fighting back

How the food industry can fight back against public mistrust

From obesity to cancer to Taliban terrorism, the food and beverage industry seems to get blamed for all of this world’s ills. OK, maybe not the Taliban, but for just about everything else, the modern diet and processed foods are fingered as the culprits. On the likes of obesity, food safety, ‘questionable’ ingredients, this series of articles outlines how the industry can do a better job of tactfully defending itself; the key is transparency.

Michael Specter, well known New Yorker staff writer and oft commentating on food issues, was keynote speaker at the 2011 IFT Annual Meeting and Food Expo, where he observed, “I’ve covered wars and natural disasters, but I’ve never covered anything as controversial as food.”

“In 30 years in this business, I’ve never seen such anxiety [among food industry people],” agreed Linda Eatherton, director of global food & nutrition at public relations agency, Ketchum, who joined Specter and two other speakers on a panel discussing consumer mistrust of food science and what the industry can do to change that image.

In a four-part series of articles, Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief of FoodProcessing.com, contends that there is no magic bullet in dealing with this situation, but there are some key recommendations: better communication and transparency; drop your guard a little; not everything is “proprietary information”; participate in any and all dialogues; and if possible, own them.

He writes:

At that IFT keynote, Specter lamented that “society has become increasingly risk-averse” and that anti-science attitudes abound. Acknowledging that he was addressing a crowd of food scientists, Specter exhorted his audience to do a better job of communicating. “You can’t just say, ‘look at the data.’ The food industry needs to do a better job of communication — using tools that include the Internet and social media. Go out and educate. Fight on the Internet. People want to believe that things are simple. They’re not. You need to remember that progress is why we are here.”

“There’s always an issue with the food industry; if it’s not one thing, it’s another,” laments Cathy Kapica, senior vice president and director of health and wellness at Ketchum (www.ketchum.com). She uses a long and scientific background in the food industry (senior scientist at Quaker Oats, global director of nutrition for McDonald’s, adjunct professor of nutrition at Tufts University) in her current role “counselling food & beverage companies” for the public relations agency.

She recommends three points:

  • Transparency
  • Authenticity
  • Interactive communication

“Transparency would serve the food industry well,” says Jim Martinez, a Chicago-based “crisis consultant” for the food industry (www.rightstorygroup.com). “People who decline to answer questions tend to be doubted. It makes people suspicious.”

While the biggest part of the solution is communication, Kapica says it has to be 21st century-style, not that of the previous century.

“The world has changed, and most food companies have not,” she says. “They used to have a top-down relationship with consumers – they would tell consumers what they [the food companies] wanted to be known about a product. The Internet, social media and citizen journalism changed all that. Now it’s a flat and holistic relationship.”

Companies can “market” all they want to shoppers, but consumers also learn about products from other sources and other consumers and do so in nontraditional places. So if the food industry’s stance is frank, consistent and readily available, people will listen, and hopefully believe. “This is the new way of doing business,” Kapica says.

FoodProcessing.com hopes to start a dialogue by discussing these three “most-often heard complaints” against the food industry, in the other related articles: