Getting Fresh With Consumers

Fresh food is one of the most important qualities in food culture today. The term, fresh, implies that products are generally in the same state as when they were harvested. It also means unprocessed, raw, not frozen or thermally treated or preserved in any way. But as consumers on a budget, with little time, will tell you, cheap and quick meals are more often the norm than the exception. Eating healthy and fresh is hardly easy or always an option, but it's still better, and they know it. They're also getting much better at figuring out what they're buying, which is most important.

But exactly what is fresh, really? The answer has changed over time regarding retail packaging, such as in 1997 when the USDA revised fresh labeling rulings for poultry. Today, fresh poultry should always bear a "keep refrigerated" statement, and raw poultry held at a temperature of 0 degrees F or below must be labeled with a "keep frozen" handling statement.

A new infographic from the Hartman Group (www.hartman-group.com), Bellevue, Wash., notes that freshness is a cultural shift to all things healthy, real, pure and special. Almost any food can be re-imagined to tap into consumers' desire for all things fresh. "What determines success will not be the abject freshness of the product, but rather, that consumers believe and trust that the product is of the highest quality possible," the infographic states.

How fresh is defined is often misconstrued by simply serving something at the expected temperature – hot or cold. Foods high in sodium, additives and poor quality ingredients can undermine nutrition and wellness. Are fresh foods frozen or preserved in any way? They are sourced locally and are able to retain their nutritional value and flavor while being carefully prepared that very day.

Consumers rely on freshness as a broad marker of a high-quality food lifestyle, says the Hartman Group. Currently, there's no single dimension that triggers "fresh" perceptions in all consumers. Instead, the firm says. "There exists a multiplicity of underlying dimensions capable of signaling fresh." While each aspect may trigger this perception on its own, they all have a pronounced cumulative effect. Some of these dimensions include:
●Appearance of minimal processing
●Cues of naturally sourced ingredients
●Location in perishable and perimeter food categories
●Product narratives emphasizing people, places and traditions
●Use of natural color palettes and natural packaging materials
●Connection to indigenous culinary traditions

The FDA's Food Advisory Committee (FAC) carried out several consumer surveys over the years about the use of marketing information and terms not defined by law, and in 2004, investigated use of terms such as natural and fresh in food labeling.

Because consumers continued to question usage of terms like fresh, and that such terms were being used in potentially misleading ways, the FAC further examined the extent to which the food industry was taking into account the FDA's Guidance on legal requirements for food labeling. At issue were marketing terms, general and specific best practices on use of such terms and whether the FDA's Guidance should be revised. Of the 220 samples examined at that time, 88 (40 percent) were considered by the participating public analysts not to follow the Guidance.

Fast forward more than 10 years, and the number of lawsuits challenging food labels is escalating. The courts, however, found that food labeling requirements must be set by the FDA rather than by judges and juries throughout the country. That's what lead to the burden of food label regulation shifting back to the FDA. And regulators are supposed to soon announce their first definition of the term "natural" after several food brands were sued by consumers. But here we are, nearly in July of 2016, and the agency still hasn't decided what to do about use of the term, "natural," though it closed the public comment period in May. So far, it still remains silent on the term. We're not even discussing GMOs here, but that's all beginning to change any way, as we're just days away from the Vermont GMO labeling law going into effect, and now a bipartisan deal has been reached (see our Industry News section today on this site). 

Most shoppers in the U.S. not only scan labels, they inspect them regularly. If you can truly flaunt "fresh," as defined by the law, do so. The description is usually a benefit consumers appreciate when it differentiates items and really means what it says. Does the government have to get involved in what it means? Perhaps it doesn't want to, any more than it should be in the business of defining any other food terms. But if things can change at the very last minute for GMOs, perhaps they will for how the word fresh is defined on labels.