Sourcing, Sustainability and Safety in Food Products: Let's Talk About It – Quality Assurance & Food Safety

Consumers are becoming more aware of product origins, sustainability movements and food safety standards — and weighing those factors into their decision-making process while shopping.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Tom Gordon, president, food packaging North America, Crown Holdings.
With a surplus of options on today’s grocery store shelves, consumers are often tasked with deciphering between brands, ingredients and flavors — concerned about what they’re eating and whether it meets their needs. Now, more frequently, consumers are also asking where and how — where are their products from and how will they impact the environment? And, perhaps most important: why should they trust your brand?
These questions are likely due to consumers becoming more aware of product origins, sustainability movements and food safety standards — and weighing those factors into their decision-making process while shopping. Consumers are more plugged into brand behavior, including ethics and corporate stewardship, as well as showing more consideration around the type of packaging formats they are using. Unsurprisingly, they are also more wary of quality issues and being able to rely on brands to provide them with a trustworthy product.
This heightened awareness underscores the role food producers play in providing ethical, responsible and safe goods to consumers. Brands are expected to ensure their procurement and production processes meet stringent standards; to continue utilizing tools and tactics to protect consumer health and wellbeing; and to advance their portfolios with more circular, environmentally friendly products.
It is also critical for brands to communicate where they are taking these steps in all of these areas — and not just to satisfy consumer queries. Committing to transparency means committing to action: showing mindfulness in terms of improving sustainability and sourcing standards; practicing due diligence in meeting regulatory requirements; and demonstrating expertise and command over all aspects of a product. Most importantly, strong communication creates greater understanding for consumers of how their food moves from farm to package to store — and all the lengths that are taken to ensure what they are eating is fresh, high-quality, nutritious, sustainable and responsible. Ultimately, this helps to cultivate a sense of trust with consumers and builds brand loyalty in a competitive marketplace.
COMMUNICATING ON TOP-OF-MIND TOPICS. To clear up any questions, brands should consider a few core areas consumers tend to focus on: product sources, production processes and product contents or attributes.
For the former, food producers can aim to share everything from the farming process to packaging materials to the journey to the consumer. Points can include the steps a brand is taking to mitigate risks or practice fair trade along the supply chain, including with ingredient or crop sourcing, as well as the steps being taken to operate responsibly within production facilities and areas of operation. Modern consumers are keenly interested in how the brands they endorse impact local environments and communities, whether positively or negatively.
Overall, consumers want to see that a brand is practicing good corporate stewardship, and they want to connect with where their products are coming from. For example, they may make a more positive association with a brand that spotlights its family-owned farms and locally sourced produce over one that feels too faceless or references vague origins.
When it comes to product characteristics, brands can capture greater appreciation when being transparent about ingredients and being clear — but not misleading — about the value the product provides to the consumer. For example, in canned foods, labeling spinach products as “rich in iron” or bean products as “high in fiber” helps consumers to understand where they can expect to find dietary benefits in various products, in the same way that the Nutrition Facts label clarifies details such as cholesterol or sodium levels.
LEVERAGING FORMAT CHOICES. Product packaging is another major way through which brands can communicate value to the consumer. Showing that, as a brand, you deeply understand your packaging format and can rationalize its use can go a long way with building trust. Explaining to the consumer how a particular product design ensures that food stays fresh, reliable and safe for consumption can help to sway purchasing decisions.
Food producers utilizing steel cans have ample opportunity to communicate these benefits. Made from infinitely recyclable steel, food cans are inherently recyclable and provide a package consumers can feel good about. Many brands recognize that when recycled properly, a can is able to make its way back through the production process and is not lost to landfill, minimizing carbon footprints.
Consumers can also find reassurance and trust in food cans in terms of their product preservation. Many consumers are unaware that canned fruit and vegetable products maintain their nutritional value longer than their fresh and frozen counterparts — made possible by the speed at which produce moves from crop to can, locking in peak product freshness for long-term use. Finally, due to the strength, durability and tamper-resistant nature of steel, food cans protect against product interference and nutrient degradation and remain safe (and enjoyable) for consumption throughout a long shelf life.
All these points represent just one format’s ability to help brands address consumer questions of sustainability and safety.
COMMUNICATING AT THE RIGHT CONNECTION POINTS. Where food producers miss out on highlighting any clear product advantages, whether with metal packaging or with other formats, is where they fail to share valuable information with the consumer. The more a brand can educate the consumer on product origins as well as the true nature of product contents and packaging formats, the greater the opportunity for consumer appreciation and interaction.
Knowing this, brands should leverage as many communication avenues as possible — but the most critical remains the most obvious: the label. When consumers interact with a product, the label is the first element to capture their attention and the first point of physical contact. It is critical to select a packaging format that offers ample real estate for communication (i.e. steel cans, which provide 360-degree wraparound messaging space) and to utilize that format to make a lasting impression.
While the label is a blank canvas for content, some of the most important points to make on the package include:
Finally, brands should consider that the consumer experience does not need to end at the point of consumption. Packaging can be used to drive the consumer to the brand website or to other assets that can help provide more information and solidify a relationship.
COMMUNICATING BEYOND EXPECTATIONS. Across the food industry and all consumer-packaged goods industries, brands can stand out by elevating transparency and being more active in communication than their peers. Recognize that your best chance at securing consumer loyalty is through understanding the complete anatomy and life cycles of your products — and sharing that full picture with consumers as accurately and authentically as possible. Ultimately, this communication will bring you closer to building invaluable trust and longstanding customer appreciation.