” says Mario Faria, Head of F&B, Le Gourmet, where produce is locally sourced, and ingredients are made from scratch.

“It is the new normal, and restaurants need to understand that openness and honesty about how a dish is cooked or where products are sourced from is essential to building loyalty,” adds Faria.

Once you start checking food packaging ingredients and nutritional facts, there is no turning back. Either obsessively or perfunctorily, it becomes something you always do, whether you shop at a grocery store or order online.

BEING AUTHENTIC TO CONSUMERS

Social media is becoming a powerful tool. An Instagram or Youtube video offers a chance for growers to connect directly with consumers about how they care for, harvest, and ship their produce. Being authentic is important to consumers these days.

There’s a growing thirst for information among consumers about if food production matches their values. Did farmers use pesticides? Did the produce travel a long distance from the fields?

“Consumers are more conscious about what goes into their food—ingredients, quality standards, and processes,” says Kenneth D’Costa, Managing Director, Barakat Group of Companies, the UAE’s homegrown fresh juice maker and supplier of fresh produce. 

He claims Barakat scouts “for the finest produce” through its global sourcing network. “We have pioneered cold chain management in the UAE and are adapting best practices to preserve the freshness from farm to table.

TRANSPARENCY TAKES A NEW MEANING

Creating a connection between the food chain and consumers has become a “big thing.” Many now promote local produce.

In 2021, Atlantis The Palm launched the Atlas project to introduce local menus in many restaurants. Cassette, Boca, and Lowe are some other restaurants championing homegrown produce in Dubai. Hilton also launched its Growth of the UAE menu, which used local ingredients to create Middle Eastern dishes for a limited time. 

“Today’s consumer doesn’t just want to be healthy or go green; they want to be a decision-maker. For them to make a conscious decision, they need access to that pertinent information—where was the food sourced from, nutritional value, allergens, ecological impact,” says Faria.

Experts say transparency has taken on new meaning as markets and consumers have evolved. 

“Back in the day, you didn’t have to think about allergies, but today it’s a given that you would be transparent about allergens,” says Faria.

The concept of transparency has gone beyond calories in a dish and the total milligrams of fat to reflect lifestyle changes today’s consumer makes. 

“From organic to antibiotic-free, sustainable to fair-trade, cage-free and non-GMO consumers are looking for ethics in farming, thinking about the welfare of animals, and the sourcing of the food they consume.”

But food marketing can be fuzzy. Without clear-cut definitions for words like “sustainable” or “natural,” food companies are cashing in on consumers’ growing interest in clean eating and environmentally friendly agriculture.

Consider some of the package labels: poultry sourced from “independent farmers,” cheeses containing “no antibiotics,” and “free-range” eggs from chickens that mind themselves and have diets richer in protein.

Although authorities in several parts of the Middle East, including Qatar and the UAE, are stricter and have increased the number of food inspections to ensure proper food preparation, storage, and transportation, there are nebulous definitions that consumers find hard to parse. Deceptive marketing by food brands gets away with claims that may not be what they seem.

Experts expect a flurry of litigation by advocacy groups to combat what they describe as a surge in deceptive marketing by food giants.

Globally, according to an Edelman report on trust, the food and beverage sector remains on shaky ground. And according to a Havas report, consumers have entered the “age of cynicism,” and trust is at an all-time low.

This is unsurprising considering the recent disquiet dominating the headlines – from food insecurity, climate change, GMOs, pesticides, and antibiotic resistance. The demand for greater accountability is one of the main drivers behind transparency.

As per D’Costa, consumers equate transparency with a full social, environmental, and labor standards roster. “Consumers need the reassurance of the best practices from their trusted brands.”

BLOCKCHAIN IMPROVES TRACEABILITY

Major food companies are already using blockchain to improve traceability and deter fraud. To allow customers to view the journey of each product—from locally-sourced chicken and microgreens–Majid Al Futtaim, the company behind Carrefour stores in the Middle East, with the help of IBM’s blockchain platform, has added scannable codes to its products in the UAE.

“The pandemic has accelerated consumer demand for hygiene, health, and safety. This made us offer new levels of transparency to our customers about the provenance of food via end-to-end visibility on products throughout its supply chain,” says Hani Weiss, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Retail. 

“By scanning a QR code with their smartphone, customers can instantly trace the entire lifecycle of food products—from origin through to every point of contact on its journey until it reaches their shopping basket,” Weiss adds.

Among global brands, food trust already counts Walmart, Kroger, Unilever, and Nestlé as clients. According to IBM’s General Manager of Blockchain Services, Jason Kelley, shipping a crate may involve “200-plus documents” alongside emails and phone calls.

Food safety became apparent during a traceback exercise that Walmart organized when it joined Food Trust in 2017. 

IBM and the retailer had to identify where a pack of sliced mangoes originated. Walmart’s food-safety team took six days, 22 hours, and 15 minutes to snake back through the supply chain. IBM apparently found the mangoes’ Mexican orchard in 2.2 seconds.

Blockchain is gaining prominence in the food industry as it’s tamper-proof. According to Juniper Research, blockchain technology will enable as much as $31 billion worth of food fraud to be saved globally within the next three years.

According to Weiss, the advantage of food traceability is that it offers strong proof of compliance through the entire value chain. “Moreover, transparency and traceability create a remarkable business opportunity to benefit from brand differentiation, and using blockchain actively helps safeguard consumer satisfaction and create robust customer loyalty and trust.”

Barakat relies on end-to-end cloud-based temperature sensors to ensure the cold chain is not compromised throughout its operations. “We also have stringent quality checks at receiving, pre-sorting, inspection, and dispatch stages. All quality concerns are traced back to the specific lot, facility, origin, and vendor as per food safety standards,” says D’Costa.

As per D’Costa, end-to-end traceability is a challenge. “But times are changing. As much as possible, we aim to source locally to ensure traceability across the entire supply chain—from farms to retailers and to table to deliver transparency to end-consumers.”

With words like “sustainable” and “healthy” bandied around together in trite “good for you, good for the planet” taglines, businesses promoting food transparency are not only about educating the consumers; it’s also a marketing strategy. 

And when done right, it can spawn more thoughtful consumers with a greater appreciation for what goes into their shopping carts and on their plates.

“We try to educate them to make better decisions. By being transparent about where we source our food and gourmet products, we tell our story and involve them in the process. This builds higher levels of brand loyalty through increased levels of trust,” adds Faria.

Note to readers: We reached out to one of the biggest quick-service restaurant chains, which has campaigned for food trust. But the spokesperson declined to comment, citing reasons of being “pulled into planning for a few other campaigns.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More

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