GET TO KNOW: SONIA MOUNTFORD FROM EATEGRITY
Sonia Mountford, Food Chain Researcher and Writer for Eategrity will be part of our panels of speakers taking us through Food safety was boring and then the listeriosis outbreak happened – what did we learn?
After spending three years researching the dysfunctional food system in South Africa and exposing many misleading claims, Sonia Mountford launched EATegrity at the end of 2015, helping you find integrity in the food chain.
Enthusiastic about guiding and informing consumers through media, talks and social media, Mountford believes in growing an informed consumer voice who seeks traceable transparency to encourage meaningful change in our food system. She helped develop the groundbreaking Eat Out Sustainable Restaurant Award and is a judge for this award, which is now in its third year.
We had the pleasure of asking Sonia a few questions on the food and beverage industry:
FNA: What do you believe has been the key change in the F&B sector over the past five years?
- Digital technologies – Today’s digital technologies will allow for a more direct connection between consumer preferences and how our food is grown. Increased focus on digitisation was identified as a key trend in a recent global survey of 120 F&B industry leaders and that enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions should be bespoke. One of 2017’s most talked-about technologies, Blockchain is said to be positioned to transform food business management solutions such as ERP software to provide traceability. With immutable data, it has the potential to give all stakeholders in the food system access to information on the origin and state of food.
- Intensified corporate concentration – with the potential of placing more power to influence global outcomes in the hands of a few through mega mergers.
- Consumer impact – On average, more than six in 10 consumers believe that we need to make large or very large changes in how we produce and consume our food in order to feed a growing population, according to results from the 2014 Greendex study, with South Africans (40 percent) and Mexicans (36 percent) being the most likely to think that very large changes are needed. Since then the movement has begun. A growing informed consumer base is impacting change in the food industry. Consumer demand and willingness to express a point of view with their wallets for food that is local, healthy, protects animal welfare, and has been produced with a smaller enviromental footprint is changing the way food is produced and sold. As consumers become better informed and more interested in the sources of their food, they will influence even commodity crops. This will empower more sustainable food producers and growers as well.
FNA: Where do you see the three key challenges driving innovation in the industry over the next five years?
- Our food system is begging for innovation and individuals to come up with some brilliant but credible ideas for positive change. Ideas need to be explored around better ways to address food spoilage and consumption to meet needs and not waste, while offering nutrient dense food. We need to produce food in ways that can improve the environment and higher animal welfare. The greatest challenge is lack of transparency and slowness to change by industry and not acknowledging that consumers are becoming more aware of the issues (some listed below) and more aware of their rights on these issues:
- Related health disorders and nutrition: The health impacts of our current food system cannot be ignored. With the recent listeriosis crisis, consumers have also become more vocal in their opinions of food safety and look to legislation, government and the food industry to improve health safety standards. Consumers also make more health-conscious food choices. They have become more skeptical of ready-to-eat foods and seek out foods that don’t have artificial flavours and colourants. They no longer trust the health claims on processed food packages and understand the links between prolonged shelf life and lower nurient content. Since the vast majority of maize and soya are GMO in South Africa, and they are often used as ingredients in processed foods, the demand for non-GMO foods has skyrocketed. Due to the lack of enforcement of GMO labelling legislation in South Africa, consumers seek out non-GMO claims or organic alternatives, even of foods that are not genetically modified. Supporting local, real and artisinal food has become a way of life for many consumers and not just a trend. A pretty picture of fresh food on a box, even if organic certified, is no longer going to fool these consumers that processed is a healthier option.
- Environmentally aware: With climate change impacting the price of food and the related food insecurity, consumers are beginning to piece together the story of how the way our food is grown impacts on the environment and hence their access to nutritious, affordable food. Therefore consumers are going to become more critical of the way our food is being grown, particulary when authentic alternatives exist such as agroecology which encompasses the principles of sustainable agricultural systems that include socio-economic and environmental. This is why The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter and Olivia Yambi advocate for the uptake of agroecology and the politcal will to support it by world governments.
- Animal welfare: As access to global information has become easier, on social platforms, this has paved the way for animal abuse awareness, and consumers who eat livestock products prefer purchasing products such as “cage-free” and “pasture-raised” not only for increasing ethical concerns and welfare reasons but also personal health reasons. The link between human health and animal health is becoming more apparent. Globally concerns have been raised about higher disease prevalence due to cramped conditions, the prophylactic use of antibiotics* and growth promoters which is common practice in intensive livestock farming or better known as factory farms by animal activists.
The discussions on the recent avian flu outbreak has also brought about awareness of how 98% of our laying hens are being kept in cages and the threat to human health of a pandemic.
FNA: The F&B sector is undergoing huge change. What are the three tips you would give for success in the coming five years.
SN: Focus must be on building trusted relationships through transparency because it is easier to maintain trust and confidence in a product or brand than to restore it.
- Therefore provide consumers with the following three points:
Authenticity – in claims on packaging and marketing materials. Are you stretching the truth to make a sustainable or health claim? Informed consumers do not like to be misled and will not forget the experience. It is the responsibility of food producers to ensure authenticity of their products to allow consumers to make informed choices with their eyes wide open. It is also the responsibility of food producers to know everything about the source of raw ingredients or processes involved in the product they are selling so that they can confidently provide answers to consumers, particularly if making ethical or health claims.
- The Two T’s. Transparency & Traceability are a big challenge in the food and beverage industry but this will become increasingly important to informed consumers who want to know which farms were the source and methods of production. Maintaining precise data records will also help with transparency of product claims (accurate labeling and marketing claims) and food safety. Being able to track all food ingredients to source and the information on the source as consumers want to know the story of the product, not just just the ingredients list. While blockchain can provide immutable traceability, I am not convinced that it can always provide transparency for consumer trust, as this can only be achieved if the information inputted is authentic (see above again).
- Responsibility – behave responsibly to prevent the need to take accountability. Consumers legally have the right to safe and quality food. It’s important that the food industry takes this responsibility seriously by implementing measures and controls that oversee the production and processing of food. It is in their interest, to establish and administer the controls that ensure that their products do meet consumer expectations of safety and quality and if for some reason they are found not to then denial is not the best route. The first goal is to protect consumers, if your product has been contaminated, offer a public recall. Offering transparency and responsible action will be a breath of fresh air and will not go unnoticed by consumers, it could even improve consumer trust.
FNA: Which type of people do you believe would gain the most form attending your session this year?
SN: Innovators and retailers that wish to understand what an informed consumer is seeking when making food choices. People who want to understand the challenges consumers face by lack of guarantee to healthy food and misleading claims in the current food system and how they can offer alternatives to this narrative. Food producers who want to safeguard their brand image and understand the importance of becoming part of a new transparent food system.