Posted on Wednesday 13 February 2013 by Ulster Business

 

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The speed and prominence given to the discovery of horse meat in certain beef burger value brands and the disclosure of pork found in halal meat products highlights the communications challenges facing the agri-food sector here and in the Republic of Ireland under intense scrutiny from media and consumers.

With consumers wielding the power of social media to share experiences, opinions, and ideas, the impact can have potentially serious repercussions for brand and corporate reputations as well as the image of the industry as a whole. But it is not just image at stake here as contracts are cancelled and factory production suspended.

Recent research into public attitudes to farming contains useful marketing insights for the local agri-food sector wishing to build trust and belief in its produce. The first insight identified by the Oxford Conference report, Food Provenance, has been brought into sharp focus by these issues. It has identified 'a growing number of consumers who want to know where food comes from, how it is produced, and how far it has travelled'. Food consumption is increasingly becoming an expression of citizenship, and food is increasingly being 'sold with a story', the report concludes.

According to the report the issues driving 'food citizenship' or 'ethical consumption' relate to: Personal responsibility, hence, concerns about food safety and health; Social justice and human rights, including the imperative to feed a growing population and concerns about impacts of production on working conditions/fair-trade; and Environmental responsibility, including the impacts of production practices on climate change, biodiversity and animal welfare, and ethics. Sustainable sourcing and manufacturing practices are therefore of interest to consumers and it would be expected that their prominence within the corporate social responsibility agendas of retailers and food companies will continue to grow.

As well as satisfying ethical concerns, some consumers are looking for closer Food Connections and more direct communication with producers and production as their interest in quality and environmental and/or animal-welfare increases. Both 'relationship' and 'reconnection' with consumers will depend on well planned two-way communication.

Northern Ireland as a food manufacturer and supplier has clear strengths on which to leverage these trends. The interest in provenance (local, green, ethical) presents opportunities for Northern Ireland produce to differentiate by building belief in the authenticity and credentials of their brands or the raw ingredients they supply. Northern Ireland's weather and natural resources offer a sustainable model especially for grassland livestock based food products.

As a result, the region is a major supplier of red meat, poultry and dairy products through companies such as Moy Park, now Northern Ireland's biggest private sector business which sells around £1bn annually, red meat leaders Dunbia, Linden Foods and Foyle Foods, and Dale Farm.

The NI Food & Drink Association's (NIFDA) 'Appetite for Growth' Report published last year has already identified the province's potential for competitive advantage. Its analysis will now feed into the much-awaited Food & Drink Strategy to be brought forward by DETI in the spring. It is expected to become a central plank of the Executive's drive to rebalance the economy by unlocking export-led growth. Both the Scottish and Irish governments are already out of the starter blocks, with the latter's food promotion agency, Bord Bia, recently reporting a €2bn increase in exports over the last three years to reach and exceed €9bn for the first time.

With the agri-food industry assigned Priority One status in the Programme for Government and the NIDFA estimating the industry here has the potential to build an additional 15,000 local jobs by 2020, there is much at stake. In an age of unprecedented consumer demand for transparency, strategic communication planning, stakeholder engagement and communications capability at sector and organisation level will become a crucial enabler of these growth goals.

A STORY THAT WILL RUN AND RUN

'A week is a long time in politics' and the same can be said of the discovery of horsemeat in processed meat labelled as beef. Since the print version of this article was penned for Ulster Business, the scandal has magnified into a Europe-wide issue.

The integrity of the food industry on these islands is at stake as contracts are cancelled, factory production suspended and allegations of criminal activity looming large. As not only corporate reputations are being called into question but that of a country's reputation as a food supplier, the issue gets all the more amplified by social media and a 24/7 news cycle. Those organisations that are slow to communicate or accept responsibility find themselves at best on the back foot.

Undoubtedly, there will be winners and losers from this growing crisis as retailers switch suppliers and consumers vote with their purse. A joint PRWeek/OnePoll survey conducted after the findings on unlabelled horsemeat has revealed food quality is now the top priority for shoppers – usurping price, which was seen as most important by 40 per cent of those polled last April. This adds further credence to the Oxford Conference Research on the importance consumers are placing on Food Provenance and Food Connections.

As the blame game gets under way it will take time to unravel the complexity of these issues. But in an age of unprecedented consumer demand for transparency, strategic communication planning; stakeholder engagement and professional communication capability at sectoral and organisation level will be key to winning back confidence and to ensuring that Northern Ireland as a food producer can position itself on the winning side.

Michele Filippi is a Belfast-based PR Consultant and committee member of the Marketing Institute of Ireland Northern Ireland Branch as well as the Guild of Agricultural Journalists.

 

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