SEATTLE — “Trust is the most important intangible aspect of any company,” Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity said at this year’s Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference.

Arnot explained how questions about food safety have become an issue of trust between companies and consumers. He told the corporate and food safety leaders at the conference that more than one in four consumers strongly believe small food companies will put their interests ahead of public interest, and more than half of consumers strongly believe that large food companies will put their own interests first.

Consumers social, rational and emotional needs
Arnot explained that consumers have three types of needs: social, rational, emotional. He said these needs have to be met to get rid of the dangerous disconnect between consumers and businesses.

He suggested this means companies need to ask more questions than the science ‘can’ question that satisfies the rational need. But also ask the ethical “should” question that provides the emotional need.

Then, to explain how to meet the social need, Arnot told a story from a recent consumer panel. A woman on the panel said that she is part of a mom’s group on Facebook, and it is where she gets her information on what products to or not to buy. The mom is more likely to listen to these 100 other moms than to doctors and research, because of a tribal and network model of communication world we live in.

“We could pander,” Arnot said. He explained that they could be confrontational in their approach. “But instead, we need to say we appreciate her concern.”

His idea is to try to better understand her motivations and fear as a consumer and then ask, “what can I do to be a resource to you?” Answering questions in a social way that recognizes the need for the source to be credentialed, relatable, competent, confident and possibly most importantly, having shared values.

“You aren’t given permission to share data until to have that trust and confidence,” Arnot said. He gave three ways for companies and individuals to be able to share information in a way that people will listen to.

  1. Begin all public engagement using shared values
  2. Commit to being more transparent
  3. Commit to engaging early and often

What does food safety mean?
Ujwal Arkalgud, an award-winning anthropologist on the board of directors for the Center of Food Integrity, took the stage at the GFSI conference to explain how food safety is a cultural issue.

“Culture is a set shared set of meanings,” Arklgud said. “But we have a problem. We live in a world of microcultures.”

He explained how people do not agree on what food safety means. To reach and educate, we have to talk to people through the lens that exists in the microcultures they are in, he said. “We have to think about and realize we have no control over how consumers will think about food safety in the future.”

Arklgud has identified four different microcultures that exist in consumers concerned about food safety:

  • Dairy – Causes illness: Not just a fear of pathogens but also allergens.
  • Food Labels – Hiding additives and sugars: A fear of consuming food one shouldn’t and a lack of nutrition.
  • Allergies – Environmental allergies: How food impacts our ability to deal with the environment.
  • Food anxiety – Chronic Illness: Fear of constant digestive discomfort.

Arklgud suggested that these microcultures are actually at war with each other, with no clear winner, other than anxiety. He suggests that communication needs to be designed to fit into one of these microcultures, otherwise, consumers will reject them. The same is true for both individuals and companies trying to communicate with consumers about food safety.

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