In his welcoming remarks at the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference last week, Peter Freedman, managing director of the Consumer Goods Forum, which convenes the annual conference, asserted that building consumer trust is at the very foundation of GFSI. Curiously, a perusal of the conference agenda would reveal that none of the plenary sessions and panel discussions taking place during the three-day conference included a representative from a consumer group.

GFSI describes itself as the world’s largest collaboration for food safety that has grown into a vast, global multi-stakeholder movement. “We enable the extensive collaboration that is so critical to ensuring a safe global food supply, involving both the private and public sectors,” the GFSI web site declares.

Additionally, GFSI explains that its community is composed of the world’s leading food safety experts from retail, manufacturing and food service companies, including upstream suppliers, as well as international organizations, governments, academia and service providers to the global food industry. Notice which stakeholder group is not listed?

In the sessions I attended, the consumer perspective was missing and would have been very useful in these discussions. One breakout session entitled “Engaging the Masses: How Consumers Feed the Supply Chain,” provided a good example.

This panel outlined how the use of new technology was the best way to connect with consumers, especially on recalls and alerts. One panelist argued that a seamless mobile experience would allow stores to communicate in real time and alert consumers of a recalled product if they purchased the item.

Using peanut butter as an example, the panelist explained that technology could target a specific jar, and then provide the customer a voucher for a non-tainted replacement, thus not breaking the consumption cycle; the panelist suggested that retail stores needed an incentive to alert customers that they may have purchased a tainted product.

It would seem alarming that stores would need an incentive to alert customers of a tainted product. When I asked about using shopping cards to alert customers of recalled products, the panel noted that the stores often lack the resources or technology to perform that function. If true, it would be curious and distressing if available technology and resources allowed stores to notify customers that an item they bought previously is on sale, but not to notify customers if the product they purchased was subject to a recall.

Other sessions that could have benefited from consumer input included ones on working together towards one safe food supply through public-private partnerships, and another on consumer perception in the social media age.

During the conference, I had the opportunity to meet with Mike Robach, a well-regarded figure in the food policy arena and the outgoing chair of GFSI. He indicated that GFSI has attempted to incorporate consumer group insight during previous sessions, but it could not be sustained for various reasons.

Admittedly, cost is likely a major factor; the airfare and hotel rates for a multi-day conference can be high, especially for international meetings, and that does not factor in the conference registration fee of over $1,000. For consumer-focused, non-profit groups, continuous participation in this initiative is likely cost prohibitive.

Fortunately, Robach understands the importance of having more formal consumer input and expressed a willingness to discuss the issue with the GFSI board. Hopefully, the board and the incoming chair will be receptive to the message.

The goal of building consumer trust on food policy is critical and laudable. However, if this effort is being pursued through the lenses of industry, government, and academia, and what these groups think consumers should trust, then it runs the risk of falling far short of that goal. Consumers will trust who and what they want, and will dismiss any attempts to force trust on them, especially if they are not even included in the discussion. 

About the author: Brian Ronholm is Director of Food Policy for Consumer Reports, an independent, nonprofit member organization that works with consumers for truth, transparency, and fairness in the marketplace. He is a former deputy under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and prior to that, worked for Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT. 

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