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For some areas of the food and drink industry, such as coffee and cocoa, traceability of ingredients has long been under scrutiny. As consumers increasingly seek to understand supply chains from farm to fork, transparency is fast becoming a matter that every business must consider to win trust and offer products of the highest quality.
Conscious consumerism is a growing theme in the food and drink sector, and Alison Tran, founder of The Karma Tea Co told Speciality Food that providing full transparency is an important step in the move to a more ethical industry, particularly for products that span international supply chains like tea. “From an ethics perspective, much of the tea trade especially from South Asia still operates on a very opaque system where tea is sold in bulk at auction and passes through several hands before reaching the end consumer. The exact provenance is often concealed, especially when it comes to blends,” Alison said.
Whether it is an issue as complex as knowing that their cup of tea is supporting small farmers around the world or simply tracing their meat back to the farm down the road where it was reared, transparency is increasingly a selling point for consumers – and it ties in with the sector’s push for sustainability in the food system.
For instance, in the tea industry, Alison says greater transparency will force production to become more environmentally sustainable. “Most tea from South Asia is sold as a commodity crop – the type used in black tea bags – and is produced on large monoculture estates. To meet market demand for cheap commodity-grade tea, growers have come under huge pressure to produce more tea at cheaper prices, and this has created a wide-scale dependence on chemical inputs. There are exceptions of course, but overall the system has become more and more untenable in certain parts of India,” she explained.
“In the UK we may drink a lot of tea, but we still know very little about what we are drinking,” Alison said. “If consumers become more connected to the origins of what we are drinking through transparent reporting on the origin, we can seek out tea from gardens that has been grown in a way that helps to sustain the soil quality, minimise erosion and maintain the biodiversity of the gardens, for example.”
And this is true across food and beverage lines. Laura Dixon runs Three By One Europe, a lifestyle brand aiming to bring transparency and sustainability to the supply chain of consumer goods, including coconut products that are ethically sourced from small producers in Sri Lanka. As she concluded, “It’s very simple: there can be no true sustainability without transparency.”
As well as playing a role in businesses’ sustainability efforts, traceability can also impact taste in surprising ways. That’s because traceability plays into a product’s provenance. “When it comes to taste, knowing where a tea is from and who made it tells you a lot about its flavour,” Alison explained.
Providing a higher level of detail can transform an ordinary tea bag into a speciality product. Indeed, even retailers who are less concerned about sustainability have a good reason to support transparent brands. “Full transparency around sourcing helps put tea on a pedestal and mark it out as special,” Alison said. “Much like single-origin coffee or fine wine, specialty tea is a reflection of its terroir, a mix of the geology, climate and geography that makes a product unique. The particular characteristics of a garden can give a tea subtle nuances in taste that are missing in your supermarket tea bag.”
Developing an appreciation for the true origins of tea – or any other food and beverage product, for that matter – starts with transparency. “When we buy a wine, we know which estate it came from and where it was produced. There is every reason for tea to be treated in the same way,” Alison said.
While it’s clear that tracing ingredients is important, it’s still easier for businesses to turn a blind eye to potential issues along their supply chain than take action. So what does it look like to establish a transparent business today?
“As a small, independent brand, we’re able to be very agile,” Alison said. “We are in regular close communication with the farms we source from. We ask lots of questions concerning social and environmental responsibility. We provide as much detail as possible about the provenance of the tea on our labels including the name of the maker and the exact region where it was harvested. We also share the stories of the farms and the makers on our website and social media channels.”
Laura agrees that relationships and communication are key. “Make sure you visit your producers, raw material suppliers, etc. personally. Make relationships. Constantly ask questions. Define what area(s) you want to make improvements in first and focus on that. Don’t try to do everything at once. Remember that nothing is perfect, and today’s best choice may not be tomorrow’s. Stay open and communicate with your customers – where you are winning, where you are failing – be honest about everything.”
Retailers play a vital role in the shift to more transparent food and drink systems. And again, Alison said asking questions and opening up communication with suppliers is key. “Ask lots of questions. It is important to bear in mind that certifications like Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and organic, whilst important, are only partly effective. Full transparency does go deeper than a certification or marketing logo. Sometimes too much information may seem like a lot for consumers to understand, but if a supplier is transparent about the origins of their tea, it does show that care has been taken to source the tea carefully and this will be reflected in the quality of the product.”
With quality products that are better for the planet and people, the fine food industry can’t go wrong.