Food Sovereignty of Consumers - Part 2
by Olaitan Ogunnote & Raimot Adewunmi - Undergraduate Research Assistants, ECV Ontario, SEDRD, University of Guelph. Read Part I
As you enter the grocery store, you quickly glance through your shopping list. While examining, you wonder if the orange juice in the fridge is truly 100% orange juice as the label claims or whether the chicken drumsticks you need for dinner are authentically halal. How can you know, you wonder?
Technology can help improve food sovereignty for customers. There is a lack of transparency and traceability in the current food market. And, with the help of technologies such as crypto-labelling, this gap could be bridged...
The previous blog discussed the impact of technology in improving food sovereignty for farmers while in this follow-up post, we explore how technology can aid consumers' food sovereignty (see definition below).
Lack of transparency and traceability
The opacity in the food market is a pervasive problem that many consumers are all too familiar with. One of the authors, a practicing Muslim, faces this same challenge. Using the experience of the author, we would present halal products as a case study. Halal is an Islamic dietary law that requires that the meat is permissible for consumption, and that the way it’s been raised and the slaughtering process follows required halal guidelines. To be specific, certain meats of animals such as pigs, eagles, and tigers are considered haram (prohibited) and therefore they are not halal. Further, for meats that are permissible for consumption, such as goat, cow and lamb, those animals must be raised on clean feed. If not, the animal, although halal in itself, becomes non-halal unless it gets quarantined for 3 to 40 days before being slaughtered (Regenstein, Chaudry, & Regenstein, 2003).
In addition, if the animal is halal and has been fed clean feed, it becomes non-halal if it is not slaughtered following tenets such as having its throat slit with a sharp knife and having its blood fully drained before being cut up (Regenstein, Chaudry, & Regenstein, 2003). Evidently, there are many activities required to make sure that a meat is halal, from the production to the slaughtering process, that it might be difficult for consumers to verify that the halal process has been thoroughly followed.
Although, there are certifying bodies, such as the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of Canada (IFANCC) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) which provides halal certification for food product, as a halal consumer, we worry about the information asymmetry. There are many concerns that come to mind. Firstly, there are so many labels indicating halal. Secondly, for each of those labels, we do not have access to the criteria that the certifying body follows to determine whether they are aligned with the proper halal guidelines. Thirdly, assuming the certifying body does follow the appropriate halal criteria, consumers are removed from the process as they have no way of clarifying whether those criteria were followed.
Transparency involves providing customers with the necessary information in a way that is not misleading, enabling them to make an informed purchasing decision. The challenge with transparency comes with labelling. In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for food labelling; they “administer non-health and safety food labelling regulations related to misrepresentation, labelling, advertising and standards of identity under the Food and Drugs Act (Labelling Legislative Framework,2019).
The CFIA, in 2016, made it a regulation requiring halal suppliers to identify which certifying body certified their products, including the full name of the organization, not just the acronym. This ensures that customers can identify what organization certified their product to determine whether the claims being made are accurate. Although, this new regulation ensures that logos on halal products can be associated with the appropriate certifying body, eliminating past confusion, there are many certifying bodies all of which are not accredited by the CFIA.
There are many schools of thought influenced by culture and different sects of Islam. In other words, there is not a standardized set of regulations which the CFIA enforces and which the certifying bodies are held accountable to. The danger with this is the issue of adverse selection where the certifying body which offers the cheapest service and the least stringent standards could potentially acquire most of the business, crowding out the more stringent agencies, leaving only halal products that are subpar at best in terms of their adherence to halal standards. Therefore, we propose standardization determined by a consensus agreed upon by all the certifying bodies. This standard could be the minimum standard enforced by the CFIA and if certain certifying agencies want to offer certification according to stricter standards, they can do so. That way, every consumer can confidently consume their halal products knowing it’s been processed according to the appropriate standard. Even with this solution, there is still the concern that there is some information that consumers would like to access that might not be currently provided. The reality is that food products don’t have enough space to contain all the information which is where traceability can help.
Traceability can be considered as the next step in the process. It allows the customer to be able to trace the supply chain of the product bolstering their confidence in the product they’re purchasing. Third party monitoring could provide a solution to the problem of moral hazard. Moral hazard presents itself in various forms in this market.
Firstly, the customers, have no way of ensuring that the food suppliers, follow the appropriate halal standards. To solve this problem, certifying bodies offer a third-party monitoring service in the form of their certification which acts as a signaling device. Here also, the moral hazard problem presents itself between the certifying body and the consumer and between the certifying body and the food producers.
Consumers now know which certifying body provided the certification but what criteria did they follow? If there is a standardized criterion, do consumers have easy access to it? Even if they have access to the criteria, how can they ensure that the criteria were followed with the utmost diligence? Through traceability, consumers are provided access to the production process and the certification process.
Technology can come in as an intermediary between consumers and the suppliers. Technological innovations have the potential of improving the labelling process, thereby ensuring the authenticity of food items. We recently discovered an app called Scan Halal which allows the consumer to instantly scan a product at the grocery store. The app informs the consumer whether the product is halal or not. However, from our experience, we discovered that there were certain items that were not in the database and thus we could not get the halal status of the product. Scan Halal is in the right direction but there are limitations that can be solved with further innovations.
The Hema stores by Alibaba, a chain of retail grocery stores, is a great model. At Hema stores, all the food items have a barcode which consumers can scan. Once they scan the products, consumers can see the reviews of the product, and when it was delivered to the store, where it came from. One can also see the scan of the government certificate proving if the item was organic, for example, and in the case of their seafood, when it was caught. Adopting this model for halal, a digitized process described as crypto-labelling can be applied . "This would involve the use of secured communication to create a record which traces the history of a particular product from the farm to the grocery stores. It would mean consistent records, no duplication, a certification registry, and easy traceability" (Adekunle, 2016).
The animals could be tagged and all the pertinent information relating to the animal would be recorded in a blockchain-like ledger which would be immutable, ensuring that it cannot be altered or tampered with. The ledger could include: the feed they eat, the farm where the animal was raised, the conditions the animal was raised in, when and how it was transported to the slaughter house, where the animal was butchered, and how it was slaughtered, what date it was slaughtered, how long it was drained for. Further, the certification documents, reports, criteria and applications can also be included on this ledger. All this information would be immediately accessible to customers once they scan the barcode on the product.
In a food sovereign world, people will be able to confidently assert the contents of their food when the food production process is transparent and traceable from the farm to the table through technologies like crypto-labelling. A teenager with a peanut allergy can fully ascertain that their food item is peanut free just as much as a halal consumer can be sure their food items are not haram.
Definitions of terms used
- “Food sovereignty has been defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods” and, critically, the ability of people to own their food systems.” (Adekunle, 2016)
- “Asymmetric information, also known as information failure, occurs when one party to an economic transaction possesses greater material knowledge than the other party.” (Asymmetric Information, 2018)
Adekunle, B., (2019, January 13). Halal food: Conceptions, misconceptions and certification. ECV Ontario. Retrieved fromhttp://evcontario2011.blogspot.com/2019/01/halal-food-conception-misconc..., B.,
Adekunle,B., (2016, October 12). How technology can help nations navigate the difficult path to food sovereignty. The conversation. Retrieved fromhttp://theconversation.com/how-technology-can-help-nations-navigate-the-...
Adverse Selection [Investopedia website]. (n.d.) Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/adverseselection.asp
Asymmetric Information [Investopedia website]. (n.d.) Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/asymmetricinformation.asp
Connelly, B. L., Certo, S. T., Ireland, R. D., & Reutzel, C. R. (2011). Signaling theory: A review and assessment. Journal of Management. 37 (1): 39–67. doi:10.1177/0149206310388419.
Labelling Legislative Framework [CFIA website]. (n.d.) Retrieved February 12, 2019, from http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/general-food-requirements-and-guidance/...,
Regenstein, J.M., Chaudry, M.M., & Regenstein, C.E. (2003). The Kosher and Halal Food Laws. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 2, 111-127