Weekly Comment

Response and Responsibility

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food

Bah, Humbug! It has been that kind of year in general for the food
industry, and in particular for some major companies.

Bah, Humbug! as Charles Dickens' fictional character Scrooge would have said to the huge upswing in energy costs that has put the squeeze on the food industry's margins - in a market that has generally reached a stable consumption level.

Bah, Humbug to all those hygiene laws that came into effect in the EU this year. Bah, Humbug to health labelling, to anti-obesity laws and controls on functional foods. Bah! to all the waste reduction targets, emission controls, to new chemicals regulations.

Bah, Humbug to all the pressure to reduce fat, sugar and salt. Bah, Humbug to bans against trans fats.

If you are Cadbury Schweppes and Hershey's, then Bah, Humbug to salmonella and the costly recalls both companies were forced to make because of the pathogen.

If you are in the vegetables sector, Bah, Humbug to food poisoning outbreaks linked to E. coli in spinach and lettuce.

Bah, Humbug to new food safety laws being created internationally at the Codex forum. Bah, to North American and EU politicians who cannot agree on cutting subsidies and economic protection for the world's richest farmers selling the world's most expensive produce.

Now that this curmudgenly look at the past is out of the way, perhaps those in the food business can look ahead to what we are (hopefully) calling the year of response and responsibility.

This involves a better, quicker response to consumer demands, and more responsibility toward meeting those demands.

Rather than being "crusty irascible cantankerous" and "full of stubborn ideas" -- as Scrooge is described -- the best companies in the food industry are emerging from this year of discontent as more competitive and - dare we say - more responsible companies.

The tougher competition in the industry seems to be behind the push to reach niche - and not so niche - segments of the market. This niche targeting is essential in a mature market in which a share gain for one company means a loss to another.

Responses by industry show that even niche concerns can turn out to drive big changes in the industry.

For example companies are churning out new products in ever increasing numbers to meet what is essentially an amorphous market for healthier foods.

The push towards "substainable" and "green" packaging by some of the industry's giants is another example of a hugh response to environmental demands from what is still a small segment of the market.

The move toward fairtrade products is a response, in an age of globalisation, to consumers with a wider outlook on the world. The twin strategies of offering more organic products, and of using of less additives are a response to calls for more "natural" foods.

Giving the public what they want is the response companies must take up anew in the coming year. Giving the regulators and politicians what they want is the responsibility industry must bear if it is to escape further laws.

If regulations are costly, administratively burdensome, and stifling of innovation, as the food industry argues, then it must take up the challenge of self-regulation much more seriously.

It is not enough for industry associations to make promises about following a common line over such high-profile issues such as advertising, obesity, health claims and nutritional content.

What is needed is for individual companies must take up the responsibility for the committments they have made.

Despite the Bah Humbugs, the bright light this Christmas seems to be that industry has gone over a major hump relatively unscathed. Now it must stop grumbling and learn how to profit in this brave new world.

From all of us here at Decision News Media (the parent company behind this online publication)...Season's greetings.

Ahmed ElAmin is a business journalist of 20 years' standing, having specialised in development issues, food, wine, technology, international business and offshore finance, before joining Decision News Media as the Editor of FoodProductionDaily.com. To comment on this article please e-mail ahmed.elamin@decisionnews.com.

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