Around the globe, the message is clear. Food safety has risen to the top of consumers’ chief concerns when discussing the topic of food, including chocolate.

According to a new study from the Mars Global Food Safety Center that surveyed more than 1,750 people in the United States, United Kingdom, and China, more than half of respondents feel that food safety is a top three global issue – and 77% think it’s a top 10 global issue.

Food insecurity has only been exacerbated by COVID-19, and 73% of respondents believe the novel coronavirus will impact the viability of the global supply chain and 71% believe it will have impact on global access to food.  These consumers think about food safety and security as much as climate change (39%) and pollution (38%). 

“New food safety threats, like those posed by COVID-19, are constantly emerging through a combination of factors including global warming, increased globalization of trade, as well as changes in agriculture practices and food production,” says David Crean, Mars’ chief science officer and vice president of corporate research and development. “We believe everyone has a right to safe food and it’s also our responsibility to share our knowledge (82% of survey respondents expressed their desire to learn more), expertise and tools to enable safe food for all.”

The first of its kind facility aims to harness the power of international collaboration with a network of global partners and operational insights from Mars sites around the world to raise the bar on food safety and help ensure safe food for all.

“We’re very proud of our efforts over the first five years – which included welcoming visitors from around the world, hosting high-profile global food safety symposiums and training events and establishing peer-reviewed research programs in three crucial areas of food safety.  We also recognize there is significant work to be done in the years ahead,” added Dr. Guangtao Zhang, acting director and head of research, Mars Global Food Safety Center.

The Mars Global Food Safety Center has set ambitious targets in three critical areas of food safety: 

Mycotoxin risk management: developing novel partnerships and breakthrough management strategies to tackle mycotoxin head on; starting with aflatoxins – because of the serious health threat they pose, particularly in the developing world.

Microbial risk management: driving research and collaboration to move towards faster detection, identification and, ultimately, a predictive approach.

Food integrity: developing tools and capabilities to mitigate food integrity challenges across the food industry and the global food supply chain.

Each of these areas align with consumer concerns identified in the survey – 60 percent of respondents expressed concerned about keeping food safe from toxins, as well as bacteria, and 58 percent are concerned about preventing food fraud.

Survey respondents also expressed the importance for government and private organizations like the GFSC to continue to focus on preventing food safety issues (85 percent), to invest in early detection programs (84 percent) and to manage global food safety (80 percent). 

At Mars, we believe the world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today. As a family-owned business we have the freedom to think in generations, not quarters, so we can invest in the long-term future of our business, our people and the planet. We know this is important to not only our business, but our consumers. This will be especially important as the “rising generation” (18-34) are particularly attuned to food safety through technology and an increasingly globalized economy.  That is why the Mars GFSC will continue to invest, explore and develop science and technology solutions to help address the most pressing challenges facing the global food supply chain, strengthening our factory networks and building our laboratory capabilities in the years to come. 

What shoppers are watching

Much has changed in consumers’ buying behaviors regarding foods, but their attention to the fats and oils in the packaged foods they purchase remains consistent, according to Cargill’s most recent FATitudes survey, conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research found 53% of American consumers closely monitor fats and oils in packaged foods, a rate that has remained relatively steady since 2013 when Cargill first began conducting the annual study.

“These findings are particularly relevant now given the pandemic-inspired rise in packaged food consumption,” says Jamie Mavec, marketing manager for Cargill’s global edible oils business in North America. “As consumers weigh the healthfulness of their overall diet, it’s clear that fats and oils are a key part of that equation. Options like our Filippo Berio Culinary Selection® olive oil or our line of Clear Valley® canola-based products, which are low in saturated fat, offer customers a way to deliver products that reflect today’s consumer preferences.”

Cargill conducts the proprietary research annually to track consumers’ awareness, perceptions and behaviors around fats and oils found in packaged food. The 2020 study moved to a U.S. consumer focus, unlike the 2019 global consumer focus, surveying 560 primary grocery shoppers in May 2020.

One notable change from past surveys is shoppers’ interest in sustainability claims. In 2020, 37% of consumers surveyed said they are more likely to purchase a packaged food product with a sustainability claim, a jump of 6% when compared to 2019 results for U.S. consumers. Those claims resonate most strongly with Gen Z and millennial shoppers, with 45% of Gen Z and 42% of millennials saying they are more likely to purchase a product with a sustainability claim. In comparison, just 32% of baby boomers said sustainability claims strongly influenced their purchase decisions. 

As in past surveys, Cargill found consumers track fats and oils by closely reading labels on packaged food and what they learn helps guide their purchasing decisions. A ‘no saturated fat’ claim is the most influential, with 53% of consumers in 2020 saying they are more likely to purchase these products. That exceeds other label claims, including ‘non-genetically modified (GMO)’ and ‘organic’, prime considerations with four in ten consumers (44% and 43%, respectively).

The type of oil and fat used in packaged foods also weighs on shopping decisions. Cargill’s 2020 research revealed that the top five oils with the highest impact on packaged food purchases are olive oil (50%), avocado oil (36%), coconut oil (30%), fish oil (28%) and sunflower oil (25%). This marks a move up in the rankings for sunflower oil, which landed in the sixth slot in the 2019 survey.

The annual consumer research helps guide Cargill’s food innovation efforts, offering a window into consumers’ evolving priorities. At the same time, customers can use the company’s in-depth insights to steer product development efforts.

“FATitudes helps us balance consumer preferences alongside customer formulations needs, enabling us to fully leverage our broad portfolio of fats and oils, or even inform us as we create custom options for specific applications or needs,” says John Satumba, R&D director for Cargill’s global edible oils business in North America. “By fielding this type of research, we’re better positioned to help our customers innovate in ways that align with consumer desires for healthful, sustainable and cost-effective products.”