I recently went to a food safety forum. I went because I checked the calendar looking for another event and just happened to see that it was scheduled. Since I write about some food safety issues on my blog, I thought it might be interesting. (They were also providing lunch, and I was hoping they would serve bbq, which they did!)
The broad topic of this year’s forum was bird flu. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to the forum. However, the speakers had geared their talks toward farmers. There were a lot of people in attendance, at least a couple hundred. I couldn’t see any name tags, but I did see one representative from a major poultry producer. Speakers included a USDA veterinarian, a state veterinarian, a state emergency director, a representative from the United Egg Producers and a speaker from the Center for Food Integrity. I thought all of the talks were informative, though as I said before, geared more toward farmers and those who actually raise the poultry. I didn’t think there was much to write about for my blog. However, I was shocked by the last speaker’s talk and feel compelled to write about it. (You can see her talk http://www.ncagr.gov/ncfoodsafetyforum/media.htm)
I had never heard of the Center for Food Integrity, so I researched it online while at the forum. Apparently, it’s a not-for-profit organization whose objective is to “build consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system.” Like the other lectures, the speaker’s talk was also directed to farmers and food producers. In short, it was about how they could regain consumer trust in their products. She said that activists were to blame for creating a panic among consumers with their use of terms like “factory farm” and “GMO,” and that organizations like the Humane Society “use fear to build trust.”
She then went on to say that people used to have more trust in the food system 40 years ago. She analyzed what was different 40 years ago—why did people have trust then and they don’t now? She said then, authority was granted by office (she means elected officials) whereas now it is by relationship (Facebook groups and social media). OK, I could follow what she was saying at this point—social media does have a huge impact today.
After that, she said, 40 years ago, there was a “broad social consensus of Anglo-Saxon white males.” She said, back then, “you were African American or you were white and we all got along and everything was fine.” Now in today’s world, she says, there is “no single social consensus” and she mentioned that at her child’s school, 23 different languages are being spoken. I was shocked by what she had just said. It seemed to me she was implying that 40 years ago, things were better because “WASP males” were in charge (she had the acronym “WASP” written on the PowerPoint)—that it was easier to control people when the people making the decisions were homogenous. And I would disagree that there was ever a “single social consensus” in the United States.
The rest of her talk was the results of a research study and an analysis of consumer beliefs and behavior. It included things like “cultural cognition—the tendency for people to conform beliefs about controversial matters to people they hang around with.” In other words, if one mom on Facebook says she eats organic food, other moms will follow.
She said years ago, we relied on experts for our information and now we rely on a network through social media, blogs and family. She mentioned that people may buy cage-free products and the like and not know what that means.
Her talk focused on three groups surveyed—moms, millennials and foodies. Part of the survey included that 49% of respondents were concerned with the humane treatment of animals and with having access to information to make healthy food choices. For the latter, she said she didn’t understand that. (The study also mentioned that people had trust in Dr. Oz as a source of trusted information.)
While the purpose of her talk was to give farmers ideas on how to relate better with the public, it seemed to me to be about how to deal with informed consumers.
She said that the science is being denied. But my question is, what is the science? Who funds the science? (By the way, her talk was sponsored by the United Soybean Board [whom she thanks in the beginning], which is a checkoff—or “soybean farmers collectively invest[ing] a portion of their product revenue to fund research and promotion efforts.” I didn’t know what a checkoff was, but I looked it up. The Organic Consumers Association published an article this July about organizations like the Center for Food Integrity and the United Soybean Board spending a lot of money to get consumers to lean away from organic products toward their conventional ones.)
Finally, she said that the only thing people really want to know is this, “Give me permission to believe that my food is safe and has been produced in an ethical manner.” So what is she saying? That people want the permission to believe—not that the food actually be safe, just that people believe that it is?
I talked to only two people after the forum. Both told me how great a speaker she was and how they got good ideas on how to approach consumers.
So my takeaway is this—consumers must read, stay informed, go to their local farmers’ markets, meet their farmers, research the funding behind the messages. Forty years ago, people were much more trusting. The speaker said the millennial generation is the least trusting. These kids today. They care about animal welfare. They care about healthy food. And they don’t want to be lied to. What is the world coming to?
I have a simple solution—let consumers tour the farms. Let consumers see for themselves how the animals are being raised and how their food is grown. Transparency=trust.