Study shows 83% of consumers demand increased transparency and information on food products

British consumers have had their trust in the food industry severely dented by food scandals such as the horsemeat crisis, according to independent research commissioned by Trace One.

It found 63% of shoppers said their trust in the food industry had been damaged by revelations such as the horsemeat crisis; along with incidents in West Yorkshire and Leicester where food contents were found to be vastly different from their labels. However, shoppers were also clear on what retailers needed to do to win their trust back: 83% stated they want increased transparency and information for food products, in order to be more confident in the origin of food products and their ingredients.

“UK consumers spent £112bn on food and drink in 2013. If a drop in trust affects shoppers’ spending by even a single percent, that is a huge amount of lost revenue for the industry,” said Nick Martin, senior vice president, Northern Europe at Trace One.

“Consumers are clear on what needs to be done: they need more information, and it needs to be completely transparent. While this may seem like a risk of flooding consumers with data, 21st century shoppers are increasingly savvy. They want to know more information on the products they consume; are more likely to notice health scares; and will remain aware of those scares for longer. Against this backdrop, it is crucial that consumers get the information they need, when they need it. It is better to share as much as possible rather than risk holding back what consumers might see as crucial facts.”

The survey also asked shoppers which information on food packaging was the most important, and most likely to influence their purchasing decisions.

Health information, for example calorie or fat counts, was the clear winner; 60% listed it as the first or second most important information on a label, with 36% and 24% in total. In contrast, only 10% listed it as the least important. At the other end of the scale ethics, such as whether food was fair trade or battery farmed, was seen as the least important to shoppers. Only 9% of consumers placed it as the most important consideration, while almost half (49%) placed it last or second from last. Given the attention paid to organic and GM foods, farming methods were also important to consumers. While 15% ranked them as the most important consideration, only 37% ranked them as the least or second least; lower than any other factor.

Despite ranking it the highest, consumers could not agree on what specific health information they needed the most. When choosing between sugar and fat content, 52% claimed sugar was most important and 48% fat, a nearly equal split.

Interestingly, the statistics across the board showed clear differences by age. The over-65s showed the greatest loss of trust in the food industry; were most demanding of extra information and transparency on products; and were disproportionally concerned about products’ country of origin. In comparison, 16-25-year-olds showed the least trust lost in the food industry and were the age group most concerned about information on ethics.

The survey also showed that, in an attempt to obey regulations and protect consumer health, the food industry has over-used warning labels on products to the point that they are seen as meaningless. 64% of shoppers stated that allergy warnings are overused so much that products most probably don’t contain anything harmful to allergy sufferers.

“Along with withholding information, the easiest way to lose the trust of consumers is to only give them information they feel is worthless,” continued Nick Martin. “While the industry is bound by law to include allergy information, it needs to use food labelling to clearly state the exact reason for any warning, so consumers can understand the precise risks they face and make an informed judgement. More broadly, the industry needs to be sure it is giving consumers what they want and need: whether ensuring that health and farming information is clearly and comprehensively displayed, or targeting products at older or younger shoppers with more specific country of origin or ethics information. In order to do this we need collaboration and transparency across the industry, from the farm to the factory to the shop shelf. Only with this can retailers be certain that they are attracting customers and securing their trust.”

The study, conducted by TNS on behalf of Trace One, consisted of 2,287 GB adults aged 16 and over.