New research aims to take the fright out of food scares

A new way of categorising food scares developed by researchers could have huge implications for the foodservice industry, reports Thomas Lawrence

The global food sector is booming. However, its rapid growth has obscured the accountability of food supply chains and heightened consumer suspicion towards producers. As a result, food scares – defined, according to the new research in British Food Journal‘s report Food scares: a comprehensive categorisation, as “the response to a food incident (real or perceived) that causes a sudden disruption to the food supply chain and to food consumption patterns” – could emerge at any time from a number of different sources.

Angela Druckman, professor of sustainable consumption and production at the University of Surrey and the report’s co-author, notes businesses “cut corners to reduce costs” in response to consumers demanding value for money. One recent example of this was the 2013 horse meat scandal. Now, professor Druckman says there is a “growing threat” of more covert corner cutting, particularly in the context of Britain’s ailing post-Brexit exchange rate.

Categorising food scares

The new system aims to provide comprehensive categories allaying the threat of future food scares. According to professor Druckman, “it enables food operators and regulatory bodies to categorise food scares so that similar risks can be dealt with together”.

The main “lobes” forming the new system deal with the physical manifestation of the scare (chemical, physical or biological contamination) and its origins (wilful deception and/or transparency and awareness issues). Although she acknowledges the food sector’s ongoing evolution, Druckman envisages that these categories will “encompass all future food scares”.

For the foodservice industry, the new categories are a landmark innovation. Firms can use them to anticipate areas where food scares could break out and formulate risk management strategies in advance.

The categories could also help repair consumers’ faltering trust in food providers. The reports’ authors note that sudden changes in consumer purchasing decisions represent the point where food incidents become food scares – Druckman hopes that the new categories will prevent such outbreaks by “improving transparency of supply chains” and promoting “greater understanding by the consumer of where their food comes from”.

“The new categorisation of food scares”, says Druckman, “is relevant to businesses and organisations across the globe”. Wherever they are based, foodservice leaders face similar challenges associated with transparency and trust.

Research that could mitigate these challenges before they develop into fully-fledged food scares should interest foodservice professionals everywhere.

Thomas Lawrence