Aishwarya Ramesh
Points of View

Will the honey purity scandal throw suspicion on other packaged foods?

After honey's bitter reckoning with purity, will other types of packaged food categories come under the scanner next?

Honey is facing a bitter reckoning in India. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based public interest research and advocacy organisation, said on December 2 that major honey brands like Dabur, Patanjali and Emami (Zandu Pure Honey) had failed a key purity test conducted by a German laboratory.

Of samples of 13 honey brands that the CSE had sent for testing, Saffola Honey was the only big brand among the three which cleared the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) test. It is administered across the world to test the purity of honey. While the test is not a norm in India, it is mandatory for honey meant for export.

Shortly after the news broke, we saw an ad for milk delivery app Country Delight, featuring actress Sonali Bendre, which attempted to convince users that the milk it sources is pure and unadulterated.

The tendency of consumers is to believe that natural ingredients are pure and, hence, better for their health than processed foods/synthetic substances (for example, honey is seen as a popular alternative to sugar-free tablets).

What remains to be seen is how other types products in the F&B space -salt, maid, sugar, tea, aata, juice, etc. - will be affected by this testing scandal.

Will there be a halo effect? And if yes, which segments will have to prove their purity sooner than others?

Edited excerpts:

Kawal Shoor, planner and founding partner, The Womb (ex-Ogilvy & Mather)

When it comes to the honey testing scandal, the only question to be asked is how did the government allow this to happen? If this happened, that means the onus of being vigilant is on the consumer, because the government is not doing its job.

People do go out to drink and they do smoke cigarettes – those things are allowed to be sold and they’re not pretending to be good for you. What’s more sinister is when someone takes on this whole image of purity – the least they can do is make a product which is true to that promise. I would rather trust and indulgence brand, which is authentic, than a natural brand, which is duplicitous.

Kawal Shoor
Kawal Shoor

A lot of marketing is naked ambition. People just want to make a fast buck. The unfortunate thing is that consumer literacy in India is relatively low, and as a nation, we tend to be quite trusting. We’re a young nation and we’re not very cynical; cynicism tends to go up when you grow older.

Brands tend to take advantage of that trusting nature, which is why institutions need to be in place. More than anything, it’s the institutions that are failing the consumers.

Lubna Khan, brand strategy consultant (former head of strategy, Wieden + Kennedy)

Whenever reports about adulteration or lower standards of quality come to light, there is always a surge of interest and discourse in India around the topics of food purity. At that point, consumers do become more concerned about the quality of the food products they are buying, in general. Some trials and switches do take place towards the brands that seize the opportunity to tout their purity credentials.

If the brand that is impacted has built enough trust equity, and takes appropriate steps to reassure the public, many previous buyers tend to return to the fold. But while buying inertia is a reality that big brands count on, they should also be looking at cultural shifts around ‘pure’ foods.

Lubna Khan
Lubna Khan

The shift towards organic, unprocessed and locally sourced food products is as much a phenomenon in India as it is globally. Taking honey as an example, in the last few years alone, raw, unprocessed, locally farmed honey, that comes along with relevant certifications, has become a prominent and fast-growing category. Dozens of honey brands are being sold online or through local farmers markets.

There is a growing body of consumers that makes the effort to educate themselves on where and how bees are used. They are vocal on sites, forums and review pages, influencing the next set of adopters.

It's not just about food. I’ve been tracking a similar shift in an adjacent body of consumables – beauty and personal care – where this trend is also creating changes in market share. Brands that throw off their complacency and embrace this new, knowledgeable and discerning consumer will see better growth in the coming years.

Rajat Wahi, partner, Deloitte India

These incidences definitely have an impact on consumers’ minds. Trusted brands are very critical in a consumers life. One thing we’ve seen during COVID is that people have gone back to their trusted brands, instead of experimenting with new brands. People were simply afraid to try new brands or new products at this time.

When brands make claims about purity and being 100 per cent organic, etc., they make sure their product actually does that. It’s hard to say whether an event like this with honey can impact milk or any of the categories. But overall, there might be an erosion in the users’ minds. I think that's what brands need to be careful about.

Rajat Wahi
Rajat Wahi

COVID has shown us that people are very focused on consuming trusted brands. They trust brands that have invested over the years to sustain that belief. Any erosion in that trust could have a much longer impact than normal, because people are extremely conscious about health, hygiene and immunity right now.

Like I said before, there's a big fall-back to trusted brands. If there are issues like purity that come up in products, especially products that we are inhaling or consuming or putting on our skin and body, this is a big trust issue in itself.

Nisha Singhania, co-founder, Infectious Advertising (ex-Saatchi and Saatchi with over 20 years experience as a planner)

The honey purity scandal has definitely sowed the seed of doubt on purity. Consumers today are already sceptical, and any such event furthers their lack of trust in brands and products. In today's times, they are both aware and vocal and, hence, it is very important for brands to ensure that they are honest and live up to their promises. Once a consumer's trust is lost, it is very difficult to win it back again.

Nisha Singhania
Nisha Singhania

It is not just products that boost immunity, but the question will be on all F&B products that claim to be natural and pure. Especially in the F&B space, where people are even more careful, brands will have to re-evaluate their claims and ensure that the products meet the promise/s made.

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