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At the end of 2020 I penned what the food industry could expect to face in the year ahead, based on trending industry conversations and growth and decline of specific markets. As we move into a world forever changed by the pandemic, now is a great time to reflect and see what we can expect in the year ahead.
Consumer demand for vegan and plant-based products has been meteoric. As a result, food manufacturers and restaurant chains were expected to add plant-based items to their ranges through 2021, with these options becoming more mainstream. No better example of this is in supermarkets, where many plant-based alternatives now sit next to their animal-based counterparts and are no longer segmented into specialty products aisles.
Going forward we can expect increased scrutiny for plant-based items, as they are put under the microscope in regards to food safety risk management. Given the staggering growth of the sector, many manufacturers are looking to expand ‘boutique’ operations, meaning the impact of operating at scale or using co-manufacturing will challenge processes, control methods and potentially introduce untested sourcing strategies. Therefore, a sound approach to evaluation of supply network risk and manufacturing control is vital.
To date, much of the sustainability conversation for the food industry has been around packaging. 2021 was the year of recommitting to a reduction in plastic waste. Following on from COP26, the main difference we can expect to see in 2022 will be a shift towards the impact of food manufacturing on nature. From responsible sourcing through to the carbon implications of food miles, consumers are increasingly expecting brands to boast green credentials that are wider than plastic reduction and independently verified.
Despite sustainability focuses shifting to nature, innovation in packaging and use of consumer own-packaging is unlikely to stop anytime soon. In fact, with the introduction of a Plastic Packaging Tax in the UK in April 2022 it is likely to go further. As innovative options on offer to consumers expand preserving product integrity and consumer safety must remain at the heart of any change, so the focus will be on getting the balance right. This includes using plastic when it is essential to the preservation of the product, managing the potential food safety risk in-store for ‘self-serve’ options and educating the consumer in the why.
The growth of online groceries was accelerated as a result of the pandemic and this continued over the last year, with the UK market currently worth £1.4bn. In addition, the number of downloads of rapid grocery apps across Europe in Q3 2021 hit 7 million. Given all the focus has been on how to deliver and meet the insatiable desire of consumers for ‘instant’ access to the food they want, there needs to be significant focus given to how food safety risk is managed in dark store operations and across the very diverse transport channels being used for delivery without compromise.
2021 was anticipated to be the year that manufacturers were held accountable if functional nutritive claims were inaccurate. Going forward, health and nutrition continues to be important to consumers and the main driver will be new legislation for products high in fat, sugar & salt (HFFS). The change will restrict promotions of products in this category so there are important considerations to be made around product composition, portfolio diversification and consumer education, if a brand wishes to remain competitive. Truth in labelling is a forever challenge for industry.
2021 was the year of smarter food safety, with companies using technology and data to gain deeper insight into areas of critical risk. However, as we move towards a digitally enabled future, there are risks to be considered. Adopting digital processes leaves the door open for potential data theft across the supply chain, putting product integrity at risk and elevating chances of fraud and product recalls. This means organisations must seriously consider how they can build confidence that they are protected from a potential attack; what recovery plans are in place in case of an attack; and how prepared their supply partners are, if transparency of risk is to be achieved.
While increased vigilance in recognition of the potential for an increase in food fraud risk has been a focus throughout 2021, the question remains whether the industry has yet to see the true impact of supply disruption and raw material depletion. The focus of many companies has been to move to a multi-source supply strategy – building supply sources closer to ‘home’ as a means to better manage this risk. However, this does not obviate the need to truly understand source and origin as well as how the local supplier is managing their downstream supply to ensure that all links in the chain are transparent.
For the world of agriculture, animal welfare is increasingly important. In fact, a survey of 2,000 people commissioned by Compassion in World Farming found that 68% of people would welcome animal welfare labels. Building on their strong foundations of setting the bar for high animal welfare standards, the revision of Red Tractor (RT) standards, due for roll out across members in August 2022, reflects yet another lift in animal welfare but also the importance of worker welfare to drive positive change in 2022.
Given the recent public health crisis, the spotlight will be on worker welfare. As such, manufacturers will need to reconsider how they balance profitability, productivity and employee safety and take the necessary steps to keep workers safe, while ensuring essential food production keeps running. Further, employee health and safety has become multi-faceted and now extends beyond the context of injury, extending into worker wellness and culture. Major workplace and HR developments are anticipated in 2022 and beyond.