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Incorporating consumer information for successful food technology development
 6 min read

Innovative food technology can support a competitive food industry and help to solve societal problems. The benefits include improved food safety, better nutrient content, cheaper food and a positive impact on food security. However, failure rates for new products are high. Prominent and controversial failures such as irradiated and genetically modified foods demonstrate the importance of consumer acceptance of new food technology and its derived products. To ensure successful market introduction it is essential to combine consumer science with food technology development. Consumer scientists can identify the wishes, needs and concerns of consumers. Developers of innovative food technology understand the possibilities at appropriate points in the development process. 

Communication problems

To better understand the barriers that prevent effective communication between food technologists and consumer scientists involved in food technology development and commercialisation, a study was conducted in late 2012. This 2-round Delphi study was part of the EU project Connect4Action. Delphi studies aim to elicit the opinions of experts using a series of questionnaires. In all, 75 experts in food technology or consumer science participated. The majority of the respondents, 64%, could identify communication problems, which might determine the failure of new food technologies.

Lack of public information

There is insufficient communication with the public to specifically inform about new food technologies and derived products both before and after product launch. Without balanced, accurate, comprehensible information about the benefits and risks of new technologies and products consumers may reject them. However, understanding and evaluating information about technology can be problematic for many people. Communication with consumers is also necessary to identify consumer preferences to ensure that a) new products meet identified wants and needs, and b) to identify any misgivings about technologies. Applying “end-of-pipe” solutions to shape consumer opinions with product close to  launch is unlikely to result in consumer acceptance of innovative products. For successful commercialization the development process must be responsive to the consumer information.

Poor timing

One of the problems is poor timing. The development of novel food technologies is usually driven by technological advancements rather than by consumer demand or preferences. Thus information about consumer preferences may be incorporated too late in the development of new products, possibly leading to rejection. Consumer information is important at all stages of food technology development, but differentially so. Studies can be useful especially to guide decisions in the earliest stages of product development, and later on when feedback on how to present the product on the market and adjustments to the product in case of weak consumer reaction are possible.

Different methods

Consumer science outputs are available however Food technologists sometimes have problems in interpreting and using consumer science information and also in specifying the outputs required. As a result the available consumer data is frequently perceived by food technologists to be inadequate for selection of highly potential innovative products and not relevant to the development decision-making process. The two groups of scientists have different goals, different mind-sets, use different methods and terminology. They may have a low awareness of the objectives of parallel research and development activities in other disciplines. Furthermore, communication may not be seen as a core activity and is under-resourced. A further problem is that of too little dialogue. If dialogue regarding product development is confined to specific disciplines, potential pitfalls may not be identified.

Improvements

The researchers developed a strategy which addresses external communication, generating information from consumers. It also addresses internal communication,sharing this information within the product development team, enabling it to respond appropriately. Early in the development process it is critical to gain an understanding of the possible barriers to consumers’ acceptance of novel products and the underlying consumer perceptions. The delivery of authoritative, trustworthy, comprehensible information has to be facilitated to pre-empt consumers’ possible anxieties. Early action is necessary to counter myths created by distorted or false information from other sources like the media or pressure groups.

Co-Innovation

It is crucial to gather information on consumer preferences and needs early in process and product development. This information facilitates effective decision making and enables a process of co-innovation by which consumers are involved from the earliest stages of product development. This has been shown to improve consumer acceptance of new products. It is important to share this information as soon as possible with food technologists, allowing them to respond to the information.

Interdisciplinary insight

It is equally important to ensure that the consumer science studies are well designed and produce information of sufficient robustness to guide decision-making. Enhancing the knowledge and insight of consumer scientists and food technologists into each others subject will improve their ability to communicate with each other. This could deliver a number of benefits. The food technologists will be better equipped to specify the information they need and to interpret the consumer science studies. The consumer scientists can design better studies because of their improved technical knowledge.  If both consumer scientists and food technologists are involved in study design the salience and applicability of the findings may be improved as well.

Collaboration

Dialogue and collaboration between food technologists and consumer scientists is needed for better work co-ordination and for the realisation of possible synergies. The optimal approach is multi-disciplinary teams of food technologists and consumer scientists who work together throughout the development project (process technologies and new product development). This will foster improved communication and understanding and is best achieved by establishing direct contact, for example by face-to-face discussions and collaborative working. Communication throughout the project is necessary, rather than communication in the stages when preparing products for market alone. The multi-disciplinary teams should include some individuals with experience in interdisciplinary work or knowledge of both consumer science and food technology disciplines.

Toolbox

A ready-to-use toolbox to help food industry professionals and researchers improve interdisciplinary communication has been developed by the Connect4Action project. It includes guides to social science and food technology for the lay reader; an Early Signalling Guide for potential problems associated with new food technologies; a guide to writing communication plans, and training materials. There is also a LinkedIn discussion forum. Further information: www.connect4action.eu.

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