With controversial issues such as genetically engineered foods, nanotechnology and Pink Slime occupying headlines that leave consumers concerned and food company executives wringing their hands, a panel of food safety experts convened on the second full day of the 2013 IAFP conference to answer a pressing question: How can the food industry bridge the gap between the hard science of food safety and the public’s perception?
Panel organizer Benjamin Chapman, assistant professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, started the discussion off by asking Texas A&M’s Gary Acuff about the controversy surrounding lean finely textured beef (LFTB), more commonly known as “pink slime.”
Acuff said that the public’s perception of LFTB was incredibly off-base in terms of food safety. From a microbiological standpoint, LFTB is likely the safest ground beef product available, Acuff said, but its ammonia treatment process — designed to eliminate pathogens — led a large section of the general public to view the product as poisonous.
While he said he didn’t think ABC News or Jamie Oliver or the documentary Food, Inc. ever questioned the actual safety of LFTB, “consumers perceived it that way.”
Acuff then consented the outrage over LFTB was also largely a matter of aesthetics and “yuck” factor.
“[But] where in any manufacturing process does the product actually look complete?” he asked. “We focus on the finished product and what[‘s] going to market. In the process of making the finished product, things never look exactly like we expect them to. Sometimes they don’t look very appetizing.”
Barfblog publisher and former Kansas State University food safety professor Douglas Powell pointed out that the public relations for the LFTB manufacturers was outdated — “straight out of the 1970s” — and out of touch. They ran a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. They brought together several Midwestern governors for a press conference and LFTB-chow-down session. They made T-shirts that said, “Dude, it’s beef!”
Meanwhile, consumers continued to slam them with disgust and outrage all over the internet.
“Outdated” and “out-of-touch” seemed to describe the public relations efforts of a lot of the industry when it came to food safety, and that was the problem the panel came together to address.
So, what were the solutions? A savvy background in 21st century marketing: social media presence, easy-to-understand video messages, “mommy bloggers” — anything that connects foodmakers directly to consumers and speaks to them in a language with which they can relate.
“The time to be finding that out is now, not when you’re in the middle of a crap-storm,” said Donald Schaffner, professor of food science at Rutgers University.
From one of the audience microphones, attorney Sarah Klein from the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that during the Pink Slime controversy, she was speaking to news outlets daily and coined the soundbite “unsavory but not unsafe.” In other words, she related with consumers over the fact that the product was “yucky,” but she reinforced the science behind its safety.
Assuming the next controversy over a food product was not concerning its legitimate safety, Klein said consumer groups could likely be an ally with industry again.
“I think my advice to you all in the industry is that when something goes wrong, reach out to the consumer organizations,” Klein said. “You may be surprised to find support.”
Some discussion hinged on how to educate and inform consumers, an end-goal Powell dismissed as unrealistic. When it comes to media coverage of food controversies, everything is in the eye of the beholder, and so the message from industry needs to be clear and simple.
“It doesn’t matter what it is, if [it seems real] to that shopper, it’s real and you better pay attention to it,” Powell said. “As far as informing and educating, people don’t want that. They want to go shopping. Otherwise they’d go to university.”
Getting the science right is only half the battle, Powell added. The other part is telling an accessible story, because no one really cares about the science.
“Make safe food, have the data to back it up, and then go tell your story,” he said. “That’s it.”
David Gombas, senior vice president of safety and technology at United Fresh, brought up an example of a time the industry was able to engage media and change one of those stories: When the produce industry challenged the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list of the most pesticide-heavy fruits and vegetables.
Despite scientific evidence showing that the products on the Dirty Dozen list were safe for consumption, the industry stood back and said nothing year after year while sales took a hit from media coverage.
This past year, Gombas said, a small food industry communications group decided to take on the Dirty Dozen list. They engaged with USA Today and “doused the flames” of the eventual new Dirty Dozen list, instead making sure the media was informed of the science behind the safety of even the “dirtiest” product on the list.
The group got the USDA and FDA to back up what it was saying and to supply data to media about the safety of U.S. fruits and vegetables. When it was finally time for the annual Dirty Dozen list, Gombas said, most media outlets passed on publicizing it.
The next frontiers of consumer perception the panel discussed were genetically engineered foods and nanotechnology.
Another speaker from the audience summarized the problem succinctly: Scientists need to speak up in order to win. She paraphrased keynote speaker David Acheson, who said that when it comes to consumer perception, “Science doesn’t always win.”
“It’s true,” she said. “Science doesn’t always win. And when scientists are silent or don’t know how to communicate, you can ensure science does not win.”© Food Safety News