Where has your food been?.

31 Mar 2015

Consumers care. And they are starting to care more and more about what is in their products, where they have come from and how they are produced. Read on to hear about three NZ companies working in the food traceability area.

Consumers are no longer passive. With the rise of the internet, and the availability of information, they are demanding more and more from producers. In last year’s 2014 consumer research from Colmar Brunton, the results showed that 76 per cent of people believed that what they do at a personal level makes a difference. The research shows that people want to buy brands that care about the triple bottom line, something that organisations like New Zealand’s Conscious Consumers (with a business accreditation scheme) are tapping in to.

This is where traceability comes in. Traceability and the role of consumers are key themes at SBN’s Good Food Forum in May (early bird tickets finish on the 7th April so get in quick). According to Food Standards Australia New Zealand, traceability is the ability to track any food through all stages of production, processing and distribution (including importation and at retail). Traceability should mean that movements can be traced one step backwards and one step forward at any point in the supply chain.

Traceability can also combat issues such food fraud, falsification and adulteration – things like using symbols, images or colours suggesting a brand is ‘made in Italy’, whereas the products are really made in other countries. It also makes food recall simple to enact.

SBN’s Emily Dowdling-Smith, who is leading SBN’s work on Restorative Food and will be speaking at the Forum, also emphasises the role of traceability in telling a story about where the product has been and where it is going, once it lands on your plate. “Traceability is more than being able to successfully pull off a product recall, essentially it is about an open and honest story of food that highlights best practice and therefore pressures companies who don’t perform well across their supply chain to alter their habits.”

A recent study from independent market researcher Euromonitor International showed that food traceability is a key market trend. Consumers are placing more and more importance on sustainability of products, ingredients, seasonality and sustainability. The rise of ‘savvy shoppers’ and repeated food scares splashed across our headlines means that people want more information than ever on what they consume. A recent survey of Fortune 500 companies, conducted by Trace One, highlighted that transparency improves sales and customer loyalty.

We are also seeing the rise of a new global market: the increase in mindful consumers, who buy less but are more considered about the brands and products they buy, and those who comprise the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS). LOHAS represents an estimated $290 billion US sector covering everything organic foods, renewable energy and socially responsible investing. In the US alone, around 16 per cent of adults are LOHAS consumers.

Traceability is important to these types of conscious consumers, who want to know what kind of processes are involved at each step of production, and who think about where the food goes once the consumer has finished with it.

Forward-thinking companies are already investing big money in traceability, and here are some good local examples.

Ensuring consumer trust – from farm to supermarket

Purveyor of free-range eggs and pork products, Freedom Farms has embraced the concept of traceability in its supply chains. The company was established after co-founder Gregor Fyfe found out about the sad conditions that intensively farmed pigs are kept in including the use of sow crates and farrowing crates that are so small the animal is unable to even turn around. Gregor and co-founder Cameron Fyfe spotted a gap in the market, approaching farmers who were raising pigs without cages and concrete fattening pens (but whose pork was going in with the conventional pork) and convincing them to supply Freedom Farms and earn a premium.

The company began in 2007, and back then consumers knew very little about the farming of pigs.  In fact, says Cameron, the first time Freedom Farms went to talk to the Progressive Enterprises supermarket chain, the bacon buyer at the time was unaware that most pigs were being farmed with cages and concrete fattening pens.

Now, thanks largely to growing consumer awareness and the media campaign fronted by former NZPork spokesperson Mike King, that market share has grown as more and more consumers have become aware of poor animal welfare and are using their wallets to vote for change. High welfare pork, bacon and ham now command about ten per cent of the market, and free range eggs represent around one third of the total market in dollar value.

Not only are new farms checked in person by co-founder Gregor Fyfe, they are also accredited by a third party auditor from the SPCA who audit the farms  at least once annually (and often  randomly), in order to achieve the SPCA Blue Tick animal welfare certification. This means Freedom Farms products can be traced from the farm to the finished product, and from the product to the farm that supplied the pork on that specific day.

Co-founder Cameron Fyfe says third party auditing and traceability is essential to garner consumer trust. “It’s not good enough just for us to tell consumers that our product has come from a particular place and is farmed in a certain way. It’s important someone independent is looking at it and  applying their standards, so that the consumer knows they can trust that product.”

In a market flooded with imported pork, which could come from countries with shonkier animal welfare systems or where growth promoters are routinely used, and where ‘country of origin’ labelling is not mandatory, trust is key. “It’s all about us being able to say that this product is definitely what we say it is,” emphasises Cameron.

Freedom Farms is also looking at collaborating with Oritain, which is working on a food testing system that will be able to trace a certain product back to a particular farm (and which will be speaking at our Good Food Forum in May). Chemical footprinting will pick up on the physical characteristics of the farm, like soil, air quality and feed, allowing Oritain to scientifically verify the origin on the product. “People deserve to know where a product comes from. For us, this will mean an extra step so we can trace the product back from a packet of chops in the supermarket and prove it definitely came from a certain spot.”

In a market flooded with imported pork, which could come from countries with shonkier animal welfare systems or where growth promoters are routinely used, and where ‘country of origin’ labelling is not required, trust is key. “It’s all about us being able to say that this product is definitely what we say it is,” emphasises Cameron.

Freedom Farms is also looking at collaborating with Oritain, which is working on a food testing system that will be able to trace a certain product back to a particular farm. Chemical footprinting will pick up on the physical characteristics of the farm, like soil, air quality and feed. “People deserve to know where a product comes from. For us, this will mean an extra step so we can trace the product back from a packet of chops in the supermarket and prove it definitely came from a certain spot.”

Rewarding smart farming: Food, Farms and Freshwater

Food, Farms and Freshwater (3F) is a new social enterprise passionate about connecting consumers with environmentally savvy farmers.

The group, which was part of the Ākina Foundation’s Launchpad programme for social enterprises, has set up a red meat certification recognising and rewarding farmers for operating in an environmentally conscious manner. In particular it recognises farmers whose practices safeguard waterways, ensuring they are ‘swimmable and fishable’. “Our vision is for New Zealand and international consumers to value and choose food products that support farmers to farm more sustainably, with the result that water quality and biodiversity are restored in New Zealand within two generations,” says 3F’s Rhys Millar, also of Ahika Consulting.

Key to this, states Rhys, is the rise of ‘conscious consumers’ in the West. “The current trend by food consumers in the Western world to more deeply understand how their food is produced and who is producing it, provides an excellent platform from which 3F can communicate its vision. The world wide explosion of farmers markets is an example of this drive to understand food provenance and to connect urban consumers with rural producers.”

By sharing the cost of environmental management with their consumers, the burden is decreased for farmers who, according to Rhys, are making one per cent annual returns.  “The cost will be too great for farmers to bear on their own and we believe that consumers, through their purchasing decisions, have a really positive role to play in solving that issue,” he says.

First on the board for 3F is to develop a national definition of ‘swimmable and fishable’ using various freshwater parameters. They will do this with the assistance of some of New Zealand’s leading freshwater scientists. Then 3F will develop a management plan framework and online platform for farmers in order for them to achieve top red meat quality standards and adhere to the swimmable and fishable objectives.

“The cornerstone of success of this model is to grow the financial return for farmers for meeting environmental and quality standards. To do this 3F will work to grow the value chain and assist verified farmers to access this premium for their meat from processors. The result will be a branded premium meat product in the retail market that meets high quality and environmental standards.”

The project will also achieve other positive spin-offs including stronger rural communities, enriched biodiversity and enabling consumers to be a part of the solution.

Have a coffee with your supply chain

Free-range Auckland eatery Bird on a Wire started small in Ponsonby,  has now expanded into Britomart and will soon be opening in Takapuna.

When the company started in 2012, free-range rotisserie was a gap in the market and something that aligned with the values of the owners, who emphasise sustainability, people, the local neighbourhood (supporting local charity initiatives, championing neighbouring businesses, and buying products locally where possible) and high-quality food.  “We looked at the model and thought, what’s the point in doing something that’s not forward-thinking?” says Sophie Gilmour, one of the three founders of the business, who are all under 30. The company orders nearly five tonnes of free-range chicken a month and is about to branch into organic birds.

Because they started small, they took the time to analyse the market for free range, ethically-sourced produce and compostable packaging. Bird on a Wire was choosy with its suppliers, sitting down with everyone from the chicken suppliers to the coffee suppliers to the people who deal with their rubbish over a cup of coffee until they found companies with shared, ethical values.

Not only has this allowed them to develop strong relationships with suppliers (such as their chicken suppliers who organised for 250 chickens to be sent up on their own flight in order to fulfill a big catering order, or their packaging supplier Innocent Packaging who has developed products to fit Bird’s specific needs), it’s also something that consumers care about. “Consumers want to know; they want to know about your ethos and where you come from.”

Photo credit: Photo of Mike Barton and Natasha Garvan from 3F © Mark TantrumThe Ākina Foundation.

The Good Food Forum, which will take place on Auckland’s waterfront on 25th May, will help good food businesses grow. In addition to Traceability, key themes include the Future Consumer and Access to Market. Find more more here.

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