What is in a name? Food provenance

Provenance is a multifaceted term. According to Nelle et al (2016), and Reid and Rout (2016), provenance includes the following aspects:

a) Place: the spatial dimension, or where the food is produced and includes the geography and its cultural characteristics.

b) Product: the cultural dimension, or how the food is produced, including ethical and sustainability considerations.

c) People: the social dimension, or who is producing the food and for whom. This angle provides emotional and experiential connection between producers, consumers, and the food they produce and eat.

Each of these concepts encompass multiple characteristics or descriptors. In the literature reviewed, place descriptors dominate the discussion of provenance, while the roles of product and people receive less attention. Meah and Watson (2013) argue that provenance has traditionally been framed in terms of point of origin, ignoring important aspects such as consumer ethics. ThØrgersen et al (2016) state that the impact of country of origin on consumer choices is one of the most widely researched themes in marketing and consumer behaviour. It is more difficult to find studies that delve into the descriptors used by consumers to express the cultural and social dimensions of provenance.


Consumers define and factor place in their food purchase choices in multiple ways, including “country of origin”, “local food”, “food miles” concerns, and “food provenance” (Giovannucci et al., 2010). Although these concepts are geographical designations, they are not necessarily interchangeable or focused on the same objectives. For example, a study conducted by the British Institute of Grocery Distribution (Maton, 2010) found that local food consumers are primarily interested in freshness and supporting local retailers and farmers, while a minority is interested in the food miles angle.

To explore consumer interest on place descriptors, a search on Google Trends was performed, using internet search data from January 2014 to September 2017. Google search volume has been previously used as a proxy of consumer attitudes, interests and preferences (Jun et al., 2014; Jo et al., 2014). In this exploratory (and small) analysis, only four terms related to place were used. Figure 1 shows the relative volume of internet searches in the period 01/01/2004 to 05/09/2017 using the terms “local food” (blue line), “food provenance” (red line), food+ country of origin (yellow line) and “food miles” (green line). The relative scale in the y axis ranges from zero searches (0) to the peak volume of searches (100). (Source: https://trends.google.com/trends/. Search performed on 05 Sept 2017).

In Figure 1, place descriptors linked to food attracted an increased volume of searches since mid-2010. This upward trend suggests that the interest in geographical origin – and specifically the interest in “local food” – is increasing.


Some consumers and producers have become disillusioned with modern global food systems, as they perceive these systems as contributors to food insecurity, unfair trade and employment conditions, negative environmental impacts, obesity and other health-related conditions (Phillipov, 2016). This disenchanted group is turning to businesses and products that embody and reflect values such as sustainability, fair trading and health (Andrews, 2008; Chang and Lusk, 2009).

Figure 2, which was built using a similar method to the one used for place descriptors, presents the trends for product descriptors, including “ethical”, “sustainable” and “healthy” associations with food. There is an upward trend for these descriptors, with “healthy foods” being the dominant product descriptor (i.e. the term with more internet searches).


According to Dimara and Skuras (2005), consumers want to know where and how their food is produced to match the product descriptors previously discussed, but also to satisfy their “nostalgia” for a time when food was “real”, “authentic”, “traceable” and “wholesome”. In other words, consumers respond to an emotional need of remembering the past through their food choices. Additionally, consumers may feel alienated by modern methods of production and their emotional need is to reconnect with the food they consume (Reid and Rout, 2016).

The list of people descriptors can therefore be a large one, because it involves emotions, feelings and subjective states that are expressed in multiple ways by consumers. Indeed, the people (social) dimension is probably the most complex of the three dimensions of provenance discussed here. For the purposes of this paper, four descriptors were selected (plus the provenance benchmark), as presented in Figure 3. The terms “real food” and “love + food” (which were selected due to their highly emotional meaning) are the dominant searches in this case. It should also be noted that, in general, the search volumes for these two terms are above the levels detected in the other two dimensions, suggesting that it is important to understand people descriptors and translate these into marketing strategies and actions.

The following section focuses on the descriptors that presented the higher search volumes for each provenance dimension discussed, namely:

· “Local food” for place.

· “Healthy food” for product.

· “Real food” for people.

Provenance as Local Food

Local food as a value proposition has implications in sourcing, logistics, quality, food safety, marketing and virtually all company operations (Visser, 2012). Local food chain present opportunities to exert greater quality control and optimise distribution. For example, local producers of avocado, tomato and mango can ripen the fruit in the tree and transport the product right after harvest to stores. In-store ripening rooms become unnecessary because the ripening occurs before. The result is a ready-to-eat product that can maintain the necessary shelf-life for commercialisation at a reduced cost and with increased consumer satisfaction. However, Berruto et al. (2009) detected potential issues for local food chains including product handling, food safety, packaging and labelling standards, as local operators are generally more relaxed in these aspects than large corporations.

Operational inefficiencies also translate into higher prices compared to conventional, mass produced operations, which places the product in a premium price bracket (Hingley et al., 2010). This premium image can be threatened when the product does not match the consumers’ expectations of “local food”, leading to unhappy customers and distrust. Retailers may also resist paying a premium on local products, especially if they replace cheaper, non-local alternatives (Visser, 2012). Therefore, marketers must clearly communicate to all chain partners and consumers the unique value proposition that local products offer over conventional products to justify a premium.

Provenance as Healthy Food

Consumers want products that are free of harmful effects and that offer physical health and wellbeing benefits (Lees and Saunders, 2015). However, the concept of “healthy food” is also intertwined with other product attributes such as local, country of origin, organic, free range, food safety, pesticide free, or nutritionally enhanced/functional. Therefore, marketers must understand the meaning of “healthy” for different segments of consumers and ensure that the production, distribution, labelling, branding, advertising and promotion of “healthy” products reflect consumers’ expectations.

Regarding harmful effects, it is also important to understand the issues that matter the most to consumers. For example, although microbiological hazards are scientifically and technically the most common and dangerous risks in foods, consumers are often more concerned about the dangers of pesticides and food additives (Miles et al., 2004). Microbiological hazards are only top-of-mind for consumers when a food poisoning outbreak occurs and it is highly publicized by the media (Garcia, 2010). By law, food producers and manufacturers must comply with all relevant food safety standards and regulations. However, these businesses must also be proactive in addressing concerns that are not covered by such standards. Proactive actions may include internal audits, transition to “clean labels” (i.e. no additives) in the case of processed foods, or transition to integrated pest management (IPM) practices, hormone-free or organic in the case of fresh foods. These decisions will ultimately be driven by consumers.

Provenance as Real Food

In this article, “real food” is related to the knowledge and trust of consumers about how their food is produced and transformed, and the engagement of consumers with producers. Distrust in food production systems can be partly attributed to the decreasingly proximity and engagement of consumers in the activities carried out by producers and manufacturers. The implications of distrust are greater vulnerability of consumers to misinformation about food and poor dietary choices (Meyer et al., 2012).

To counter this issue, marketing strategies can be based in creating and developing a relationship between consumers and the food they consume, through story telling. As an example, Reid and Rout (2016) describe the case of Māori food producers and the Ahikā Kai website (http://www.ahikakai.co.nz/). Ahikā Kai is defined as “fresh, premium produce that has been fished, hunted, reared, gathered and grown according to five key Ngāi Tahu food production principles”. In the Ahikā Kai platform, consumers can search products, order online and read information about the origin of the product, the producer’s story, pictures of the harvest/collection site and other products offered by the same supplier. The website also communicates the values of the Ahikā Kai producers, which involve sustainability, health, fairness, care and cultural/ecological wisdom.

Final Thoughts

The Google Trends analyses are limited and explorative in nature. However, there are some interesting observations. For example:

· The interest in food provenance (as defined by the triad place-product-people) has increased, particularly since 2010.

· A large segment of the internet searches analysed seem to be looking for “local”, “healthy” and “real” food. The “love” qualifier is a popular term and it is harder to infer if the three attributes mentioned would lead people to “love” their food.

· Further, “local”, healthy” and “real” can have different meanings for different consumer segments. It is important that marketers delve deeper into the consumer’s mind to understand the value proposition that can be generated for these provenance terms.

· An in-depth analysis using a larger list of descriptors and at a country-specific level would be useful to understand further the definition of provenance and disambiguate terms for the triad place-product-people.

The example of the Ahikā Kai website as a strategy to connect consumers to the food they eat embodies the full concept of provenance: from the explanation of the foods’ origin, through to the story telling of real food produced by real people, to the upholding of values that are dear to consumers, including health, sustainability, and culture. Provenance and its intrinsic need of consumer knowledge and education on food systems is a multifaceted concept that should be embraced by marketers, through a range of activities. These may include the creation and development of communication channels between producers and consumers, and the implementation of supply chain measures that uphold the provenance values that matter to consumers.

Recommended Reading

Andrews, G. 2008. The Slow Food story: politics and pleasure, Mc Gill-Queen's University Press.p.1-195

Chang, J. B. & Lusk, J. L. 2009. Fairness and food choice. Food Policy, 34, 483-491.

Dimara, E. & Skuras, D. 2005. Consumer demand for informative labeling of quality food and drink products: a European Union case study. The Journal of Consumer Marketing,22, 90-100.

Garcia, M. M. 2010. Enhancing consumer confidence in food supply chains. In: MENA, C. & STEVENS, G. (eds.) Delivering performance in food supply chains. Cent. for Logistics & Supply Chain Management, Cranfield Univ. Sch. of Management, UK.

Giovannucci, D., Barham, E. & Pirog, R. 2010. Defining and Marketing “Local” Foods: Geographical Indications for US Products. Journal of World Intellectual Property, 13,94-120.

Hingley, M., Boone, J. & Haley, S. 2010. Local Food Marketing as a Development Opportunity for Small UK Agri-Food Businesses. International Journal of Food System Dynamics 3, 194-203.

Jo, C. L., Ayers, J. W., Althouse, B. M., Emery, S., Huang, J. & Ribisl, K. M. 2014. US consumer interest in non-cigarette tobacco products spikes around the 2009 federal tobacco tax increase. Tobacco Control.

Jun, S.-P., Park, D.-H. & Yeom, J. 2014. The possibility of using search traffic information to explore consumer product attitudes and forecast consumer preference. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 86, 237-253.

Lees, N. & Saunders, C. 2015. Consumer attitudes to New Zealand food product attributes and technology use in key international markets. Research Report No. 334, 61.

Maton, T. 2010. Local food gains ground with shoppers [Online]. Available: http://www.igd.com/index.asp?id=1&fid=1&sid=8&tid=16&cid=1427.

Meah, A. & Watson, M. 2013. Cooking up consumer anxieties about "provenance" and "ethics": why it sometimes matters where foods come from in domestic provisioning. Food, Culture & Society, 16, 495-512.

Meyer, S., Coveney, J., Henderson, J., Ward, P. & Taylor, A. 2012. Reconnecting Australian consumers and producers: Identifying problems of distrust. Food Policy, 37, 634-640.

Miles, S., Brennan, M., Kuznesof, S., Ness, M., Ritson, C. & Frewer, L. J. 2004. Public worry about specific food safety issues. British Food Journal, 106, 9-22.

Nelle, S., Simos, T., Lewis, I., Estrada-Flores, S. & Yargop, R. 2016. Identification and Assessment of Added-Value Export Market Opportunities for Non-GMO Labeled Food Products from South Australia. 20-21.

Phillipov, M. 2016. The new politics of food: Television and the media/food industries. Media International Australia (8/1/07-current), 158, 90-98.

Reid, J. & Rout, M. 2016. Getting to know your food: The insights of indigenous thinking in food provenance. . Agriculture and Human Values 33, 427-438.

Thøgersen, J., Pedersen, S., Paternoga, M., Schwendel, E. & Aschemann Witzel, J. 2017. How important is country-of-origin for organic food consumers? A review of the literature and suggestions for future research. British Food Journal, 119, 542-557.

Visser, J. 2012. Designing local food supply chains for The Greenery. Master Thesis, Wageningen UR.

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