The changing interplay between food safety and the environment

As we have seen, COVID-19 has significantly focused attention on hygiene and food safety, with more than two-thirds (68%) of consumers worldwide now believing that food safety is a major concern for society.

Moreover, 59% say they tend to worry about the food they buy being hygienic and safe. This is in contrast to their earlier stated global concerns, where the environment-related one was rated much higher – underscoring the dilemma that consumers face while balancing these priorities. Health, a leading consumer concern for a long time, is now bound up with these heightened issues of food safety and hygiene, with 67% of consumers agreeing that being healthy is being safe.

This is particularly true in China, where 80% of respondents connect healthy food with food that is safe – rather than with food that is nutritious – and a striking 88% prioritise “eating right”, rather than exercise, as a means of being healthy.

Two-thirds of global population express concern over food safety

This greater interest in food safety is reflected in consumers’ expectations of food and beverage companies. They now believe that “improving food safety” should be manufacturers’ number one priority, closely followed by “using sustainable packaging” and “limiting food waste”. More than half of consumers (58%) also think brands have a responsibility to society in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.

Many now think twice about the hygiene and sanitation procedures involved in processing, transporting and preparing their food. Our social media research found high consumer concern about limiting virus transmission through food handling and packaging, particularly at the start of the pandemic. During this time, consumer tensions were caused by a prevalence of misinformation causing over-cautious behaviour and there was a high level of information-sharing and information-seeking content.

Generally, consumers are much less sure about aspects of food safety that they can’t control. There is particular concern around how products are stored in stores or markets (43%), as well as industrial production (36%), packing (36%) and sourcing (34%). A third of consumers (34%) have also been unsure about a product due to concerns about its impact on their long-term health. Younger age groups are significantly more unsure about how products are packed and their effect on long-term health. They are also more insecure about how food is stored/prepared at home, perhaps suggesting less confidence in their knowledge of food than older groups.

Looking ahead beyond the pandemic, the focus on food safety and availability is likely to continue to grow, as the world population is predicted to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, requiring the production of 70% more food.

The role of packaging

When asked what is key for them in packaging, consumer indicate that ensuring food safety is its main purpose. In particular, they believe that packaging should ensure that the product is free from contamination (71%) and that it is well protected (70%). Indeed, the top six packaging characteristics rated most important by consumers all relate to food safety, with protecting the content for longer and ensuring hygiene also scoring highly. The top environmental characteristic, recyclability, rates seventh at 41%.

Moreover, when asked if they might be concerned about environmentally friendly packaging innovations impacting on food safety, a significant number said they would be (between 36% and 41%, depending on the innovation). This appears to be a general concern and it is difficult for consumers to judge differences between innovations.

What consumers value the most in a package

Again, it underscores that food safety is non-negotiable, even when compared with other factors that they rate highly, suggesting an appetite for innovative packaging solutions helping consumers to address the dilemma they face between food and the environment.

The expiry date is considered a vital sign of food safety, with 67% thinking that a product may be unsafe to consume once this date has passed – only just below the product smelling bad (70%). This has a big impact on food waste, as we shall see in a subsequent insight.

Generally, a lid/cap is important to consumers, with half saying they feel reassured if a product has one. Moreover, 58% cite that ensuring a package is kept well-closed after opening helps keep food safe – further demonstrating the importance of a resealable/reclosable lid/cap.

The strong association between food safety and the presence of a lid/cap is echoed by our social media research: many conversations point to a sensory element provided by packaging seals which helps to instil trust in the safety of food and beverage products. We also found instances where the lack of an expected seal has led people to consider that a product might be counterfeit.

Again, there are demographic differences, with younger groups being more sensitive to unknown brands, unpacked products, a short expiry date and a lack of information on production processes. Older consumers are more sensitive to the product smelling bad, appearing cloudy, the lid/cap not being secure/being broken, suggesting that they are more prepared to check and gauge product safety for themselves, rather than rely on information provided or the reassurance offered by a trusted brand.

Case study: KARA, Indonesia

KARA packaged coconut cream

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some significant changes in consumer behaviour. Interest in cooking at home has grown, and with it the desire for healthy ingredients that are easy to use.

A prime example of this in Indonesia is coconut cream, long a staple ingredient in the national cuisine. While Indonesian consumers traditionally make their own by cutting, grating and squeezing coconut, many have been turning to the far more convenient packaged variety – a trend accelerated by the pandemic.

To help consumers better understand the product, Tetra Pak and KARA, one of Indonesia’s top coconut brands, worked to drive and strengthen conversations with consumers around using packaged coconut cream, particularly during the pandemic.

The result was a multi-channel campaign that included online talk and cooking shows, plus a home cooking challenge inviting consumers to share their champion recipes using KARA’s packaged coconut cream. The campaign also engaged influencers such as food bloggers and chefs and included a video animation explaining how UHT coconut cream is prepared hygienically without using preservatives, which was shared via social media.

Read next insight: Transparency and trust are more important than ever

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