“Soft” impacts of food innovation
Consumers are often wary of food innovations. How then can food technologists ensure a meaningful dialogue with consumers as to what is “good food”, in order to develop better products?
E numbers and genetic modification are met with a lot of resistance from consumers. The response from product developers in the food industry is often: “It does not harm health”. The result is that consumers feel misunderstood, and a meaningful dialogue becomes impossible. This project examined how such dynamics evolve, and how to improve understanding between the two groups regarding “good food”. The aim of the project: better products and responsible food innovation.
An important result of the project is the understanding that responsible innovation often focuses on reducing negative impacts, for example on the environment, health and safety. These are relatively “hard” impacts. In the case of food innovation, however, people are mainly concerned about very different ethical and societal aspects. For example, consumers believe that food should be “more natural” (e.g. genetically-modified products) or that the food industry is destroying our food culture (e.g. microwave meals). Food technology developers often find it difficult to respond to such worries about the “soft” impacts of new food products as they find them uncertain, non-quantifiable, subjective and private.
What can be done to improve the discourse so that the “soft” concerns that people have are also addressed? One of the recommendations made by the researchers is for consumers and consumer organisations to try harder to explain “why soft concerns are relevant to hard issues.” One reason could be that people who spend more time cooking and eating may develop a healthier lifestyle. Another could be that more attention for food could help reduce food waste, which is also good for the environment.
Food technologists are advised to “be more patient and ask why.” What do people really mean, for example, when they say that genetically-modified food is unnatural? This should not be dismissed as romantic nonsense that does not concern you as an innovator.
The researchers also presented some tips for parties that may play an intermediary role, such as policymakers. These included “make sure that concerns are not dismissed too quickly as ‘subjective’ or ‘private’” and “be aware of claims of superior knowledge that disqualify the other party.” In summary: think about what is important to the various stakeholders and how they would like to be treated.
The question “what is good food” may seem very personal. However, it is an incredibly important question, because food innovations can lead to considerable public unrest and ultimately result in expensive failures.
The recent public debate concerning E numbers is a good example of this. Many consumers do not trust E numbers, even though they have been approved by the EU as safe for human health. The tendency of food technologists is then to keep repeating this. However, more and more food producers are finding that this does not help, and removing these ingredients from their products.
The research team consisted of two professors in food technology, a philosopher of technology and a social scientist who conducted research into stakeholders’ perceptions. Together, the team learnt more about the interaction between technology and the hard and soft ethical and societal aspects of food. The scenarios were used, for example, as input in workshops, in which researchers worked together with food professionals to find out more about responsible innovation in food technology. Participants in these workshops included food technologists, policy advisors, public relations officers, communication professionals, marketing experts and other food professionals.
Researcher Dirk Haen was a member of the 2012 National ThinkTank, with the theme “how can we create a more sustainable food chain?”. He participated in the consumer workgroup, tabling a number of soft concerns regarding food, in particular concerning the increasing alienation of today’s consumers from their food.
Meanwhile, other sectors and fields also start to pay increasing attention to “soft impacts”. The Rathenau Instituut, for example, has included such impacts in its reflection on “intimate technology”; in other words, new technologies that are “close to the skin” (Rathenau Instituut, Intimate technology – the battle for our body and behaviour).
food industry, good food, scenarios, genetic modification, genetic modification, e-numbers, consumers, food culture, functional food, public debate, lack of trustOfficial project title: