Consumers are becoming increasingly wary of what they didn’t know about their food; more concerned that food processors might be intentionally hiding things from them. A story published by Forbes in fall 2015 pointed out the dangers of not being upfront. They asked processors that frightening question: “What did you know and when did you know it?”
The story cited focus group research conducted by The Center for Food Integrity (CFI). Participants were asked to “give their reaction to the statement that GMOs have been used for nearly 20 years with no reports of ill health effects.”
Rather than being comforted by what should have been perceived as proof of the safety of GMOs, the focus group participants were alarmed at the duplicity.
“This is beyond scary to me,” one woman replied. “I feel like I’ve been deceived. The fact that we’ve been eating this stuff since 1996? Why weren’t they providing more information all along about what I’m eating?”
With the competing scientific opinions put forth about the inherent safety of food ingredients, her concern was understandable. Yesterday’s warnings about the dangers of a high-protein diet can turn into tomorrow’s dire statements about the lack of protein. Carbs go from bad to good to bad again in just a few years.
Shifting sands of consumer expectations
At the Food Integrity Summit this past fall, Charlie Arnot, CEO of CFI, summed up the sentiment from the focus group while speaking to industry leaders.
“Transparency is no longer optional. It’s a basic consumer expectation,” Arnot said.
Food companies should know that a skeleton in a processing closet won’t stay there for long. The door will inevitably be flung open. An example from recent years is Jamie Oliver’s campaign about lean, finely-textured beef.
His washing machine and liquid ammonia demonstration helped thrust the term ‘pink slime’ into the public’s vernacular and forced many food companies to abandon its use as an ingredient. It wasn’t the science behind the product that killed one company and seriously wounded another, it was public perception driven by video and sound bites.
The multi-syllabic list of ingredients on food labels — all “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) — and accepted by various government agencies, might mean longer shelf life, less clumping or no product separation. However, activists can also use one of them to generate headlines using phrases such as “yoga mat bread.”
The marketing consequences can be lethal
Arnot said he believes food processors have to be ahead of the social learning curve. Rather than wait until bad news breaks, they have to reach a consensus on what they track and what they share with the public. He is emphatic on one point, though: You don’t want to be naked in a glass house.
“Nothing you do is undiscoverable in today’s communication environment,” he said. “You’d better start working out now because people are going to see you. We have to embrace the consumers’ right to know and to give them the information they want.”
Arnot suggests establishing a transparency framework. The Smart Label program developed by the GMA is an example of such a framework. It establishes a basic label but allows the processor to provide more information, audience specific information, based on what consumers want to know.
Some observers say it’s important to establish what a processor can say, based on what he knows about his suppliers. Arnot said that it might not be possible to track ingredients all the way to the point of origin.
“If a processor has a reputation for transparency,” Arnot said, “The public will forgive him if he has to come back and say, ‘We thought we were giving you the best information at the time but we’ve now discovered that information wasn’t as good as it should have been so and here’s some new information.’
“Science has become very good and telling us we can do something, but ‘can’ and ‘should’ aren’t the same thing. Science will tell us that we can do something, society will tell us if we should.”
Consumers demand transparency
The CFI study asked consumers who they thought was responsible for food production transparency. Overwhelmingly the consumers put the onus directly on food companies, calling them primarily accountable “for the impact of food on health and the environment, food safety, and even animal well being.”
The feds are getting into the act, too, now. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 doesn’t mandate specific traceability or transparency changes, but the intent is clear.
The government is increasingly pursuing criminal charges in what some of the food industry sees as a new concern about violations of the public trust, especially if food borne illnesses are involved. Criminally actionable offenses can lead to jail time for everyone from the cleaning crew to the corner office.
As a result, food processors must commit to transparently communicating, letting the public know what is in food and why. They have to be willing to talk with consumers and to fully answer their questions.
John Stanton, writing for Food Processing magazine, suggested something that might be even more encompassing.
He said watching the growth of fact-checking organizations that are reviewing political candidates’ statements made him “think about all the comments that appear on the Internet about food and beverage, most of which are negative…”
“It seems to me some independent organization funded by the food industry — but remaining independent — should look at each and every Internet posting and respond with ‘the truth,’ ” Stanton said.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)© Food Safety News