Picture this. A shopper of the future is rushing around the supermarket. They care about where their food comes from, particularly its green credentials. They see a bottle of olive oil with a green tick. What does it mean? Is it genuine? No longer do they have to take out their smartphone to test the brand’s credentials.
Instead they put their hand over the bottle and information about its provenance appears in a digital panel above the product.
This vision of the supermarket of the future comes from Central European co-operative retailer Coop, presented at Expo Milano, a six-month exhibition taking place between May and October this year. The expo is advertised as an opportunity to exchange ideas and share solutions on food themes, and promote innovation for a sustainable future.
NZ trade commissioner Ann Clifford is working at the exhibition, and says sustain-ability is definitely a focus of retailers in Europe.
European shoppers increasingly want more than just food that won’t poison them; they are looking to buy products with proven ethical and environmental sustainability, she says.
Nearly one third of UK shoppers sought out ethically sourced and environmentally friendly products in 2014 and over 83% of UK households purchased organic products in 2014, according to Nielsen research.
Clifford says any food brand wanting to enter the UK market has to have an element of its sales pitch focused on how the company has addressed sustainability. In this case, sustainability means provenance and care of the raw product, minimising waste, making the most of the raw material through finding a variety of ways to use it, and the ability to tell and back up your story.
Clifford says Kiwi companies are in a great place to meet the sustainability trend, but we shouldn’t assume consumers know that.
“Few UK consumers realise that pretty much all NZ lamb and beef is grass fed. Being aware of trends and telling the story well is important,” she says.
While New Zealand companies should be pushing their sustainability criteria in Europe and the US, the story is different in Asia, where the sustainability focus is more around health than animal welfare or care for the environment, according to NZTE’s 2014 Sustainability Trends for Food and Beverage in Asia report.
Singapore is probably five years behind Europe in terms of consumer concern about the environmental and ethical impact of what they eat, and places like South Korea could be 10 years behind, the report says.
In China and Taiwan the focus is more on safety than sustainability, after a number of food scares, although in India the two are linked after the widespread harmful use of pesticides, toxic colours, ripening and storage agents.
Hong Kong may be the Asian exception to the rule, the report suggests, at least in terms of fishing. The territory is one of the world’s largest per capita consumers of seafood, with the average resident consuming four times more fish than the world average.
Overfishing has led to a dramatic decline in fish stocks meaning local consumers are paying more attention to sustainable fishing issues, according to the NZTE report.
Sanford chief executive Volker Kuntzsch, who also sits on the board of the Sustainable Business Council, says the seafood industry, which has had bad press in recent years – think oil spills and over-fishing – is in a good position to take advantage of increasing global concern over non-sustainable fishing methods.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates more than 85% of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and Kuntzsch says there has been a backlash in many parts of the world.
“Consumers do care about what they eat and appreciate information,” he says.
Sanford, Sealord, Aotearoa Fisheries and the Ministry for Primary Industries are jointly investing more than $50m into the Precision Seafood Harvesting (PSH) system, a New Zealand-developed alternative to trawler nets, which will (the partners hope) change the way the world catches fish.
Holes in the PSH fish-catching tubes (imagine those colourful plastic tubes at a kids’ playground) allow under-sized fish to escape and the walls of the tubes act as a holding tank, allowing unwanted catch to be returned to the sea unscathed after the “net” is hauled onto the boat.
The technology is in year four of a six-year commercialisation programe, Kuntzsch says. Sanford plans to airfreight fresh fish caught in this way to Asia, sold under a separate brand.
“The quality of the fish will command a higher price,” he says.
Kuntzsch believes there is plenty more scope for other NZ food companies to develop and market sustainability initiatives, especially across industry sectors.
"Any food brand wanting to enter the UK market has to have an element of its sales pitch focused on how the company has addressed sustainability" - Ann Clifford, NZTE
Some of our companies have logos and green credentials of some kind, but aren’t investing in sustainability to support the Brand NZ, he says.
“As a country we focus on commodities, but need to add value and produce product that is aligned with customer and consumer demand. Brand, reputation and trust are what consumers look for. To create value we need to be more transparent and companies need to collaborate more, and begin to understand the benefits of partnerships,” he says.
Precision Seafood Harvesting spokesperson Trish Sherson says smart phone technology is increasing the ability to deliver food sourcing information direct to the consumer.
“This is a global trend and not restricted to a particular geographic territory. The PSH story around sustainability is a great fit within this trend. The customers should really enjoy the story of how this fish was caught, the sustainability, the environmental impact of this technology versus other forms of harvesting,” she says.
Boutique Hawke’s Bay-based olive oil supplier Village Press exports to 12 countries, with a particular focus on sustainable growing practices. This starts with the growing and management of its olive groves, the careful utilisation of its water resources, pruning and tree canopy management, olive fruit harvesting and transportation to the olive press. It uses renewable energy resources where possible and recyclable product packaging.
Village Press co-founder Wayne Startup believes consumer interest and trust in the food supply chain is growing, and agrees New Zealand needs to look at more active promotion of its green credentials.
The company welcomes visits to its olive groves and processing facilities in Hawke’s Bay, and would like to see more collaborative ‘NZ Inc’ marketing offshore.
“For example, healthy premium oils with New Zealand seasonal produce – a cross category promotion.”