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Food Safety: Lightning Rod for Consumer Outrage

Opinion

Diana: “We have had more than 24 of your expired pouches, and my son has had diarrhea for a week!!!!!!! Honestly, giving me a voucher to buy more pouches is not adequate compensation for my son’s pain and suffering!”

Rebeccah: “My daughter is still experiencing diarrhea. I hate not knowing what could be going on in her tiny body. This whole situation is making me sick!”

Heather: “Are you going to give me a ‘voucher’ for my pediatrician bills?”

Megan: “Shame on you. Most parents spend the extra on organics because they are trying to feed their baby the best quality foods available. Frankly, I do not want a voucher for your food. My trust in you has been broken.”

Babies were getting sick and parents were outraged – blasting Plum Organics on Facebook after the company, which hangs its hat on providing safe, ultra-healthy food for babies, issued a voluntary November recall of defective food pouches that may spoil.

We see this kind of outrage erupt for certain food system issues, but not others. So what causes an issue to go from one of mild concern to one where consumers want a product banned and someone to go to jail? And what can companies do to minimize the fallout?

The Plum Organics situation is the perfect storm, according to new research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI). For consumer outrage to occur, there must be both a high level of concern and a high level of perceived impact that the situation will affect “my family and me.” In this case, Plum Organics met the two-pronged standard.

I can have a high level of concern, but if I don’t believe that the issue is likely to impact me or my family, my concern is externalized and the likelihood that I’m going to have outrage about that issue is not very high.

It’s one of the reasons that third-world hunger issues don’t garner much attention from U.S. consumers. The concern may be there, but the level of impact isn’t. The Lean Finely Textured Beef, or “Pink Slime,” issue wasn’t much of one until parents discovered the product in their kids’ school lunches – then the slime hit the fan.

In the 2013 survey, we gave consumers a wide range of issues – from GM foods and humane treatment of farm animals to processed foods and obesity – and asked them to rate them on a 0-10 scale regarding level of concern and level of perceived impact on themselves or their families.

Food safety was one of only three issues that rose to the top as having both high impact and high concern. The other issues were food affordability and affordability of healthy food.

The right conditions exist for social outrage to erupt at any time with each of these issues.

We measured food safety specifically to help determine how food companies can effectively manage such crises and maintain trust, asking consumers to read either a food safety Bad Actor or Good Actor fictional news release and provide ratings on factors that cause both outrage and peace of mind.

What we learned is that the public impact of two situations might be identical, but the outcome to the company or organization involved can be dramatically different based on how the company engages and responds.

In the Bad Actor scenario, three people died as a result of a food safety issue. In the Good Actor scenario, seven people perished.

The company in the Bad Actor scenario was defensive, shirked responsibility, was intentionally misleading, had a poor track record and lacked empathy.

In the Good Actor scenario, the company acted immediately and committed to providing continuous updates, demonstrated transparency, accepted full responsibility, showed empathy and concern, and had an excellent track record of performance.

The highest contributor to peace of mind in the Good Actor scenario was willingness to accept responsibility. The highest impact on consumer trust included having an historical record of good performance followed by demonstrating transparency, being sensitive to public interest, being candid and not misleading.

The highest contributors to outrage in the Bad Actor scenario were intentional wrongdoing or causing harm, callous disregard for public interest, and being intentionally misleading. The highest impact on consumer trust included intentional wrongdoing or causing harm, callous disregard for public interest, and being intentionally misleading.

Even though more people died in the Good Actor scenario, respondents trusted and were more likely to repurchase from the company in this scenario because the company engaged, accepted responsibility, and had a good food safety history.

It’s pretty easy to glean from these two situations how companies such as Plum Organics can effectively manage a food safety issue to rebuild trust.

It starts with being the Good Actor. Do you have a good track record and are you transparent in a crisis? Will you accept full responsibility and take quick action? Are you demonstrating authentic empathy and a willingness to correct wrongs?

We can’t stop crises from coming and we can’t prevent consumer outrage – but we can effectively manage and quickly recover with the right response.

The CFI Consumer Trust in the Food System 2013 report is available at www.FoodIntegrity.org/research.

© Food Safety News
  • BB

    You kinda lost me at the Good Actor/Bad actor part…….

    • Gary

      BB it simply shows how a company responds to a situation will determine how the public reacts.

      • BB

        Okay, It’s not necessarily the outcome, but how the company reacts. Makes sense. I should have finished the article before I commented:)

  • AuntyMM

    good reasons for scratch cooking…