It is widely acknowledged that an 'appropriate' transparency within the food sector is of crucial importance and a critical success factor for
a) the sustainable development of the sector,
b) the ability of food chain actors and policy to guarantee food safety and quality,
d) providing consumers with the information they need for exercising their preferences in buying behaviour, and for
c) the identification of a suitable policy regulatory environment that accounts for society’s preferences regarding environmental, social, and ethical concerns.
The core relevance of transparency as a critical success factor and the need for the delivery of appropriate support by research has been emphasized in the Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) of the European Technology Platform 'Food for Life' from where this project evolved.
Transparency as such is a wide reaching term which could serve a multitude of interests within food chains. However, the project will limit its focus on a transparency view which is determined by the transparency needs of consumers and policy towards food safety, food quality, and chain integrity, comprising issues of ethics, social corporate responsibility, and environmental consciousness. Consumers’ interests are due to their dependency on food products that are safe to eat and of the quality they expect, policy interests on its responsibility for providing the regulatory environment that assures the consideration of society’s preferences especially regarding social, ethical, and environmental issues.
However, as interests of consumers and policy are not on transparency as such but on using transparency for assuring (control) that the food sector serves their interests in products and processes as best as possible, the transparency needs of consumers and policy will need to be linked to individual enterprises within the chain in a dual way:
- One needs to determine the information items, enterprises would have to collect and to communicate through the chain to serve the transparency needs of their own customers and eventually those of consumers and policy.
- One needs to determine enterprises’ own needs for transparency that allowed them to organize their supply, processes and product characteristics according to their customers’ and policy interests.
Transparency builds on appropriate signals which integrate available information and communicate a certain ‘message’ to recipients (e.g. ‘food is safe’). In the selected domain, signals build primarily on information about products, including their composition and characteristics, and on information about processes they were involved in or exposed to. Examples for the generation of information to be useful for signals related to food safety and quality in industry are the participation in monitoring schemes (as e.g. salmonella monitoring schemes) or quality system schemes (as e.g. BRC or IFS certification schemes), examples for consumer related signals involve the ‘food miles’ or the ‘carbon footprint’ retail initiatives.
However, transparency signals are not just those that can be formally communicated or that build on information collected through formal information systems. Cultural background of producers, local customs, or the location of production may provide, if known, strong signals to consumers on the quality of products or the reliability of information. As a consequence, the need for formal transparency signals or their content may differ significantly between regions, cultures, etc.