Responding to customer demand is key to staying competitive. Growing consumer worries about chemicals in everyday foods can mean that with each new concern, companies find themselves in the position of ignoring the latest alarm or repeatedly reformulating their products, both of which can carry significant cost.

Reformulation is nothing new to food manufacturers. In addition to innovating new formulations, there are also ongoing efforts to reduce artificial trans-fats and minimize added sugar and salt. But, chasing consumers’ changing habits in addition to responding to new regulatory requirements may feel like one unending game of whack-a-mole.

According to “The 2015 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health,” produced in May by FoodInsight, Washington, D.C., more than 36% of consumers rated chemicals in food as their most important food safety concern, up from 23% in 2014 and 9% in 2011. These concerns translated into action; 45% of consumers had changed their buying habits. A survey titled “Insight Report: Consumer Sentiment on ‘Harmful’ Food Ingredients and Additives,” produced by CivicScience, Inc., Pittsburgh, Pa., the same month showed similar results, with those having concerns being more likely to live in rural areas, not use social media and make their lunch rather than going out to eat.

Companies must be in tune with consumer demands, or risk losing their trust. In June, Nestlé USA, Glendale, Calif., announced that it was removing artificial flavors from its frozen pizza and snack foods. Meanwhile, other major food manufacturers such as General Mills, Kellogg’s and Campbell’s, as well as restaurants such as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Subway, also publicly committed to reformulating tens of billions of dollars of iconic brands to remove additives such as artificial colors and flavors.  

These companies followed the lead of grocers such as Aldi, Kroger, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and restaurants such as Panera and Chipotle who had already banned a long list of additives from their brands.

When business leaders focus their efforts on the five “pillars,” they can achieve success on safer additives.

1.       Supply chain transparency is essential. If you don’t know what is in your raw materials and flavors, and why, you will be regularly spinning your wheels trying to investigate the latest chemical in the news. 

2.       Setting institutional commitment is also key. This means developing well-defined plans, roles and responsibilities and communicating all of this internally.  For additives, this commitment should include ensuring that all additives to food and food packaging have been reviewed for safety by U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Don’t get caught having to justify to your customers why a supplier decided not to secure agency review.

3.       Informing consumers through improved labeling and product-specific webpages is vital. It allows your company to share with consumers what is in the food and food packaging, why it is used and where it comes from, helping to build confidence and assuage concerns.

4.       Effective product design means changing how new products are developed and updating existing ones. Removing a chemical from food may be the simplest step in many cases, but consider options such as adding alerts to labels or webpages, putting the chemical on a watch list to monitor the science or working with suppliers on a long-term plan for safer replacements. Also monitor the work of the public interest community to identify potential issues early on and reach out to them with questions.

5.       Lastly, developing and reporting on public commitments means letting consumers know what is planned, sharing results and building trust. 

Providing transparency and control of your company’s supply chain, as well as communicating consistently with your customers, will help limit the potential risks to your business. In addition to managing costs, you’ll build stronger ties with your customers in the process.