The Ethically Driven Consumer: What Does Food Traceability Mean?

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 24th June 2019

Author: Des Bowler, Food supply chain traceability technologist supporting government and industry with global traceability standards. first published as a LinkedIn post By Brent Moore on 18th June 2019.

Consumers have different drivers that impact their purchasing behaviour. At the most fundamental level consumers expect that food is safe and most consumers assume it is the responsibility of government to ensure this safety. Traceability is considered by many consumers as a ‘given’ in part of ensuring food safety. This is largely based on a level of trust that consumers have in their government and the various food safety systems to protect them. When a food incident occurs, that trust can take a big hit. After the initial outcry, often the response by government, retailers and industry bodies is to raise the traceability flag and wave it about. So does this result in any long term changes to consumer behaviour?

The ethically driven consumer

Recently personal values, principals and ethics are increasingly driving consumer’s purchasing decisions. These individual values, principals or ethics include growing, production, processing and food claims related to health, nutrition, GMO status, growing or raising, religion (Halal and kosher), environmental, animal welfare, sustainability, region (local, region, state, country or trading block), fair trade, ingredients, branding and others. These collectively can be referred to as ‘emotive’ claims or drivers.

The growth of social media provides a global platform for individuals to raise questions about food that resonates with likeminded individuals to create a collective voice. The results of the emotive drivers and the need to stand out from the crowd are smaller product volumes and a high amount of branding showing a range of emotive claims. 

The idea of consumer purchasing decisions being driven by personal values, principals and ethics should in no way be considered bad or negative. The emotively driven consumer is the next evolutionary step in consumer behaviour.

Traceability is an underpinning technology     

Traceability in the food supply chain is an underpinning tool for emotive product claims, truth in labelling as well as recall and other commercial activities. Consumers only need to care about traceability when something goes wrong.

A lot of contradicting information is available about consumer demands for traceability. Some reports show a high percentage of consumers demanding various emotive claims for food products including unrealistic traceability demands. Do consumers really want to see photos on their phones of the cows that went into the burger they’re eating? Probably not. A more realistic measure of consumer behaviour is what shoppers actually buy.

Traceability for consumers is not a technology question

Over the last 25 years there have been many programs and projects come into existence to meet consumer traceability expectations and demands. Some have come and gone. Others continue to operate but have not been able to obtain the huge traceability market that we continue to hear is being demanded by consumers.

In the early 2000s there was a meat substitute scandal exposed in Japan. High value Japanese grown beef was being substituted with imported beef. Consumers were outraged, confidence in beef fell, industry and government had to respond. The government implemented a program where all retail packs of Japanese grown beef cuts must show a website address and a unique traceability number. When the program was launched the number of hits was large, within 2 years the number of searches fell of a very low level. In 2019 the system is still working and available for use. So why don’t consumers use the system? Because consumers consider traceability inherent in the product, they trust the government to ensure there is truth in labelling, the food is safe, and the claims are substantiated.

What happens when it all goes wrong?

When something goes wrong with commodity food products, retailers and government ‘act fast and hard’ removing all possible implicated products from the shelves. Sometimes related but nonimplicated product gets caught in rush. In these circumstances traceability systems provide minimal benefits, at best they may help limit the extend of the damaged to consumer confidence.  

There is no silver bullet to meet consumer traceability expectations. The latest shiny technology won’t fix the ‘consumer traceability crisis’. But they do make headlines when something goes wrong.

In short, consumers see traceability as a given to underpin food safety, to provide supply chain transparency, ensuring truth in labelling and validation of emotive claims. Consumers don’t generally ‘use’ traceability, but when things go wrong, they expect traceability is in place and there to protect them.

This is a summary of a larger article which can be found here and at